Full Title: How science makes environmental controversies worse
Author(s): D. Sarewitz (Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University)
Publisher(s): Elsevier, Environmental Energy & Policy
Publication Date: 01/2004
Length: 18 pages, PDF
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I use the example of the 2000 US Presidential election to show that political controversies with technical underpinnings are not resolved by technical means. Then, drawing from examples such as climate change, genetically modified foods, and nuclear waste disposal, I explore the idea that scientific inquiry is inherently and unavoidably subject to becoming politicized in environmental controversies. I discuss three reasons for this. First, science supplies contesting parties with their own bodies of relevant, legitimated facts about nature, chosen in part because they help make sense of, and are made sensible by, particular interests and normative frameworks. Second, competing disciplinary approaches to understanding the scientific bases of an environmental controversy may be causally tied to competing value-based political or ethical positions. The necessity of looking at nature through a variety of disciplinary lenses brings with it a variety of normative lenses, as well. Third, it follows from the foregoing that scientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings, amplified by the various political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which science is carried out.
In light of these observations, I briefly explore the problem of why some types of political controversies become “scientized” and others do not, and conclude that the value bases of disputes underlying environmental controversies must be fully articulated and adjudicated through political means before science can play an effective role in resolving environmental problems.