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On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.

ClimateEthics seeks to work out the ethical implications of mainstream scientific views about climate change. As we have said many times-if we get the science and economics wrong we may get the ethics wrong.
by SKeira Apr 15, 2015

I. Introduction.

ClimateEthics seeks to work out the ethical implications of mainstream scientific views about climate change. As we have said many times-if we get the science and economics wrong we may get the ethics wrong.

We do, however, believe that the mainstream scientific views as articulated by such prestigious scientific organizations as the United States Academy of Sciences are entitled to respect until peer-reviewed science changes the consensus view. Skepticism in science is not bad but skeptics should play by the rules of science including publishing their claims in peer-reviewed literature when they are engaged in what this article identifies as the "research role" of science. However, as we shall see, there is another role of science about which the rules and norms shift as a matter of ethics.

Just this May the United States Academy of Sciences concluded once again that humans are causing climate change and this will lead to harsh impacts for the human race and ecological systems unless steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As we shall see, getting the science right before discussing its ethical implications of science follows from an identification of which of two legitimate roles science is playing in any debate.

III The Two Science Roles

When making claims about what science knows, strict and careful scientific and peer-reviewed scientific procedures should be followed. Science usually assumes that in basic research, scientists should be silent until statistically significant correlations have been demonstrated between hypothetical cause and effect or other compelling reasons for proof claims have been demonstrated. (Different scientific disciplines have actually different expectations about proof claims, what ethicists call "epistemic norms") When science is playing its centrally important role in research for the truth about causation, strict and rigorous procedures are called for and no scientist should make claims when acting in this role that have not been demonstrated.

In basic research about climate change, nothing less should be expected. We will call this the "research role" of science.

However, there is a second role for science that requires different procedures. We expect science to not only prove and explain causation but to warn people of risks before proof is in--- particularly if the risks are significant and we cant wait until proof is demonstrated before the harm occurs.

Science often discovers sound scientifically based reasons for great concern but for practical and theoretical reasons can't reach ideal levels of proof before the harm occurs. Because of this scientists are sometimes expected by the law or social norms to warn people of potential harms. For instance, sometimes scientists are expected to make reports report based upon the "balance of the evidence" or regulatory agencies are expected by law to take preventative action as long as the scientific reasons for taking preventative action are not "arbitrary and capricious."

In examining human-environment interactions as well as human health-environment questions, scientists often uncover scientifically sound reasons for significant concern but for practical or theoretical reasons can not prove cause and effect. When engaged in such matters, I will call this the "public policy" role of science.

There are many uses of science in its "public policy" role about which there appears to be wide spread social agreement that it would be imprudent or otherwise unethical to wait until all the proof is in before taking appropriate action. This is so if: (a) waiting guarantees that the harm will occur if the risk turns out to be real, (b) the potential harms are grave to some people or ecological systems, and (c) those being put at risk have not consented to be put at risk.

The law is full of concrete examples of shifting levels of proof and burdens of proof depending upon what kind of risks are at stake and who is at risk from potentially risky behavior. In fact, most civilizations make dangerous behavior criminal. Tort laws makes people follow standards of great care to avoid harm to others once they are on notice that what they are doing is dangerous. In fact, if the harm occurs once someone is engaged in dangerous behavior, the law presumes the person causing the harm acted negligently. In such cases, defendants can't defend themselves by claiming there was no proof that what they were doing would cause harm, they must be careful if great harm is possible even if unproven under civil law.

The duty to be careful to not harm others even in cases where the proof of harm is uncertain is widely accepted around the world in such international law principles as the "No harm Principle." Under the No Harm Principle, nations are expected to prevent potential harm to other nations once they have reason to believe that activities in their countries are putting others at risk, they may not wait until absolute proof has been established to cease dangerous behavior.

US law has different rules for levels of proof and burden of proof depending on what is at stake. Criminal law requires the prosecutor to prove a defendant is guilty "beyond reasonable doubt", civil law usually only requires proof by a "balance of the evidence": Most cultures would require very high levels of proof to prove somethings is safe if a scientist is engaged in very dangerous behavior such as creating a black hole that could suck in the entire universe. In other words, norms of research science are not always applicable to public policy disputes. Sometimes public policy requires more proof and sometimes far less proof than required in scientific research depending upon what is at stake, who is at risk, and whether the uncertainties can be resolved before putting others at risk.

Before claiming that something is a risk, however, scientists should also have to follow certain rules or norms as a matter of ethics. These include they should be very, very clear that they have not proven cause and effect, they should acknowledge all uncertainties, and they should subject their reasoning to public scrutiny and reasonable debate. Care when making a claim about unproven risks in public policy disputes is also ethically essential.

III The Two Roles and Climate Change and Ethics. 

When it comes to climate change and other complex problems humans are facing, confusion between these two different roles of science is rampant and is at the heart of the opposition between opposing camps. The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, for instance, has sometimes made conclusions based upon the "balance of the evidence" The ideological climate skeptics, (to be distinguished from reasonable skepticism) often publicizes what is not known about these issues and ignores what is known and at the same time has accused those who have identified plausible but unproven risks as doing "bad science." This is happening over and over again. On the other hand, environmental activists sometimes act as if their claims are made on the basis the norms of research science when at best they have only satisfied the norms of science engaged in its public policy role.

To resolve this confusion certain things are needed. They include:

(a) greater clarity about the role science is playing in any given debate, 
(b) acknowledgement that there is an important "public policy" role for science that is different from its role in basic research, and in such cases high levels of proof are not always required by ethical considerations.
(c) a willingness to engage in public dialogue about the basis for any identified but unproven risks.

In a recent post on Tornadoes and Climate Change, ClimateEthics explained the main reasons why we may not claim that intensity and frequency of tornadoes will increase in warming world. They are (1) the trend data inconclusiveness, (2) there are scientific grounds for eventual reduction of shear winds in a warming world, and (3) possible eventual temperature difference decreases in a warming world. Because tornado propagation is sensitive to sheer wind and differences between warm and cold air masses meeting, tornado intensity and frequency may not increase in a warming world.

Yet, we explained there is also reasonable basis for concern that a warming world may at least temporarily increase tornado damage including the fact that oceans are now warmer, and regional ocean circulation cycles such as La Nina/El Nino patterns in the Pacific which affect upper atmospheric conditions appear to becoming more chaotic under the influence of climate change. And so there is a reason to believe, for instance, that instead of having a La Nina event in the Pacific once every six or seven years followed by an El Nino, the Pacific ocean will cycle between these extremes at faster rates in a warming world. More frequent La Ninas may make tornado propagation in the central US more frequent if not more destructive. We also know that in a warming world we have more water vapor in the atmosphere and some regional water bodies including the Gulf Of Mexico are warmer now then in recent times most likely under the influences of climate change.

Yet. we stressed that if we talk about these risks of climate change influencing tornado propagation, all uncertainties should be fully and honestly acknowledged and the honest absence of proof claims must be clear.

Whether these are legitimate concerns can't be decided simply on the basis of science in its research role but must be delegated to science in its public policy role. In such a role, the debate should be about given what we know about a warming world are these reasonable risks. In such cases, reasonableness cant be decided under the rule of research science unless someone is claiming that the scientific proof is in. These disputes must instead be settled on the basis of whether there is a reasonable basis for concern not withstanding lack of final proof. If there is, ethics would say we must identify these risks, not simply ignore ignore them, although care is needed in how these matters are discussed.

ClimateEthics believes that the climate change debate would be greatly improved if civil society would acknowledge these different legitimate roles for science.


Donald A. Brown
Associate Professor Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University.