A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Post Was Originally Published April 1st, 2017 in the Houston Chronicle.
By proposing draconian cuts to medical research, the Trump administration threatens a large - and growing - pillar of the Houston-area regional economy. Worse, those cuts are part of a larger assault on science. Today, federal scientists are threatened with limits on what they can research, publish and even what they can post on Twitter. And then there is the movement that elected President Trump, which has been widely characterized as a revolt against "elites" - a group to which scientists arguably belong.
In response, Houston's scientific community is planning a March for Science on April 22 - Earth Day - in concert with marches around the country. Organizers of the march say it is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.
Fellow scientists, we are right to feel threatened. At the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, we must accept some responsibility for this state of affairs. We have not created "alternative facts," but we have taken some steps down this slippery slope, allowing subjective interpretations to masquerade as objective facts. If even scientists are willing to step onto this slope, is it surprising that some members of our society end up at the bottom?
We must admit that we sometimes oversell the value of facts. Irrefutable facts are rare; most science is awash in uncertainty. And, even where empirical evidence is strong, facts do not translate into neat policy prescriptions. That is because there isn't a single significant challenge facing our society that can be decided on facts alone. Instead, we are always selecting among competing values. When we assert the science alone can tell us what to do, we take a step down that slippery slope.
Take climate change, for example. Science tells us that the climate is changing and that human activity is to blame. Beyond these facts, we quickly enter the realm of interpretation - about what the impacts will be, and about the actions we must take. We simply cannot take such projections and analyses as "facts." There is uncertainty surrounding our projections; not everything that will influence global economies and local livelihoods has been accounted for in our models.
Furthermore, policy choices on climate require weighing various public goods - environmental protection, economic growth, public health, jobs in various sectors - that are sometimes in conflict. There is no single, inarguable "best pathway" into the future. And yet scientists often have asserted that we know exactly what must be done to address climate change.
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