The Consortium for Socially Relevant Philosophy of/in Science and Engineering

Interview with Matt Brown

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“Ultimately, there needs to be more of a sense that climate scientists are trustworthy to the values that the public holds,” Brown says. “I’m not sure that’s communicated very well when the climate science community heavily emphasizes the policy neutrality of climate science, and then in other forums comes out advocating immediate action. It’s not plausible, and it doesn’t engender a whole lot of trust.”

By: Dave Saldana

On September 21, 2014, nearly 400,000 demonstrators gathered in New York City– as hundreds of thousands more rallied around the world– in the People’s Climate March. The event preceded the United Nations Climate Summit, a meeting of world leaders intended to get beyond talking about climate change and come up with a plan of action to address what many consider to be the primary threat facing humanity today.

 

That may seem like a groundswell of public support and a firm political commitment, but regarding climate change, public sentiment is divided, and political will is lacking.

 

According to Matt Brown, assistant professor of Philosophy at University of Texas in Dallas, and director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology, the disconnect between the science and public action—while 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human-caused global warming is actively changing the climate, roughly a quarter of the American public believes it’s all a hoax—lies primarily with the scientists themselves. The locus of dispute, he says, is in their commitment to their neutrality.

 

“Ultimately, there needs to be more of a sense that climate scientists are trustworthy to the values that the public holds,” Brown says. “I’m not sure that’s communicated very well when the climate science community heavily emphasizes the policy neutrality of climate science, and then in other forums comes out advocating immediate action. It’s not plausible, and it doesn’t engender a whole lot of trust.”

 

Brown also argues that the 97-percent majority of climate scientists who agree on anthropogenic climate change—and Brown is quick to point out that consensus and certainty are not interchangeable—would do well to embrace those within their community whose opinions vary from the consensus. That way, he says, policymakers can judge the full array of possibilities before us. Debating the numbers is a mere distraction from the pressing questions.

 

“Focusing on [certainty] is in a way a mistake. The idea that we need to reach a certain level of certainty or consensus in order to act is wrong,” he says. “The decision to act should be based on our sense of possibility and probability, and the risk of the potential harms associated with the different possibilities.”

 

To move that process forward, Brown argues that the scientific community should be more forthright and prescriptive. “It’s a much more straightforward and useful way to put it: ‘There is this problem, and something needs to be done.’”

 

However, the science should not be a trump card when authentic values differences are at play, Brown says.

 

A textbook example of this is in the field of embryonic stem cell research, where the science is very clear that cures or treatments for a wide range of maladies, from neuropathies and spinal injuries to liver disease and diabetes, may be found in these cells. But as certain as scientists are of that, some religious communities are certain that using embryonic stem cells is impermissible research on human subjects.

 

“The claim that embryos are persons is highly controversial. The people who oppose stem cell research treat it as settled, which is a mistake, and will exercise power rather than deliberation in order to forward that point of view,” Brown says. “The competing claim that it’s political interference with science and there is no ethical issue is a mistake as well. […]There needs to be more deliberation about the issue, and it needs to be conducted not in terms of the scare tactics that misrepresent the controversy, but rather on the facts.”

 

The controversy itself has been beneficial, Brown argues, because in dealing with a ban on embryonic stem cell research, scientists have had to develop non-embryonic stem cell lines, which are now widely in use.

 

The tension between the political and the scientific is both constant and vital, Brown says, and should remain so. Maintaining the tension is effective for keeping both sides of the divide honest, and holding that line is necessary to ensure that neither side corrupts the other.

 

“When we’re doing science that’s feeding directly into the policymaking process, there needs to be a political component, insofar as there needs to be a decision made based on values made in the scientific process” he says. “Decisions about risks, standards of evidence that need to be met, consequences of pursuing certain lines of research…. There needs to be values there, because we need to make decisions based on the interests of the public and not just the private interests of the scientists involved.

 

“But a line is crossed where the political interference in the scientific process works to drive the science toward a predetermined conclusion.”