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From the Editor

Trust Us, We’re Experts

“Scientists say …” If you’ve been involved in environmental politics for any amount of time, you’ve seen some version of that phrase before. Perhaps it was on a green group press release, or on a blog post at some eco-news website. Maybe you’ve said it yourself, in a (probably vain) attempt to convince a friend that climate change really is happening. When it comes to making an argument or stating a case, environmentalists often fall back on some version of “according to scientists.”

In a way, appealing to science makes good sense. From its earliest days, environmentalism has relied on biology, zoology, hydrology, and other disciplines to explain the world around us and, ideally, help us see how to strike a balance with nature. But sometimes the appeal goes too far and science becomes – not a lamp to illuminate a controversial issue – but a cudgel with which to beat opponents into submission, or to knock some sense into them. Environmentalists at times act as if science is a kind of trump card that can be played to end a debate.

It doesn’t work. Science may be great at sparking conversations, but it’s not very good at settling them.

This is mostly because of people’s instinct for “confirmation bias,” the tendency to find evidence that supports our beliefs and discard the evidence that challenges them. As Robert Cabin writes in his smart essay, “Science Friction”, “everyone believes ‘the science’ is on their side.” Cabin points out that “asking scientists to solve a complex problem like climate change is as misguided as asking architects to solve homelessness.” Science, Cabin reminds us, is “merely a tool,” and like any tool it’s useful for some things and useless for others. “One of the things that science is not good at is resolving our underlying political and philosophical differences,” he writes.

Don’t get me wrong – science is great, and scientists’ work is important. The scientific method, with its rigorous testing of hypotheses against empirical evidence, is essential for sorting fact from fancy.

But here’s a thing to always keep in mind: Facts rarely settle political disputes, which above all are contests of values and beliefs. Politics – including environmental politics – is a debate over competing ideals of “the good life.” And on that philosophical question the physical sciences have little to offer.

Look, for example, at the simmering battle between preserving wild lands and the incessant quest for fossil fuels. In his story “Rough Waters Ahead”, Jeremy Miller reports that oil and gas firms are pushing into the rugged terrain around Utah’s Green River. As federal land managers decide whether and how to allow increased development in the region, they will likely ask scientists to study various questions. To what degree will roads and drilling pads impact wildlife? How will more drilling or mining impact air and water quality?

The answers to these questions are important. Yet they still won’t provide an answer to how we measure the value of cheap energy against the value of an intact ecosystem.

When it comes to that question, I, for one, will vote for conserving the desert landscape – no matter what the science says.

graphic of Jason Mark signature


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