Passing out of the triple-team

Let’s continue with the science-as-part-of-a-team meme and see how scientists neglect it to our detriment.  Consider anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  The skeptics who oppose any action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions typically make this argument:

  1. These scientific facts show the Earth is not warming and/or humans are not the cause.
  2. Ergo, we should not waste any time trying to reduce GHGs.

This argument assumes that once we’ve proven a certain set of facts, nothing else matters.  Now in this particular case, the specific facts employed happen to be utterly and completely wrong.  Pointing out these factual errors is usually the standard response.  But in doing so climate scientists are playing on the skeptics’ turf.  They’re still assuming that we need science and nothing but science to make an argument for reducing GHGs. *

But why should action to reduce GHGs depend only on science and nothing but science?  Surely there are spiritual, ethical, economic and social reasons to drive less, use more efficient light bulbs, etc.  But that’s not how the debate will ever play out if we view science as the basis for decisions.

I hope we’re starting to see why neglecting the team mentality undermines effective policy-making.  Us scientists can be the basis or the foundation for decisions-making.  But then we shouldn’t be shocked when others distort or politicize it.  They’re doing exactly what we want them to…using science as the basis for decisions!

If instead science is simply part of a team and there are many reasons to reduce GHGs, then the skeptics’ argument loses its power.   But let’s be clear what this means.  It means that science is not necessarily privileged.  Science becomes simply a rather than the basis for decisions.   We may end up justifying climate policy on ethics and economics more than on atmospheric chemistry.   In some cases the science may be completely ignored.

This outcome shouldn’t worry us.   After all in this situation those opposing climate legislation will then have to contend with a helluva lot more than the latest IPCC report.  They’ll have to contend with religious leaders, economists, and philosophers along with scientists.  If this approach eventually helps us win the game, does it really matter if we don’t score as many points as we usually do?  Right now skeptics are triple-teaming the scientific community and we’re refusing to pass the ball! How dumb is that?

I’d really love to hear a scientist say: “You know what, who cares about the science? There are 100,000 reasons to reduce GHGs.  Science may not even be that important!”

In the end we can have our glory by being the basis for decisions or we can be effective in policy-making.  But we can’t always be both at the same time.

*Roger Pielke Jr, Dan Sarewitz and others have explored in great detail why this framing leads to ineffective policy-making.   I don’t want to repeat what they’ve said.  I’m instead trying to focus on how scientists’ worsen the situation by placing science on a pedestal and not thinking of themselves as part of a team.


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