Science and Agendas

When asked whether he was concerned about global warming, a young colleague of my wife, with an earned doctorate [but not in the sciences], replied that there wasn’t any evidence of global warming. He dismissed the numerous scientific studies suggesting that global warming is indeed a real problem with the statement that, “I don’t pay any attention to the scientists. They’ve all got political agendas.”

His statements were stupid — and not just about global warming. While the probable causes of global warming are clearly multiple and still highly debated, the actual evidence of such warming is close to incontrovertible. More bothersome to me was his statement about agendas. Every single human being has agendas. Does that mean nothing any of us has to say can be trusted? Einstein definitely wanted recognition as a scientist, and that was so much of an agenda that he agreed to give the money from the Nobel Prize he had not yet won to his first wife. Did that personal agenda invalidate his Theory of Relativity? Clyde Tombaugh wanted to discover Pluto. Did that agenda invalidate this discovery [regardless of whether that body is now “officially” classified as a planet or not]?

My wife’s young colleague was in effect denying that science has a factual basis, one which stands independent of opinion or agenda. I’m not saying that scientists are infallible or that they don’t have opinions. As is true for all of us, their opinions and even their theories are sometimes incomplete or wrong, but the basis of science is found in repeated observations, replication where possible, and scrutiny and challenge. A scientist may well be wrong, but good science and the process behind it stand independent of opinions and beliefs.

An issue such as global warming highlights the difficulty of maintaining scientific impartiality in the light of political and economic agendas, because the worst impacts of global warming are in the future and the costs of addressing it are in the present, and most people really don’t want to pay for acts from which they do not benefit personally and directly. Nor do most corporations, because the top executives’ pay and bonuses are based on present-day performance and profits, and spending significant funding to address future problems — or even to provide future profitable products — reduces current performance… and executive compensation. Now, if one wants to talk about agendas… I’d suggest that any agendas of climate scientists pale besides those of the corporate world.

The greatest environmental impacts are in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where only a few people are there to observe, and where there has been no continued human settlement to live with and comprehend the changes. The costs of addressing — or of not addressing — global warming will have to be born, in greater or lesser degree, by every human being. The politician who denies the severity of the problem because he does not wish to spend public funds now may well require his successors a generation hence to bear the costs of dealing with massive coastal flooding as the sea levels rise. Does that politician’s agenda affect the factual basis of the science? Not in the slightest, but his agenda may well affect the public support of science and increase the costs of dealing with the impacts of global warming by several orders of magnitude.

The same is true of the near-earth asteroid search program. It is not a matter of opinion whether large bodies will pummel the earth. They have at irregular intervals for billions of years, and small bodies pummel the planet every day. It is only a question of time before a large body finds itself on a collision course with our home planet. That fact will not be affected by the agendas of those in support of or in opposition to the near-earth asteroid search program.

Wherever science reveals an impact on society, everyone has an interest that will be threatened or benefited, and that means that everyone from scientists to clerks in Wal-Mart has an agenda. I spent all too many years as a relatively senior staffer in politics, and one of the most effective rhetorical tricks, and one that dates back as far as human politics, is the attribution of an agenda. Equally long-standing is the habit of politicians of denying any agenda. Hmmm… you want power, but you have no agenda? Yet, somehow, most people believe that if a politician has an agenda, that invalidates his or her concerns. Now, we’re seeing the attribution of agendas to scientists as well as to politicians. But exactly what do such attributions have to do with facts and evidence?

What I fear is that, with the hurry-up, high-speed, and high-pressure society that has developed, particularly in the USA and parts of Asia, very few people are taking the time to analyze and assess the facts and fundamentals of the practical and scientific issues facing our world. Instead, decisions are being made on non-factual bases, such as agenda attribution, selective fact choice, personal bias, or wishful thinking. Just because communications and technology are almost near-instant doesn’t mean that decisions should be.

And it certainly shouldn’t mean that decisions should be based on whether a scientist or a politician has an agenda — but on how economically, politically, and scientifically well-based such an agenda may be, not on whether there is an agenda.

Whenever someone asserts that something is not a problem because someone else “has an agenda,” I’d worry far more about the unspoken agendas of the critic. Yet, historically, comparatively few people do. It’s far easier to agree that anyone who has an agenda can’t be trusted — as did my wife’s colleague.