Environmentalism and science: inextricably linked or uneasy bedfellows?

8 Mar 2012

This paper analyses the use of science in recent public issues: climate change, the state of the Murray River, nuclear power and genetic engineering.

Just as truth is traditionally the first casualty of war, public debates encourage selective perception of complex issues. While many scientists are environmentalists and many environmentalists use science responsibly, the relationship between science and environmentalism is often complicated.

The 2011 Australian climate change legislation and the draft plan for the Murray- Darling Basin were both described as compromises between what was wanted by ‘scientists and environmentalists’, on the one hand, and the wishes of businesses or communities on the other. In both instances, what environmentalists are asking for is based on the science, so there is a perception of a close link between environmental activists and scientists.

The essential principle of science is scepticism, being prepared to be led by the evidence even if it conflicts with your beliefs. This approach goes beyond the natural sciences. It was extended by Keynes to economics with his aphorism, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind’. By contrast, there is an old joke that politicians use statistics or scientific evidence as a drunk uses a lamp-post: for support, rather than for illumination. A conclusion is pre-determined, based on ideology or a pragmatic assessment of electoral politics, then any science that appears to support the conclusion is used as justification.

The real world is more complicated than a simple binary divide between objective, rational scientists and ideologues or pragmatic politicians. Scientists and public health experts have their own values which influence their interpretation of complex data and uncertain outcomes. The values of individual scientists and broad professional groups clearly influence the advice they provide. Some environmentalists are just as guilty as politicians and industrialists of using evidence selectively to advance their cause.

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