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

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.

II 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.


11 thoughts on “On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Their Relation to Ethics.

  1. Don,
    As always, thanks for the great post and insights. That said, I’d like to add a perspective that will hopefully add to (not contradict) your very valid points.
    Albert Einstein observed: “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.”
    Science doesn’t magically redefine the universe itself or even redefine our quest to understand it — or even redefine some new sort of step-function between different degrees of probability. Just as there are things that I (as an individual) understand to a very high degree of likelihood (e.g., I’m a male) and other things that I understand to slightly lesser degrees (was I really born on January 22, 1959?) and to still lesser degrees (will I die in my 70s, 80s, 90s, or etc.?), the degrees of understanding that science gives us fall on a continuum and cover the whole map, so to speak. Science involves and offers us a great process for seeking and expanding understanding, and many modern tools to help us do so, but it doesn’t really alter the “purpose” or “nature” of understanding itself.
    This point is important to consider, because many people (for some reason) think of understanding that’s obtained via scientific processes as somehow an entirely different sort (“kind”) of thing from everyday understanding.
    Too (and on a different note) we humans have a way of defining people according to disciplines and forgetting that we are all humans. When the stakes are so high (as they are with climate change), scientists must live up to their responsibilities as full-fledged human beings. The rule is, with understanding comes responsibility. Period. There is no (real) excuse or “line” that says that a “scientist’s” responsibility goes only from ‘A’ to ‘B’ but not to ‘C’ and so forth. Those are mere conventions and don’t (or shouldn’t) get in the way of human beings living up to human responsibilities.
    I say this because, although your post is very helpful (given the confusions and mistakes that you mention, and that your explanations correct), yet it still assumes (or at least leaves the impression) that scientific understanding is of two types, or science has two roles (and by implication that it’s somehow different from any other understanding), and that scientists are a unique species of being, governed in their responsibilities by something more important or more defining than general human responsibilities.
    I think it would help to see two things: First, when the stakes are big, we ALL should live up to our responsibilities as humans: scientists don’t have any real excuse to only go to ‘B’ and not to ‘C’, ‘D’, or whatever it takes to bring about responsible action. With understanding comes responsibility. Period. And secondly, the fact that understanding was obtained via scientific approaches/thinking/expertise does not change the nature of its relationship to the question of responsible and ethical action. In other words, if “science” informs me that there’s a 50 percent chance that there’s a land mine where I’m about to step, or if I have determined that there’s a 50 percent chance that there’s a land mine where I’m about to step based on other means (my own observations, information from credible individuals, etc.), there’s really no difference in the nature of the problem: either way, my assessment is that there’s a 50 percent chance, and if I value my foot and leg and lower body, I probably ought not to step there.
    Scientists should be clear, honest, and live up to their full responsibilities as humans, not merely their (supposed) limited responsibilities as scientists. And the relationships between understanding and ethics (and ethical actions) are no different with understanding obtained by way of science than they would be with the same understanding determined in other ways that might yield the same degree of understanding, to the same degree of likelihood. In other words, “science” isn’t some big mystery that changes the rules, creates excuses, or etc.
    (Something tells me that I haven’t clearly conveyed the idea, but I hope what I’m trying to say is understandable enough.)
    Cheers and thanks,


  2. Jeff as always it is a delight to get your thoughtful comments. i agree completely with your comments.
    I think you know, however, that scientific journals usually require 95% confidence levels or other high levels of proof before publishing and assume in so doing that science is engaged in what I have called “research” science not public policy informing science.
    Most of the climate skeptics I have run into think that scientists should say nothing about risk until disciplinary norms of the sciences have been met. Yet many human problems thwart expectations required by epistemic norms of the sciences that determine when to publish conclusions about cause and effect.
    Climate skeptics are claiming that scientific statements about climate change impacts that have not reached high levels of proof are “bad science.”
    I agree completely with you that science should conform to other ways of knowing particularly when engaged in prediction of risk But there is huge confusion about this and scientists and engineers are often very inarticulate about their role when uncertain science is applied to public policy. It is true that scientists are taught to put probability statements around uncertainty and in many cases they have no option rather than making claims based upon their own subjectivity. Yet most people in the United States assume that we can frame environmental problems into two frames. Either there is a problem or there is is not a problem and scientists will tell us which box to check. The dirty little secret in many environmental matters is that there is deep uncertainty about how human actions will affect the environment and proof one way or the other is illusive. This is why we need a greater discussion of the link between ethics and uncertainty.


  3. Don:
    Thanks for such a good analysis. Unfortunately the public policy science is often identified a “junk” because it isn’t research science and this prevents it from being accepted in the courts.
    Your idea of public policy science is closely related to the Precautionary Principle which has been widely discussed outside the United States. It has legal standing in those countries that have signed the UN Biodiversity treaty, and the Protocols of Cartagena and Kyoto and recieved its best definition/formulation in the European Union.
    Bob Hall
    Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, Mexico


  4. Bob, thanks for your comment. I agree with your comment and would note that the United States already agreed that the precautionary principle applies to climate change when it ratified the UNFCCC in 1993. This treaty has the precautionary principle expressly stated.
    I would also note that public policy science is accepted by courts in regulatory matters under a “arbitrary and capricious” standard. There is actually good federal case law on this topic where federal courts have said that governments need not wait until all uncertainties are resolved.
    Don Brown .


  5. Don,
    Thanks for your comment, and I agree.
    On another aspect of the matter: What I don’t understand is this: The points you make are so helpful and valid, why doesn’t the scientific community — and why don’t the major scientific organizations — understand these points and reflect them in their strategies and actions? In other words, why isn’t the scientific community incorporating this thinking as it tries (as it should and must) to do a much better job educating the public, educating law makers, and insisting on the need for responsible action? Leading scientific organizations should be paying close attention to you and the Rock Ethics Institute as well as to other leading ethicists, most of whom would urge the same sorts of things (if they thought about them anyhow). So there seems to be a big “gap” between those who are thinking clearly from an ethical standpoint and what the scientific organizations are actually doing and not doing.
    Do leaders of the scientific organizations invite you folks to come and talk, or come to you at Penn State? Are they well aware of your recent paper regarding NVCD? Do they understand that scientists should be speaking out much more, and more clearly? All in all, how do we actually GET these crucial ethical arguments, and their implications, into the dialogue — indeed, as a first step, even into the informed dialogues among scientists, scientific organizations, and political and business leaders, not to even mention into the media’s consciousness and coverage?
    In short, how can progress be PROMPTED, soon? As you know (and I know you probably feel the frustration), ethical considerations and discussions are of very little good until they influence Ethical Action.
    In my view, I think we need to somehow achieve some sort of “critical mass”. If helpful and necessary, (and I think it would be), the passionate ethicists should meet and form a passionate (and sound and clear) critical mass. That critical mass should help provide stronger moral ground, moral support, and morale to the leaders of scientific organizations, climate change groups, and environmental groups, helping them to generate “critical mass” in terms of the ethical dimensions of their messages and the verve of their efforts. And each sort of critical mass should help bring about other sorts of critical masses. We need a growing snowballing of informed and energized critical masses! (Right now everything is fragmented.) And where else should that start, other than via a deeply grounded ethical understanding of the matter? In other words, of all folks, really, responsible ethicists and (practical) moral philosophers should be doing whatever it takes, at this point, to bring about ethically sound ACTION. That’s really the order of the day. Otherwise we’ll still be writing and reading papers ten years from now, while the GHGs pour into the atmosphere in ever greater quantities.
    In any case, what you’re doing is VERY valuable. But how to prompt action and real progress?


  6. Jeff; it is a good question why the scientific community is not speaking about this. I fault higher education for not making sure that ethics is integrated into science teaching particularly around the issues of uncertainty. I believe scientists in university shy away from discussing this because it is often believed to get engaged in this will undermine science. Yet there is no way to avoid these problems. As far as how to mainstream this, I am not sure. Your idea of having a conference is a good one. I am thinking about this.


  7. Don:
    The UNFCCC in 1993 didn’t really require anything of the participant nations. It was Kyoto and Cartegena that established the activities invoking the precautionary principle and the US didn’t ratify those.
    There is an interesting quote on the Protocol of Cartagena website to the effect that “Eventually the US did not sign the Convention because it feared that the the Convention would impede access of US business to the genetic resourcces of developing nations — which was indeed the object of the Convention”
    Bob Hall


  8. Dear Mr Hall. No, the UNFCCC established the precautionary principle in 1992 in Article 3. Section 3 and the US government adopted it.


  9. Hi Don,
    On another note, given the state of affairs these days, I think that it would be a great idea for you and/or Dr. Lemons to write a guest post on ClimateProgress regarding the question of NVCD, in which you can pose the question, discuss it briefly, and refer interested parties to your more in-depth article and also to other work on the subject. In other words, as you wrote, that conversation should start.
    And it should start for more than one reason. Of course, if NVCD is justified now or at some point, and if some people employ it, then what’s justified will have been employed. But even during a period in which NVCD is not yet justified, or may or may not be, the conversation is still an important, honest, and warranted one. After all, being aware of the possibility of it (NVCD), or the near-justification of it, and the growing dialogue about it, is important context as people contemplate the urgent importance of making the conventional approaches much more effective, and fast. For example, as law-makers consider how to vote — and consider how seriously to take the problem of climate change — they should do so with an awareness that if they don’t face and address climate change via their decisions and votes, then at least some people will likely begin to embrace other approaches to societal change, including NVCD, and justifiably so. So as you’ve pointed out, the conversation should start, and it should be a public one, an intelligent one, and an ethically responsible one, of course.
    Thus, back to the beginning. I think it would be a great and timely idea for you and/or Dr. Lemons — ideally both — to raise the topic in an informed, professional, ethical, and serious way on ClimateProgress. (My assumption is that CP reaches a broader audience, and an audience that should be involved and in the loop.)
    Sorry to raise this subject. It’s one of those deeply inconvenient subjects.
    Be Well,


  10. Hi,
    After reading your post I have a better understanding of what On Confusing Two Roles of Science and Thier Relation to Ethics. really is.
    Your post has the information that is helpful and very informative. I would like you to keep up the good work.
    You know how to make your post understandable for most of the people.
    Thumbs up and Thanks.


  11. Dear Don,
    your post was really informative and this is very interesting and most sensitive issue in the present world.climate ethics are most important for everyone.because these are an important role in climate changes.i agree with your argument,i think scientific measures must have been taken by the government in order to successful implementation of the climate ethics.


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