Author: Joseph Waggle
Last November the House of Representatives passed a Republican-sponsored bill to restrict independent scientists from advising the Environmental Protection Agency on their own research, in favor of allowing greater representation from scientists employed by the industries that the EPA seeks to regulate. The Senate recently voted that climate change is real, but can’t agree on whether or not it is man-made. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)—the man who literally wrote the book about how anthropogenic climate change is a “conspiracy” and “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated”—is now the Chairman for the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), a man who thinks the National Science Foundation has become too bloated and corrupt, is now Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Interesting times. In the wake of the Republican take-over of Congress in 2014—the hottest year on record, by the way—and the ever-louder public debates about the environment, accountability, and the need for action, it would be easy to think of science as being caught in a political crossfire on an ideological battleground.
I think of it differently.
(That last bit was funded in large part by a seed grant from the PSE, a grant that I am all the more thankful for because the sampling frame was a longer and much more involved process than I realized. It’s also a grant that I would recommend to any grad student working on the intersection of society and the environment. Their third annual call for proposals can be found here).
Much of my work in the past has looked at how science and politics intersect, focusing mostly on climate change politics. In a 2013 paper, my colleagues and I found that political polarization doesn’t come from scientific debates, but from economic and legislative ones. We show empirically that the science is largely decided, across the aisle, but that scientific certainty and the lack thereof are invoked time and again in the debate when specific policies and their financial impacts are being considered. I also have a paper under review that looks at the nature of scientific consensus in climate politics, where I use qualitative data to demonstrate that scientific consensus is conflated with political consensus—that, in other words, disagreements in the political sphere are viewed as disagreements in the scientific community.
This thread of research has led me to wonder what exactly is being debated in these political arenas when science is brought into the discussion. There is a long tradition among science and technology scholars of looking at the role that science plays in the policymaking process. Scholars have looked at how scientists communicate findings to policymakers, how policymakers engage scientists, and how politics from outside of the academy influence the people and processes within it.
But this work looks at how science is used in politics. What is lacking is an understanding of why science is used.
In my dissertation, I want to uncover what political actors think about science. At this point, I should be clear that by “political actors,” I mean the entire constellation of actors who participate in policy debates—including elected Congresspersons; representatives from the administration; agents from industry and business interests; and speakers from NGOs and activist groups. My dissertation focuses specifically on the cases of climate change and hydrofracking.
From the context above, and from many other examples that can be found in the media, it seems as though political actors mean very different things when they discuss science. When 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that climate change is real, what does it mean that Congress continues to call the science “undecided,” and to call media reporting on this consensus “biased”? Why, when discussing policy issues that lean heavily on scientific research, do so many Congresspersons think that “I’m not a scientist” is a way to gain legitimacy in the debate, rather than lose it?
This is what my dissertation seeks to find out. My main research question is: what are the beliefs that political actors have about science as they use it strategically to advance their political ends?
A simple answer to this question is that political actors see science as a base of knowledge. The modernist, rational choice model of policymaking would have us believe that officials make the best decisions they can based on the most complete information available to them. Science, seen through this lens, is one such source of information. When policymakers reject science, they may be balancing this information against other kinds of expertise, such as information about the economic impacts of legislation or the potential hazards of implementation and enforcement of policy.
Indeed, the research that has looked at political motivations to engage with science—scant though it may be—supports these assumptions. But if that was all that was going on, the Senate wouldn’t be voting on whether or not climate change is really a thing that exists.
I argue that research in this vein—and research on the science-policy interface more broadly—is based upon outdated and unrealistic assumptions about the motivations of political actors, the functioning of the political process, and science’s role within policymaking. My dissertation research is embedded in the larger theoretical belief that the science-policy interface should be studied through the lens of postmodern politics, in which scientific information is not engaged by political actors with an eye toward bettering their understanding of scientific problems.
Rather, it is my assertion that political actors engage science strategically, to manipulate discourse and control public perception in an effort to further political agendas. I propose here research that engages the postmodern science-policy interface.
To understand how political actors perceive of science, I will be interviewing a random sample of actors who work in each of these political spheres in the last three completed sessions of Congress (January 2009 to present). Qualitative data are best suited to questions of perception and belief, and I am engaging this research with an open-ended, semi-structured interview protocol in the hopes that relevant themes will emerge as I talk to these actors. These are interesting times, and I can’t wait to find out what these political actors have to say about it all.
If you’re available, and you want to hear more about the roots and development of this dissertation, please do attend the Workshop (1101 Art-Sociology, University of Maryland) Wednesday, 4 February, 2015 from 10:30 to noon. The talk will be followed by what I am sure will be a lively and thoughtful discussion, and I hope you’ll consider participating.