01/26/2015 08:48 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Science, Policy, and Decision Making

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I started my professional career at the U.S. EPA and even though I was in a "policy shop," analyzing policies to develop regulations, I was struck by how few of us had expertise in environmental science. One of my areas of doctoral study was environmental policy, and in the late 1970s I worked with many physical scientists at SUNY Buffalo's Environmental Studies Center. From the start, the dependence of environmental policy on environmental science seemed quite obvious. While I hadn't read a biology, chemistry or physics text since college, I knew my field required scientific literacy.

When I started building environmental policy educational programs at Columbia University in the late 1980s, I was determined to ensure that my students knew more environmental science than I did. Fortunately, I found colleagues at Columbia who shared my goal of adding science to environmental policy education. I was able to draw upon some very dedicated environmental scientists at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who were eager to create science courses for future policy makers. Some of the top environmental scientists in the world designed and taught a course called "Environmental Science for Policy Makers." For over two decades that course was taught every year at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs until it was replaced by a more comprehensive set of science offerings.

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he took on the climate denier mantra, "I am not a scientist." He observed that he wasn't a scientist either, but he knew some excellent ones. What he didn't say is that these scientists were willing, and in fact eager, to teach the president climate science. At the Earth Institute we have about 100 climate scientists, and nearly all of them are deeply committed to communicating their science to non-scientists, to decision makers, and to anyone in the public who wants to know. Columbia's Earth Institute spends about $2 million a year communicating sustainability science, management and policy to anyone willing to listen. Even if you don't like to read, here is a collection of 45 videos from our web site about climate science, policy and management. We are not alone in this mission. Many government agencies and other universities are doing the same thing we are doing.

The world is getting more complex. All of us need to be lifelong learners. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not an excuse. I am not an accountant, but that doesn't mean I am allowed to be fiscally irresponsible or forget to pay my taxes. I know nothing about auto repair, but that doesn't mean I don't try to understand what the auto service manager tells me. We've got to up our game. We need to pay attention to the complex systems that govern the impact that humans are having on the planet.

A growing number of professionals must play the role of translators between highly skilled and well-educated experts and decision makers. You do not need to know how a climate model works to understand what it is predicting and the probability that its projections are accurate. All of us--but especially decision makers--must take the time to learn and understand the key facts of modern life. We can disagree on our goals and values, but we need to develop a way to present and learn facts. Scientists love to learn and they love to argue. The process of discovery is far from linear and rarely orderly, but it's often exciting. And when scientific consensus is achieved, you can be certain that a lot of people have independently examined the same observations, analytic methods and models. The examination will have come from many different perspectives. You don't need to be a part of that process to understand its importance and power. Climate science is one of the most debated and discussed forms of science in the world. The consensus around its conclusions took several decades to achieve. But it is now in place.

Many of the fundamental facts about our planet are still being researched and learned. The same could be said about the human body and brain. We have a lot to learn. It is critical to understand that the science of earth observation and environmental engineering has made it possible for us to grow our economy while reducing its toxicity to humans. People are living longer and healthier lives because of the marvels of modern medicine and the accomplishments of nearly half a century of environmental science, engineering and policy. We do not need to trust individual scientists to trust the process of peer review, replication and vigorous, transparent debate that leads to scientific understanding.

Our ability to manage the complexity of the modern global economy depends on our ability to manage the evolving technology of production. These scientific advances lead to tools like the Internet or GPS that can make our lives better, but they can also lead to the creation of toxics that poison our air and water. In either case, scientific illiteracy is dangerous. When elected officials hide behind their lack of expertise, they are setting a horrible example for the general public and especially for school-aged children.

Science and math do not come easily to everyone. They are forms of knowledge that are often cumulative, and sometimes need to be learned in a specific sequence. But one need not be a scientific researcher or scholar to understand science. You can read a scientific journal article without needing to understand every aspect of the research. There are also wonderful scientific magazines like Science and Nature that ask scientists to write at a sophisticated level, but for a non-expert audience. There is a growing field of science journalism that seeks to make science even more accessible. The Science Pages of the New York Times provide an unequaled resource for understanding the latest research and discoveries of the scientific community. Perhaps we could arrange a subscription for some of the "I am not a scientist" elected officials in our nation's capital.

Last fall Emily Atkin posted a wonderful piece on Climate Progress entitled: "I Am Not A Scientist: A Complete Guide to Politicians Who Plead Ignorance on Climate Change." Atkin observed that there are a growing number of "politicians and political figures who actively oppose any policy to fight climate change, but also claim to not know the science of climate change." Her piece identified seven of the more prominent ignorant politicos. But, of course, the classic treatment of this profound idiocy belongs to Stephen Colbert's post-election report on the "I am not a scientist" mantra. Colbert strikes at the heart of the matter. The retreat to ignorance is shameful. Even Colbert's right-wing comedy character can't quite believe what he is hearing.

Willful ignorance of climate science is troubling. Disregard of ecological science is destructive. The failure to utilize medical science can be life threatening. But my deeper concern is the attitude toward knowledge and learning expressed by these supposed national leaders. Their glib expressions of scientific illiteracy are not false modesty, but are cynical, self-serving and deceptive. Perhaps next year's focus group and poll-driven political messages will be less pathetic than "I am not a scientist." We can hope.