Emory University history professor Patrick Allitt is touring the country promoting his new book, “A Climate of Crisis.” It’s an interesting account of how our public debates about science can sometimes become—as this Wall Street Journal book review puts it—”less an informed exchange of ideas than a strident debate pitting alarmists against deniers.” Click here to read this synopsis of Dr. Allitt’s argument, published by the Seattle Times as an op-ed piece on April 28.
Allitt makes a seemingly level-headed argument that science has pushed the panic button before about environmental and health issues, so here we go again—climate change is just another panic. Unfortunately, Dr. Allitt’s argument reflects a popular but misguided sentiment that scientists aren’t credible because they push panic buttons too often.
At the core of this misunderstanding is the misperception that science and science policy are the same. They aren’t. Scientists search for truth. Advocacy groups, the public, the media, and policymakers decide how to interpret this information and how or whether to turn it into science policy.
Unlike research science, science policy doesn’t always develop in predictable ways, with discoveries building on discoveries and new facts supporting or altering old understandings. The science policy stage is broad and the actors and motives are varied. Rachel Caron’s “Silent Spring” (singled out by Allitt for criticism) didn’t gradually emerge from the scientific community. It took this community and our county by storm in 1962—a seminal work pulling together the perspectives of concerned scientists from across the spectrum on the dangers of pesticides, mainly DDT. Carson’s voice was picked up by advocacy groups, the media and by politicians and started a revolution that greatly improved our quality of life today. It’s fair to argue that this improvement would not have occurred without Dr. Carson’s work, so how was this an unwarranted panic?
Every other example cited in Allitt’s piece—from quite ancient population and food shortage studies to the dioxin scare—are all examples of how science policy can also spring from narrow viewpoints like a single book, and then be appropriated by interest groups, the media and receptive policymakers. These are examples of our science policy process at work—people who are doing their best to serve and protect the public with the best information available. But this is not science, and it’s understandable why people get frustrated with science as a result.
So how is the climate change issue different? The latest report issued earlier this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarized 12,000 studies on this issue and concluded with broad and overwhelming scientific consensus (as opposed to a single author stating an outlier opinion in a book) that without dramatic changes over the next 15 years, we may be unable to reverse the effects of warming and stabilize our planet’s climate. We’re already on course for rising sea levels, increasing ocean acidification, increasing climate extremes, drought, changing food production patterns, and more. What comes after this is unknown. Building dikes around most of the world’s coastlines (as Allitt actually suggests) won’t work and underlines Allitt’s misunderstanding of what’s happening here.
Unlike any other issue facing us today, there is no doubt whatsoever about the science or the actions we need to take: Our planet is warming as a direct result of human activity and the consequences of this warming will be significant. There is also no doubt whatsoever that the window for action is closing fast. This is not hyperbole, and the facts are not in dispute. Unfortunately, when we blur the distinction between science and science policy, we’re bound to dismiss inconvenient truths and think of science as being hyperbolic. It isn’t. The only hyperbole here is estimating just how bad things may get before we finally act.
Click here to read the abbreviated version of this post (and reader comments) in the May 2, 2014 Seattle Times.