From "Is it True?" to "So What?"

bridges vol. 14, July 2007 / Pielke's Perspective

by Roger Pielke, Jr.

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pielke_r_new_small.jpgCourtesy of Roger PielkeScholars who study the role of science in society have long appreciated how arguments about science become a proxy for political debate. Peter Weingart, of the University of Bielefeld, has described such situations as being "scientized" - where questions that are fundamentally about values are expressed in terms of competing factual claims or, more grandiosely, in terms of ultimate truth. And then political debate takes place about the truth or falsity of scientific claims. In such situations the question typically at the center of such a debate is, "Is it True?"

But while science provides a tremendously powerful way of looking at and shaping the world, in some situations it is fundamentally incapable of resolving claims to truth. First, as Prof. Weingart observes, political debates involving science often press right up to the frontiers of knowledge, where competing claims to certainty are most hotly debated among scientists and understandings remain contested. The ongoing debate over the role of greenhouse gas emissions on hurricane behavior provides an example of this dynamic. Daniel Sarewitz, of Arizona State University, offers a complementary perspective, observing that science does not provide a single view of the world, but rather a wide range of partial views from different disciplinary perspectives that do not "add up" to a coherent whole. For instance, Prof. Sarewitz suggests that plant geneticists who focus on improving agricultural productivity for human benefit view the risks of genetically modified crops differently than do ecologists who focus on protecting natural systems from human encroachment.

So then, what is true? Have hurricanes been intensified by global warming? Do genetically modified crops pose risks? Science simply cannot provide unambiguous answers to these questions. Of course the promise of science is that, at some point in the future, answers to these questions will be within our grasp, but meanwhile decisions about climate change and genetic modification need to be made.

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