Science’s honest brokers

The New York Times’ John Tierney wrote in his TierneyLab this week about a 2007 book by Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado. Because of the doomsday scenarios John Holdren and Steven Chu have depicted (regarding world population levels and water availability in California, respectively), Tierney wonders if the science advisers to President Obama will “give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats” or if they will fail to be the honest brokers they claim to be.

The Honest Broker” argues that most scientists are confused about their role in political debates and that they jeopardize their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.

Pielke says that in his book that scientists often promote an agenda that holds promise for solving some problem, but that they pose as impartial experts explaining the only option that makes scientific sense. In reality, says Pielke, there are often many scientifically viable options, and the only difference among them is politics. Thus, the scientist who denounces all options other than his own is by definition a political advocate. As Tierney writes:

‘”Public debates over climate change,” Dr. Pielke says, “often are about seemingly technical questions when they are really about who should have authority in the political debate. The debate over the science thus politicizes the science and distracts from policy.”

Dr. Pielke suggests that scientists could do more good if, instead of discrediting rivals’ expertise, they acknowledge political differences and don’t expect them to be resolved by science. Instead of steering politicians to a preferred policy, these honest brokers would use their expertise to expand the array of technically feasible options.’

And wouldn’t most scientists admit to themselves, at least in private, that they would be less than enthused about publishing results that they believe disagree with results from their life’s work?

Do scientists mistrust politicians handling scientific data in such a severe way that they begin, unknowingly, to meddle in it themselves?  Can scientists truly call themselves honest brokers?

Author: Christine Buckley

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