Recent Reminders that Science is not in the Service of Dogma

This is an inconvenient truth for those on opposite ends of environmental and energy issues.

One of the glories of science is that it is beholden to no one. From Galileo challenging the Catholic Church to physicists studying quantum mechanics and challenging the work of E2040_matters_9instein, science has always had a mean independent streak.  It has always had an insatiable appetite for deeper understanding as well, which is why scientific understanding frequently changes.

For these reasons, science and dogma are rare bedfellows – a point that has been underscored by several recent developments. First, as the New York Times recently reported, marine environmentalists have found strong evidence that offshore oil rigs have helped create incredibly rich new marine ecosystems.  This finding in turn suggests that in order to preserve marine life, oil rigs should be partially decommissioned (rather than completely removed) when they cease producing, a policy prescription that infuriates some anti-oil environmentalists because it would save oil companies money.

Second, as has been increasingly reported over the past year, there is evidence tying wastewater injection to the rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma and Texas.  These studies have angered many in the oil and gas industry as well as those politicians who favor fracking as a cornerstone of U.S. energy policy.

Third, many scientists believe that 2015 was the hottest year on record.  Although there are some disagreements over the algorithms used to account for external influences on raw sensor data, those who defend our current mix of energy sources are starting to feel some real heat.

Fourth, as recently discussed in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, there is evidence that the higher temperatures caused by climate change will kill thousands, and that these higher temperatures will also save thousands of lives that would have been claimed by cold weather.  The fact that “Some Like it Hot” leaves many environmentalists hot under the collar.

Rather than embrace the science they like, ignore the science they don’t, and seek to chill debate, politicians and policy makers should welcome scientific debate and discovery, particularly on environmental issues. Our environmental and energy policies would likely be more effective and less polarizing (and thus more likely to survive changes in political leadership) if they took a more holistic view of the best available science to assess the costs and benefits of various approaches, accurately evaluate the likelihood of various predictions/conclusions, and ensure flexibility and adaptability in light of uncertainty and the likelihood of changes in scientific understanding.

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