‘The science’ doesn’t mandate a particular policy

FT columnist John Kay’s recent critique of the concept of scientific consensus (Science is the pursuit of the truth, not consensus, John Kay, Financial Times, October 9 2007) [shared bookmark (404)] (in response to a Michael Schrage’s article Science must be more political, Financial Times, September 25 2007) has prompted a number letters to the paper.

Prof E. Brian Davies, of King’s College London, is correct that one may need to act on science that is less than certain (Letters One cannot wait for total certainty, October 16 [404]) – because science is never certain. People who look for certainty in science are as naive as those who believe that scientific insight maps directly to a particular policy action.

Prof Davies notes that “the Royal Society advises the public and the government about what it considers is likely to happen if some course of action is, or is not, taken”, and Royal Society Vice-President David Read argues that a scientist’s role should be “analysing the best evidence available and presenting that to inform the policy debate” (Letters Scientists will inform – and will not retreat to their labs, October 15 [404]). But more naive thinking slips into disingenuous action when we are ordered to adopt a policy, such as reducing individual energy consumption, because it is mandated by ‘the science’.

The appropriate approach is, as Kay suggests, for scientists to focus on evidence, and to debate in good faith; for policy-makers to pursue the “calm, civil, even-handed analysis” noted in Clive Crook’s review of Bjorn Lomborg’s new book (An inconvenient Danish pasting, Financial Times, October 15 [404]); and for everyone to steer clear of the misanthropy that informs so many climate change activists.

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