Political prejudices dressed up as science

by | Apr 8, 2010

Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/8508/

Despite the apparent central position of science in debates and policymaking around climate change, more often than not policy responses are tempered by politics first, and science second.

Consider, for instance, two recent reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Global Humanitarian Foundation (GHF), which declared, respectively, that 150,000 and 300,000 deaths a year can be attributed to climate change. All of these cases were in the world’s poorer regions. In reality, these deaths were caused by poverty – and you can only really come to GHF’s and WHO’s conclusions if you presume that poverty is a ‘natural’ effect, and that is a political viewpoint not a scientific one.

At the same time, as much fun as debunking hockey sticks and exposing Climategate emails is, sceptics should be aware, too, that the debate around climate change does not rest on science. Looking for smoking guns to ‘debunk’ global warming fears merely reproduces the mistake that alarmists make: expecting science to resolve the political debate.

Myself and Stuart Blackman have made this argument several times on our blog, Climate Resistance, and we have found that, to our counterparts, it appears as though we are saying that somehow politics is prior even to material reality, which would seem to deny material reality by making it somehow dependent on social reality in some kind of postmodern sleight of hand. This isn’t what we’re arguing. Instead, we are suggesting that the politics is prior to formal reality in greens’ argument, but not in formal reality. It is a conceit of the ‘warmists’ that they imagine their own argument to be perfect models of the world, so that taking issue with it is to deny the causal universe itself.

In the real world, it is possible to presuppose certain things, and to model and project scenarios from these presuppositions. There is nothing wrong, or unscientific, about this. But afterwards the assumed premises are easily forgotten, and from the projections, it seems, come arguments that are in fact tempered by the political and social presumptions underlying the initial investigation. This then gets passed off as ‘science’.

The GHF and the WHO, for instance, had to presuppose that poverty is an immutable fact in order to make the projections that 150,000 or 300,000 deaths a year are caused by climate change. This then becomes an argument for policies which aim to mitigate climate change for the putative benefit of ‘the poor’, but in reality they miss entirely the factor which makes people vulnerable to climate – a lack of wealth and development.

These cases do not prove that ‘all climate politics is wrong’, of course. However, the kind of thinking that underlie them is evident in virtually every argument that posits the human consequences of climate change as a basis for political action. This is a mistake that was also made when it was assumed that the lives of millions of people would be at risk from the exaggerated Himalayan glacial recession. And it seems that it is a mistake that is almost built into the operations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

After these kind of conclusions have been drawn, discussions then commonly move on to the trump card: end-of-the world stories that do not depend on modelling projections from presupposed scenarios. Such stories include warnings of a risk that greenhouse gases will cause runaway climate change; the possibility that sea level rise will be so rapid and so high that it will inundate society’s adaptive capacity; that a small rise in temperature might unleash vast clouds of methane from under frozen land; that just a few degrees of warming could cause mass extinction, destroying the world’s biodiversity and capacity to support life. And so on.

It is then claimed that only scientists can really understand these risks. So anyone can construct a superficially plausible disaster story and then demand that only a scientist with the exact pertinent qualifications can stand in the way of its moral authority. In truth, such arguments are scientific only in the sense that they are expressed in technical terms, and some technical knowledge is required to unpack them. They are not claims of the same order as those that attempt to match theory with empirical evidence.

It makes no difference what the actual numerical values of these risk calculations are. That the scenario they depict is remotely plausible makes ignoring them – rhetorically speaking – as good as inviting them. The mere possibility that your existence is threatened is held in the debate as a gun to the head. It is not simply a question of worst-case scenarios, but of the worst-possible-imaginable scenarios ever – in the climate change debate these carry more weight than any rational reasoning. Still it is passed off as ‘science’ and to challenge it is to ‘deny’ science.

If people want to take issue with our contention, on Climate Resistance, that climate politics are prior to climate science, they are most welcome. They could, for example, try to convince us that we are overstating our case, but we are unaware of any extant sociological accounts of science that deny any confounding effect of politics in the scientific endeavour. A fair argument might also be made about science’s quality control measures – peer review, replication and the like – being more effective than we claim they are. Some would also argue that political and scientific institutions are better than we give them credit for at appraising their own biases, fears and desires when commissioning, conducting and interpreting policy-relevant scientific research.

But, as a general rule, that is not the kind of critique we get. Rather, we are accused of denying material reality, of attacking or disrespecting science, of postmodernism gone mad. This is as funny as it is infuriating. Because to deny that climate politics is – to a greater or lesser degree – prior to climate science is as at odds with reality (and even the academic consensus) as is the notion that the causal universe is merely a product of our collective imaginations.

If we are wrong, it is only by degree. It’s an argument we would enjoy having. But it’s not going to happen when just to broach the subject is seen as a sign that we are anti-science. It is those writing us off as such who are wrong in absolute terms.


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