Democracy and Science

April 23, 2010

Roger called my attention this morning to a comment by philosopher Gregor Betz (Uni Stuttgart) in response to his recent review of four climate books (by Gore, Hansen, Schneider, and Helm/Hepburn) in Nature. You can read Betz’s shortened and published response here, but also his longer response at his website. I’d like to respond to the longer response.

For starters, I do think he’s right both about the normativity of policy (he seems to agree with Roger) and about the importance of descriptive claims to practical reasoning (he seems to disagree with Roger).

Just as an example: if I promise to be in London at 4:00, it matters to me what facts come into play. If there are no trains that arrive before 5:00, I’m in big trouble.

The question, ultimately, is whether Roger is actually saying that under no circumstances do descriptive claims play a role in the success or failure of a given policy or proposal. I’m fairly sure he’s not saying that, and a short shout out the door of my office confirms my suspicions. “Hey Roger: do you think that? No? Okay.”

Even still, if we take Betz’s initial caricature of Roger’s position on its face — “that [Roger seems to imply] that it is undemocratic for climate scientists to call for action against climate change in the name of science” — there are several ways to parse this out.

If it’s the “in the name of science” that’s important, as I believe it is for Roger, then it’s not clear why it is terribly important to accept a policy proposal in the name of science. Maybe there are reasons to propose a policy in the name of science — like, suppose, one may argue for protection of endangered species in the name of science, so that there are more species around to study — but isolating those reasons may be more or less difficult depending on one’s view of what science is.

If Roger is making the broader claim, which Betz apparently understands Roger to be, that democracy has no role for science, and thus no role for facts, I think I’ve completely misread Roger’s Nature article. My understanding of Roger’s position is that scientists who pretend that they’re taking the strictly descriptive stance — lo, this is what science tells us, and prescriptions naturally follow! — and therefore seek the moral high ground through their science, are doing a disservice to science, and to some extent, a disservice to democracy, by pretending (or, at least, acting under the illusion) that they aren’t also driven by ineffable political and normative considerations. That’s a mistake and a pretense of many (if not most) scientists, and it would be good to beat this out of them. We are not guided strictly by descriptive considerations. Practical reason is not theoretical reason. It doesn’t work according to tidy syllogisms.

On the second charge, I’m beginning to be worried that this is a straw man. For one thing, Roger only uses the term ‘democratic’ once, he uses the term ‘democracy’ twice, and he doesn’t use the term ‘undemocratic’ at all. As I say immediately above, my understanding is that Roger is not criticizing the scientists on grounds that there is no role for science in democracy. That’s ridiculous, and just looking at his entire body of work, it should be evident that he doesn’t feel this way. He’s a scientist, first and foremost. To make such a claim would essentially invalidate (or, at least, devalue) everything he works on himself.

Betz reveals, I think, that he has an almost naïve view of the practice of the sciences when he suggests that the only reason why scientists get involved in the public policy discourse is in order to clear up confusions. As he says, “because the public is unaware of the consequences of its actions.” It is true, of course, that scientists are sometimes motivated to clear up confusions, and perhaps that’s why, in many cases, they interject their work into the public discussion. That’s all very valuable. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think Roger agrees that that’s valuable. But what also often happens is that our allegedly value-free scientific positions are shaped, in part, by our orientations toward the right and the good, and sometimes it is when looking through this lens that we are more willing to emphasize one scientific finding and downplay another.

Depending on how cynical one is about truth, and depending also on what standards one holds for truth, one may think that science never escapes the pervasive influence of the normative. I’m willing to accept that claim, and I think it’s true in a very theoretical sense, but since a more-or-less pragmatic theory of truth strikes me as the correct theory of truth, I think I’ll say that the gavel has to fall on science and truth at some point, so the best we’ve got is the best we’ve got. It’s fallible, but it’s true nevertheless.

Finally, and this is a nitpicky philosophy thing, Betz is only partly right about the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is often confused with the is-ought fallacy, which is what I think he really wants to invoke. The is-ought fallacy relates to the illegitimate leap from some descriptive observation about a state of the world, or a currently accepted practice, to the normative prescription that this is how the world or the practice ought to be. That’s different than the naturalistic fallacy, which refers primarily to moral properties and stems from the misapprehension that whenever we observe some property in some object, there’s a related moral fact. The problem is that it’s an open question as to whether or not the property is also a moral fact. To be sure, the two fallacies are related and often confused by philosophers — particularly those who think that if you’ve identified a moral good then you have a reason, prima facie or otherwise, to promote that good — so I’ll give him a pass on this. Nevertheless, it’s worth bearing this distinction in mind if you ever consider invoking one or the other fallacy. You can read about the difference herehere, and here.


  1. Over time one learns to be careful in evaluating what B’rer Pielke says. In parsing this one, you have to carefully separate what Hansen and Schneider are saying about their scientific conclusion and what that drives them to recommend as citizens.

    As an ethicist, consider the following: An astronomer spots an asteroid moving towards the earth. She calculates the orbit and concludes there is a 90% chance that it will hit the earth. It’s a smallish one, so we will only lose 20% +/- 10% of the human population, never mind the damage to other species. That is a scientific conclusion, in your terms a descriptive claim.

    The astronomer then writes a book saying that we must take action. (It’s going to take ten years for the asteroid to hit the Earth. This is Eli’s example, damn it). In Roger’s view, she has become an advocate, which in his language, devalues her scientific conclusion.

    However, ethically, she MUST recommend action. The only interesting ethical point he raises is what would be the ethical course, if the only way to stop the asteroid was to impose action. This is similar to the question of how far one is justified going in preventing a person from killing themselves. There are various answers to that one.

    That is the position that Hansen and Schneider find themselves in. Their scientific conclusions ethically compel recommending action.

    But this is also why when Roger says
    Yet both books largely comprise strong ideological and political commentary based on an unstated assumption that science compels action on climate
    change. Neither author accepts the label of advocate, claiming to be speaking for science;

    He is blasting right over the ethics of the situation. Further, he never acknowledges that recommendations for action can proceed from science and he never will. Ethically, his is a bankrupt advocacy of ignorance, never acknowledging that recommendations for action can be motivated by understanding of a physical system.

  2. I passed on Betz’s original reply to Roger at his blog. I have a post up at my blo


  3. I didn’t mean to base my comment on Roger Pielke’s review on an uncharitable interpretation of his position, and I’m happy to read that I might actually have attacked a straw man. Yet, besides Pielke’s allegation of being paradoxical, it is the following paragraph which has irritated me:

    “Hansen’s complaint that leaders of sovereign countries have not acceded to his demands implies a criticism of democracy, also present in Schneider’s book. If science leads inexorably to particular political outcomes, then it would seem to favour autocratic forms of governance.”

    This seems to say that the view that science inexorably leads to policy recommendations, i.e. the position presumably hold by Hansen and Schneider, implies a criticism of democracy and favours autocratic forms of government. And if a position favours autocratic forms of government, it seems to be undemocratic.

    I think this charge is misplaced and is itself based on an uncharitable interpretation of what climate scientists do, as I tried to explain in the letter cited above. But I’m glad to hear that Roger Pielke maybe didn’t mean to say so — I take this as a correction or clarification of the review’s provocative claims.

    Anyway, let me briefly try to state, with respect to the post above, what I perceive as a major point of disagreement. Ben Hale writes:

    “My understanding of Roger’s position is that scientists who pretend that they’re taking the strictly descriptive stance — lo, this is what science tells us, and prescriptions naturally follow! — and therefore seek the moral high ground through their science, are doing a disservice to science, and to some extent, a disservice to democracy, by pretending (or, at least, acting under the illusion) that they aren’t also driven by ineffable political and normative considerations.”

    I fully agree with this general statement, as I hopefully made clear in my letter. Ben Hale continues:

    “That’s a mistake and a pretense of many (if not most) scientists, and it would be good to beat this out of them.”

    That’s something I don’t see. My experience is, rather, that many scientists, in particular climate scientists, are very reflective and thoughtful persons who try to make explicit the normative assumptions they rely on. So it’s precisely this accusation which strikes me as uncharitable. To push this point even further, let me propose the following analogy: Let’s assume scientists find that a new type of aircraft displays a 50% chance of exploding during take off, arguing convincingly that the fact that this has never happened before has to be attributed to pure chance, and assume they call for an immediate ban of these aicrafts, as a consequence. Assume, in addition, they didn’t cite any normative assumptions to justify their policy recommendation. Is this undemocratic or paradoxical? Obviously not. Before charging scientists with such drastic claims, one shoud try to interpret their recommendation as being based on normative assumptions which are, presumably, commonly agreed upon.

    However, as I said in the Nature letter, the common moral ground on which to base climate policy decision might have been overestimated in the past. Making the normative assumptions — and dissent — explicit is therefore an important contribution to the debate. I understand that this is what drives the reflections unfolded in Ben Hale’s post.

    • I didn’t see the original, but the version of the article on your web site is very nicely written, Gregor. Thanks for putting the effort into it.

      [Plus I even added a word to my vocabulary. :)]

  4. Dr. Betz,
    I point this out in my reply as well. As evident in Eli’s example above, and in your Nature letter and in the example above, all these illustrative syllogism/s used in climate science lead us to catastrophism.

    Under the cover of these predicted catastrophic consequences, all alternative normative considerations, other than the limited few possible if the scientific conclusions were correct, become meaningless. Consequently, all ‘debate’ and ‘democratic process’ are only superfluous constructs which barely exist if ever, under the Damocles sword of catastrophism.

    If ‘survival of humanity’ is made the ultimate normative substratum upon which other argumentative devices are built – everyone *has* to listen to the scientists. There is nothing democratic about it.

    Perhaps it is this form of autocracy that Pielke refers to?


  5. Gregor and Shub, thanks for these thoughtful comments. First off, it is probably worth saying that the limited space of a Nature book review does not really allow for a proper treatment of these issues.

    Gregor, I discuss these topics at length in my book, The Honest Broker, in which I argue that science does indeed compel certain policy outcomes, but only in a limited set of circumstances. Specifically, where everyone agrees about the values issues at stake, science compels a decision. I call this “tornado politics” in the case of an approaching tornado. In that case all we need to know is that a tornado is coming and since we all wish to live we go to the shelter.

    Gregor says something similar in the case of the exploding aircraft.

    Climate change is not a case of tornado politics, as Mike Hulme well shows in his book “Why We Disagree About Climate Change.” Values are in dispute. Very much so.

    Hansen has every right to send a letter to Angela Merkel. But his expectation that she will value his demands for action over national interests and the views of German citizens is certainly undemocratic and authoritarian. Schneider asks in his book if democracy can survive climate change, a rather non-nuanced position.

    So yes, science can compel action, but only in certain special contexts, and the climate debate is not one of those.

    Thanks again!

  6. And so another misunderstanding of RP Jr. is cleared up to his benefit, at least as far as he and his hall-mate are concerned.

    Has it occurred to you, Ben, that there are underlying reasons why Roger has compiled a unique record of this sort of misunderstanding?

    And BTW, the present climate crisis has rather a lot in common with tornado warnings.

    • I mean, yeah, it’s occurred to me, but I know Roger as a flesh-and-blood person, and I ask him about his position and talk to him about these things on a regular basis. I had lunch with him yesterday.

      I realize that he gets the ire of the climate community, and there may be, in some extremely political sense, reason for that ire, but there also must be space for a position like his to be trotted out.

      • Ben, I hadn’t noticed a shortage of space for his views. Quite the reverse. You’re probably more familiar with the field than I am, so can you think of anyone else in STS with as high of a profile? I know I can’t.

        I hope you’re not serious when you say that the ire he’s drawn can only have an “extremely political” basis. If so you’ve truly not been paying attention. Certainly a lot of it has become political (and personal), but it’s rooted in the view of very many climate scientists that Roger severely underestimates the problem, refuses to adjust his position in accordance with accumulating evidence, and then engages in shameless self-promotion of his policy ideas. Then there’s the very strange Klotzbach et al. (2009) incident, in which he did his best to make the outrage permanent.

    • Steve-

      “the present climate crisis has rather a lot in common with tornado warnings”

      This is exactly the problem with your view, in that you fail to appreciate that people can hold legitimately different value positions than you hold. The fact is, science does not compel action on climate change, and demanding otherwise just doesn’t make it true.

      Also, I am not in the STS community, but if you are looking for the bigwigs there, I’d start with Jasanoff and Wynne;-)

      • Sure they can hold different views, Roger. It’s just that they’re ignoring the obvious implications of the science.

        Try this analogy: When being held up at gunpoint by someone who looks entirely capable of pulling the trigger, you can assume they’re bluffing and taunt them to do so. Chances are you’ll be dead as a result, but nobody would be able to say that you weren’t taking a “legitimately different value position.” Unless, er, that position involves placing some value on your life.

      • Thanks Steve for making my point with this bad analogy.

      • You’re right, Roger, that one fell short, although I think it does apply to some. In your case it may be more a matter of refusing to admit the existence of the gun or that it could do you any harm. But note that the outcome is the same.

      • Steve, You are vague in your allegations. Since we are not talking about guns, but rather climate, can you be specific as to what transgression you are accusing me of? Please just be specific. What are you talking about?

      • We need maximum mitigation ASAP, probably rather better than Myles Allen’s trillion ton limit unless we can quickly figure out a practical way to draw down CO2 levels. Realistic? Maybe not, but the point is to be part of coming as close as we can. Now, do we really need to detail the ways in which you’re not being helpful relative to that standard?

      • Sure Steve, please do be specific. And if you’d like I’ll feature your complaint as a post on my blog. Fire away.

      • That’s an interesting offer. I’ll have to consult Br’er Rabett as to the advisability. In the meantime, I see that you’ve been provided with a challenge of sorts. I look forward to reading your analysis.

      • Yes, it is good to see views like this become more prominent. You’ll see a very similar perspective expressed in my new book.

  7. Ooh, a nice fat straw man: “[O]ne may argue for protection of endangered species in the name of science, so that there are more species around to study[.]”

    Try this instead: One may argue for protection of endangered species in the name of science, because analysis of the fossil record shows that a too-rapid loss of biodiversity can lead to crashes from which recovery is very slow.

    • Steve Bloom
      I say this not intending to escalate any of this, but still…

      Have the climate scientists whose sincere enunciation of the direness of the situation at hand, which is routinely underestimated by people like Pielke Jr, revised any of their opinions in light of certain recent revelations?

      Revelations which seemed to downgrade the alarmism?

      • I’m not aware of any revelations that would have been expected to have such an effect, Shub.

  8. Specifically, just to quote a few examples

    Climatic Malaria alarmism
    The Himalayan blunder
    The Amazonia story emanating from the Woods Hole Center

    • Nope, none of those.

      • So your alarmist brothers float above the needs to answer to reality.

        Maybe a tug on the coattails of their priestly robes would help.

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