Climate science: the shrinking middle

Home Technologist 01 Climate science: the shrinking middle

Science will be discredited if researchers do not resist pressure from extremists, argues German climatologist Hans von Storch.

“Nazi” and “Communist” are among the many terms heard in the name-calling between those who worry that climate-change presages a global catastrophe and those who believe that the risks have been exaggerated to threaten personal freedoms. The former are “alarmists”, the latter “sceptics”. What both groups have in common is their appeal to a higher authority: the scientifically determined truth. There are no shades of grey. As George W. Bush would say, “You’re either with us or against us.”

In these self-righteous worldviews, it is “science” that determines the one and only correct policy. Democratic decision-making takes a back seat to wise men who understand the imperatives of science.

Yet science – the process that gave rise to the disputed knowledge in the first place – lies at the crux of the dilemma. While most players, at least in theory, support the Mertonian norms that guide scientific research – communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originality and scepticism – many feel pressured to support extreme views when it comes to climate science. As a result, there is a tendency in this field to put political pragmatism or the flavour of the week ahead of openness and honesty.

Distancing science from the sceptics has been very effective. Mainstream science has erected only a limited defence against ongoing pressure from alarmists, environmental organisations and interested companies. It has allowed climate-crisis rhetoric to be used publicly as scientifically proven truth, with only the occasional grumbling. What is overlooked in this dynamic is that the credibility of the social process known as science is diminished – most importantly the public’s confidence in the objective analysis of facts and probabilities to foresee social consequences.

The resource known as science should be used sparingly. Society should ensure that scientifically proven knowledge is used to inform the decision-making process. Decisions should be the result of a careful weighing of options and social values.

To achieve this, science must distance itself from the extremists, sceptics and alarmists, not to mention the anti-democratic preaching of authorities that pretend to possess superior knowledge. For climate science, this would mean communicating undisputed knowledge – such as the accumulation of greenhouse gases from human sources and the increase in temperatures and water levels – while clearly outlining the range of hypotheses and conflicting scientific claims.

In other words, it would mean recognising that science can only offer the best possible explanations for the present, never the absolute truth. Society and politics can live with that fact – but for those who want to improve the world, it has always been a sin.

– By Hans von Storch

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