Is there something wrong with science?

What is scientifically correct is not a question of politics

Anyone who doubts the scientific consensus must do so with scientific, not political, arguments.

"Scientific specialization leads to political dependency." This is how one could briefly summarize the guest commentary by the economist Silvio Borner recently published in the NZZ. For Borner it is clear that specialized research runs the risk of "being taken over by state organs or associations". He cites publicly funded climate and energy research as an example. Borner does not regard the fact that the fact of anthropogenic climate change is being questioned within the scientific community as the result of serious research, but as a "strong indication of a historically unique science scandal". He also misses «critical voices from state-dependent research centers [. . .] in the climate and energy sector »and sees behind this a politically motivated consideration for state clients.

Made the goat to the gardener

It is now well known that a client can directly or indirectly influence the research results. Studies funded by for-profit donors are more likely to align with the commercial or political interests of the client than comparable studies funded by nonprofit or public sources. A sad negative example in this regard are the machinations of the cigarette industry. For decades she has manipulated scientific studies in order to specifically raise doubts about the verifiable health risks of cigarette smoke.

Against this background, Borner's warning against undue influence on research is to be approved - if one recognizes not only state organs, but above all companies as a possible danger to scientific freedom. It is absurd, however, to accuse climate science of being too united on certain issues. In the end, nobody would think of seeing the unanimous consensus of biology on certain questions of evolution as an expression of political influence. Worse still: With such accusations one elevates politics to the judge of scientific independence - and thus turns the goat into a gardener.

Whether a scientific result is politically acceptable or not says nothing about its truthfulness. Nor is it the task of science to criticize policy in principle. On the contrary: if political decisions are based on scientifically sound foundations, then it would make no sense to criticize them scientifically. In this respect, it is wrong to object to a lack of climate science criticism of political measures against climate change. One might object that there are more efficient ways than the Energy Strategy 2050 to combat climate change. But, according to Borner, efficiency considerations fall within the remit of economists. In this respect, it is also their task to identify more efficient measures to cope with global warming - and not those of climate researchers.

Climate change: not a science scandal, but a political failure

If the scientific consensus is no longer valued as the basis for decisions, but on the contrary is viewed as an indication of political influence, then science becomes the plaything of politics. Any unpopular result could be attacked with the claim that there is “too much agreement”. Independent research would only be regarded as something that is politically so insignificant that no one is interested in whether there is agreement or not.

However, it is not politics, but science that is decisive for the truthfulness of scientific results. After all, female economists do not immediately drop competition theory just because left parties regularly criticize capitalism. And if research has long since come to an agreement on certain issues, although politicians are still arguing about them (as in the case of climate change), then this is not a science scandal, but a political failure.

Servan Grüninger is president of “reatch - research and technology in switzerland”, a think tank for science, technology and society that aims to strengthen trust in science.