Saturday, March 3, 2007

Warning or Alarm

 NASA GISS Surface Temperature Analysis
The debate over Global Warming is a perfect example of how the integrity of scientific evidence and the credibility of science itself has been compromised in a highly divisive and partisan debate over policy.  The most visible proponents of each side present themselves as experts, present their own facts and ignore or undermine the facts of their adversaries.  Common ground based on accepted scientific evidence and practices disappears along with deliberative, public dialog.  Positions harden.  Real uncertainty and risk remain but disappear from view.  Subtleties are lost.  The public struggles to follow the debate and is mystified, confused.

Advocates on each side focus on short term benefits and political results.  Longer term education -- and a deeper public understanding of the issues -- is compromised.  When the public hears experts disagree they loose confidence in both sides.  Science and technology as a whole are diminished.

Debate of the the Nuclear Industry in the 1970's and 80's was another perfect case with similar consequences for science and technology.  The history of CFC damage to the ozone layer is another more recent example.  It is particularly tragic because now that we know that the alarm was real, that the intervention worked and that it was commercially very successful, the issue has passed from public view and science has missed the opportunity to regain lost ground.

Along the same lines many lessons have been learned from the disastrous limits to growth debate.  Yet in part because of the evidence collected in the process there is tremendous support for environmental protection, conservation and smaller family sizes throughout the industrialized world.  But the role played by scientists (not activists) in this global social movements and their contribution to what is now called sustainable development is still not universally acknowledged.

Lots of work has been done under the heading of Science, Technology and Society (STS) and the Public Understanding of Science as well.  One example of a comprehensive study is The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology. Their |third report contains tremendous analysis of the tension between science, technology and society as well as what we can do about it.  (John Durant of the MIT Museum was somehow involved although I am unclear on his official role).

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