The difficulty during last year's Copenhagen Climate Summit in reaching agreement on how to address global warming reflects the contentious political environment on even scientific issues. While worrisome to many, there is an even more troubling lack of agreement right here in America on the core scientific question: is global warming real? While 72% of Americans still think global warming is taking place (Washington Post-ABC News Poll, November 2009), that's down from 80% a year earlier. Among Republicans, only 54% believe global warming is happening, down from 76% in 2008. Last year's revelation that some British scientists "massaged" their data for a published paper on the topic has been used by some (who have labeled it "Climategate") to cast doubt on the entire record of scientific research on global climate change.
Can we no longer trust science and scientists? In a December ABC News -Washington Post poll, 40% of respondents said that they could "trust the things that scientists say about the environment" only "a little or not at all." Sixty-two percent said that there is "a lot of disagreement" among scientists "about whether or not global warming is happening," a figure far in excess of the disagreement that actually exists.
Since Sir Francis Bacon launched the scientific revolution at the turn of the seventeenth century, the reach and impact of science has grown, first in the natural sciences and now increasingly in the social sciences. Indeed, respect for science and the desire to base public policy on science have been foundations of modern society.
For a long time, science seemed able to deliver. Experts enabled the growth of agriculture, industry, medicine, communication technology, aviation, spaceflight, extending human life, reducing poverty, and spreading material wealth and mass culture over much of the planet. No one living today with any sense would choose to go back to the pre-scientific past.
Things began to change - or at least get more complicated - in the last third of the twentieth century. To the benefits of expertise, we had to acknowledge some "downstream effects." Asbestos, the great fire prevention invention, was found to get in our lungs and lead to cancer. Nuclear power, the carbonless fuel, led to nuclear waste that no one wants (and to Three Mile Island). Modern products and lifestyles, brought to us in many cases through scientific achievements, were found to lead to increased rates of many cancers as well as increasing obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Economics and the financial system could not prevent - and "experts" may even have helped foster - a tech bubble, a housing bubble, and the Great Recession of 2008. Social legislation, crafted with the help of experts in the social sciences, worked in part but also seemed to produce dependency and skyrocketing budget deficits.
As the world became more complex, and as problems became more global, we were willing to defer to expertise. We knew that we could not know enough. But what if we can't trust that expertise? That's the question that seems to loom over us now like an icicle perched over the front door.
We may rightfully lay some of our distrust at the feet of the experts themselves. Whether through ignorance or hubris, they have sometimes promised more than they could deliver and sometimes delivered things they never promised. Some of our loss of confidence in expertise may be due to our own overly optimistic expectations, and some may come from the general decline in trust that has hit nearly every American institution since the twin failures of Vietnam and Watergate.
There are no doubt other contributors. Our politics now seems to look to expertise more to buttress arguments than to answer questions. The result is that we use science to support value preferences, blurring the important distinction between science and morality. Our media, in giving attention to attacks on scientific work, may inadvertently (and in the partisan media, intentionally) elevate them in the public consciousness and foster the impression that all science is suspect. Our educational system, by failing in its job to teach us how to understand and properly evaluate the work of scientists, makes us inaccurate judges of the claims of expertise at best and cynics of those claims at worst. What we cannot understand, we become willing to question - or ignore.
Experts have fallen from the lofty perch on which we placed them. This was to a degree inevitable, especially in our culture where the democratic ethos flattens every hierarchy over time. To some extent, this is healthy. Had we developed an effective way to question expertise a century ago, we might have avoided some of the problems it helped create.
Yet the democratization of scientific expertise carries danger with it. If experts cannot be trusted in a world whose problems are complex, who do we trust? To many, it seems, the answer may just have to be themselves (or their social or political interest group). While it may have been unwise to give as much unguarded confidence as we have in the past to the experts on any issue, it is crazy to assume that our untested, "common sense," and sometimes skewed judgments on complex questions are an appropriate substitute.
If we become our own experts on important matters where science can lead to more informed judgments, we will too often substitute ignorance for insight. Science will become irrelevant and we'll be left with only our own value preferences.
A society that argues solely on the basis of values will soon find itself in conversations in which the majority will see little reason to listen to anyone else. Science is one of the few tools we have to confront majority opinion. The framers of our Constitution worried about the tyranny of the majority. We need to be equally worried. A majority that feels it can safely ignore science can create far more havoc than science itself, and it will then be woefully ill-equipped for the twenty-first century.