It’s been a controversial few weeks in terms of the public dialogue on climate change. The sheer proliferation of political shenanigans here is astounding. Politicians on both sides of the issue are inserting themselves into the scientific process by threatening and coercing researchers. What’s going on here?
First, on the heels of the Willie Soon funding scandal, Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives began asking for information regarding the funding of prominent climate deniers. The move made many people uncomfortable, even those who strongly disapprove of the skeptics’ research. Among the groups critical of the investigation were the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union. They expressed concerns that targeting scientists for investigation because of the political implications of their results could have a chilling effect, discouraging researchers from proposing alternative ideas about how the world works.
Then, more recently, news emerged from Florida that state employees were actively discouraged from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official publications. The story got even more disturbing when reports revealed that one employee was put on leave and required to have a mental evaluation before returning to work because he used the forbidden phrase. As a result of the dispute, one Democratic state senator actively baited the Governor’s chief of emergency management by trying to get him to say “climate change” in a hearing.
Political investigations, of course, aren’t new to climate scientists. Back in 2010, climate scientists at the University of Virginia had their documents subpoenaed by Virginia Governor Ken Cuccinelli (R), and prominent climate scientist Michael Mann was investigated as part of the infamous (and fictitious) “Climategate” scandal. (Mann was cleared of all wrongdoing.)
This political theater is not particularly surprising. Who can forget Sen. Jim Inhofe’s (R – OK) climate-change-disproving snowball?
So it’s possible that we’re simply seeing more of the same – politicians chest-puffing in an attempt to ramp up support from their base. But the Florida case was never meant to be public, making it less likely to be partisan showmanship.
For an alternative interpretation, we turn to famous sociologist Bruno Latour. Latour has spent much of his career trying to understand how scientists go about producing scientific facts. Latour argues that science is actually a complicated process by which scientists gather support from allies who argue that the scientists’ concept is a good one. Communications scholar David Kirby describes the process like this: “a scientific concept becomes a scientific fact…when the concept has a significant enough number of ‘allies’ who find the concept ‘useful’ and/or are convinced that the concept represents an accurate portrayal of nature.”
What’s important to note here is that science can be seen as a social process. Convince enough potential allies that your idea describes the world correctly, and you’ve got a scientific fact. Now, none of this is to say that science doesn’t have its own rigorous standards of testing and retesting, burdens of proof and amassing of evidence. But Latour does argue that it’s important not to underestimate the social aspects of deciding what counts as evidence.
When we think of science as a social process, some of the less savory aspects of our current political system begin to make sense. The issue of climate change is one that has massive economic implications, particularly for people who are invested in the powerful fossil fuel industry and their minions. To be clear, taking the issue of climate change seriously will require a radical restructuring of the world economy, and fossil fuel companies stand to lose vast amounts of money.
Because so many people stand to lose so much, we see politicians actively inserting themselves into the scientific process. Threatening scientists with investigation for challenging – or upholding, as the case may be – the scientific consensus makes it harder for researchers to be allies for ideas they believe in without taking major personal risks.
It’s not just bad for researchers, though. It’s bad for science as a whole. Science is sometimes held up as self-correcting because of the rigor of the scientific method, although research has suggested that it may not be as self-correcting as we’d like to think. That’s because science is, of course, a human endeavor. Like any other human endeavor, it’s susceptible to distortion by peoples’ egos, their desire for security, and their greed.
Still, science is a powerful tool, and through a larger social and political emphasis on finding the truth about the world, we can make science better. Whether the question is about climate change, the safety of vaccines, or the use of genetically-modified crops, we weaken the scientific process when we put ideological biases before a dedication to the facts. Science is a social institution and will thus always be affected to some degree by the politics of the day. However, efforts should be made to keep science as politically neutral and bipartisan as possible.