Thursday, November 22, 2007

Politics and Science: A Different set of Units, not Values

With the awarding of the 2007 Nobel Peace prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, don’t get confused on the distinction between science and politics. Be sure not to read more into this award than is actually there.

Bjorn Lomborg, an ardent critic of climate change mitigation, was quoted as saying “Awarding it to Al Gore cannot be seen as anything other than a political statement. Awarding it to the IPCC is well-founded”.

To quote Alfred Nobel’s will regarding the awarding of the Peace prize bearing his name:

“… and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Why are Lomborg and others irked that Gore shares the award with the IPCC? How can Peace be seen as anything other than political? The Norwegian Nobel Committee in fact acknowledges Gore as “one of the world’s leading environmental politicians” and says his commitment is “reflected in political activity.” So of course the award was political. If Gore were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics or chemistry, then I would join the side denouncing that act.

The fundamental issue is that as time goes on it is becoming more and more difficult to draw the line between science and politics, but there is an easy test. If a person discusses what is happening or how things are happening by the use of units (e.g. ‘meters’ for distance, ‘centigrade’ for temperature, ‘parts per million’ for concentration, etc.) then that person is reporting science. If a person discusses what is happening and what should next happen without the use of units, but by only using words (e.g. great, accelerating, harm, chaos, etc.), then that person is acting political.

So, can a person act both scientifically and politically? Of course. Forcing a scientist to subside political thoughts is a reduction in his or her civil rights. And neglecting a politician’s input into the ramifications of scientific revelations is a reduction of duty.

The fact is that given a single number or trend, even with 100% certainty in its validity, people will disagree about its ramifications and importance in directing action. The measurements and numbers have to exist before we can even debate them. Considering topics such as climate change there are many numbers and measurements to sift through. Thus, there are many opinions and interpretations to sift through.

Gore may or may not be stretching the validity of some of the results of IPCC and other climate change researchers, but his intentions are inline with the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether you agree with Gore or not, he is causing people, on both sides of the issue about whether to plan ahead for global warming effects, to speak their minds and contribute to the political discussion. And politics is a substitute for violence. Hence, the definition of peace.

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