Do the Ends Justify the Means?August 28th, 2006
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
On climate policy many people apparently believe that the answer is “yes!” I do not. As an example of this perspective, consider the following comment from climate sceintist Andrew Dessler:
As a citizen, there are many issues on which I have a strongly held positions (tax reform, the Iraq war, privacy issues, and yes, AGW). For each of these, I have a preferred policy. I want my policy adopted, and I don’t really care why it gets adopted. Not everyone has to agree with *my reasoning* and I don’t have to agree with theirs. If some people support action on AGW because they misunderstand the science … well then they cancel the people that oppose AGW because of a cancelling misunderstanding.
I don’t excuse misrepresentation of science, and I correct it wherever possible … but if, in the final analysis, Katrina helps get a GHG policy enacted, then I’m fine with that. [emphasis added]
[Note: To be perfectly clear, this post is not about Andrew specifically, but about the more general attitude, using Andrew's comment as an example of this perspective, which is apparently widely shared.]
From my perspective, a view that bad policy arguments should be acceptable so long as they help us “win” in political battle is exactly the sort of thinking that motivated the Bush Administration’s selling of the Iraq War. Not only did a bad policy result (i.e., one that has not achieved the ends on which it was sold on), but it has harmed the ability of the President to act (maybe a good thing in this case), and certainly diminished the credibility of intelligence. The exact same dynamics are at risk in the climate debate when scientists support their political preferences with bad policy arguments, or stand by silently while others speak for them.
Apparently my perspective is also widely shared. Hans von Storch, Nico Stehr, and Dennis Bray have written (PDF) of this attitude:
The concern for the “good” and “just” case of avoiding further dangerous human interference with the climate system has created a peculiar self-censorship among many climate scientists. Judgments of solid scientific findings are often not made with respect to their immanent quality but on the basis of their alleged or real potential as a weapon by “skeptics” in a struggle for dominance in public and policy discourse.
Oxford’s Steve Rayner provides a similar perspective (here):
The danger of using bad arguments for good causes, such as preventing unwanted climate change, is two-fold. Generally, it provides a dangerous opening for opponents who would derail environmental policy by exposing weaknesses in the underlying science. Specifically, it leads to advocating policies for reducing future storm impacts that are likely to be ineffective in achieving their declared aim. With or without greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the costs of storm damage are bound to rise. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will have far less impact on storm damage costs than moving expensive infrastructure away from coastal margins and flood plains.
For good or ill, we live in an era when science is culturally privileged as the ultimate source of authority in relation to decision making. The notion that science can compel public policy leads to an emphasis on the differences of viewpoint and interpretation within the scientific community. From one point of view, public exposure to scientific disagreement is a good thing. We know that science is not capable of delivering the kind of final authority that is often ascribed to it. Opening up to the public the conditional, and even disputatious nature of scientific inquiry, in principle, may be a way of counteracting society’s currently excessive reliance on technical assessment and the displacement of explicit values-based arguments from public life (Rayner, 2003). However, when this occurs without the benefit of a clear understanding of the importance of the substantial areas where scientists do agree, the effect can undermine public confidence.
This is of course an issue much broader than climate change, and at its core is about how science is to operate in a democracy. The practice of science, insofar as it is related to action, is all about questions of means. That is, science can tell us something about the consequences of different possible courses of action. Science however cannot tell us how to value those consequences, which is the territory of ethics, values, religion, ideology, etc..
Once a scientist (a generic scientist!) decides to elevate ends above means in the area of their own expertise then they are in fact giving up on what their science can most contribute to the political process, and that is knowledge relevant to the means we employ in pursuit of desired ends.
If you want insight on the contemporary pathological politicization of science within the scientific community, look no further than the perspective held by many scientists that on issues related to their expertise, the ends do in fact justify the means. In my view this is bad for both democracy and for the sustianability of the sceintific enterprise.