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Steven F. Hayward Environmental Science and Public Policy The m ethod of science depends on our attem pts to describe the world w ith simple models. Theories that are complex may become untestable, even if they happen to be true. —Karl Popper (1982: 44) IN SURVEYING THE CONTENTIOUS NATURE OF POLITICAL CONTROVERSIES surrounding environm ental science today it is tem pting to adapt the episode of The Simpsons called “Lisa the Skeptic,” in which a judge issues an injunction requiring that “politics is to stay at least 500 yards away from religion at all times.” Many scientists and policy analysts would probably like to see a sim ilar injunction issued for the separation of science and politics, as this relationship is equally contentious and problematic. Of course, this is not going to happen. Clarity in understanding this hardy perennial can benefit from disaggregating three aspects of the issue. The first aspect concerns the hoary problem of policymaking am idst scientific uncertainty. The second concerns institutional problems that arise from the necessarily bureaucratic nature of both large-scale scientific research and policy­ making. The third concerns a bundle of factors th at complicates the task of prediction, including the limits on a synoptic understanding of “the environm ent” as well as unstated competing principles or values that the various actors—including scientists—bring to the discourse. The problem of “uncertainty” in science has become especially acute in the arena of climate change science and policy today, although social research Vol 73 : No 3 : Fall 2006 891 controversy over uncertainty shows up in m any other areas of envi­ ronm ental policy—especially in risk assessm ent of hum an exposure to environm ental chemicals. Even though the term “uncertainty” is perfectly valid and appears frequently in scientific literature—in fact, a reference to uncertainty appears in nearly every climate science arti­ cle—it has become tendentious in its everyday usage, taken often as a sign of bad faith. Legitimate scientific uncertainty becomes magnified in the polit­ ical arena for several reasons. The first is that environm ental policy is as m uch as social science as it is a physical science, in large part because our understanding of “the environm ent” is as m uch social as it is scien­ tific, insofar as it involves hum an beings and deeply embedded social and institutional practices. Second, environm ental policy is one of the last areas of politics and policy that still proceeds according to the naive Progressive Era hope that contentious political problems could be converted into adm inistrative problems and managed in a noncontroversial way by highly trained experts. We still govern ourselves as m uch as possible according to this W ilsonian model, but in areas of purely social policy such as welfare, education, and crime, for example, we can see a consensus across the political spectrum about the sharp limits of social science to understand and prescribe policy in these m atters, and therefore the limits of treating these issues in a purely administrative way. Interestingly, w hen it comes to the environm ent this view finds agreem ent am ong some environm entalists. Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus noted in their controversial essay, “The Death of Environm entalism ,” that the m ovem ent’s political vision is severely constricted because it “became defined around using science to define the problem as ‘environm ental’ and crafting technical policy programs as solutions” (Schellenberger and Nordhaus, 2004: 7). Third, the m agnitude o f scientific uncertainty in policymaking is directly proportional to the political and especially economic stakes involved, w hich m eans th at it is unlikely that legitim ate uncertain­ ties of environm ental science can ever be definitively resolved to the satisfaction of all the policymakers and stakeholders. One easy way of 892 social research grasping this is to compare the level of controversy over the climate science assessments of the UN’s Intergovernm ental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) w ith the UN’s parallel effort, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a five-year project involving the efforts of m ore than 1,000 scientists around the world released in March 2005. (MA, 2005.) The MA...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 891-914
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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