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On Eschewing a Policy-Prescriptive Role for Science in Environmental Controversies

By Johnny Wei-Bing Lin

American Scientific Affiliation, 64th Annual Meeting, 31 July–3 August 2009, Baylor University, Waco, TX. Oral presentation on August 2nd.


Because science is the study of nature, and is assumed to authoritatively describe the state of the environment, debates over environmental problems are often debates over the science of the problem: What does science say the problem is and what we should do about the problem? While those who ascribe such authority to science may value theology and ethics, the content of stewardship is seen as flowing from the science: Theology tells us why we need to care for creation, ethics gives us standards by which we can evaluate how a healthier environment flows from and contributes to the moral life, and science tells us what a healthier environment is and how to make it healthy. In this talk, I will argue that for all its descriptive power, science is not, in general, "policy-prescriptive," and does not directly prescribe the content of environmental stewardship. Thus, debates over what constitutes an environmental problem (e.g., pollution, deforestation, global warming, etc.) and what practices are needed to fix the problems (e.g., air quality controls, land-use regulations, alternative energy sources, etc.) cannot be settled solely by an appeal to science: science needs the help of ethics to define policy. First, we consider philosophical arguments about whether science determines policy goals, and find that science alone cannot, in general, do so. Second, we consider how policy goals are translated into policy choice, and find that particularly for environmental controversies, science and ethics must together determine which policies to implement. Finally, we propose an alternative model of determining the content of creation-care with respect to environmental controversies, one marked by greater humility as well as a greater potential for success.

Updated: August 11, 2009. Author: Johnny Lin <email address>. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License.