Science and Public Reason - book review

By: Gabriel Thoumi, CFA
December 03, 2012

Professor Sheila Jasanoff’s superb treatise Science and Public Reason, part of Earthscan’s Science in Society Series, is a wonderful book describing, through a collection of her essays and articles from the past 25-years, the rise of the field of Science and Technology Studies. The book could not have arrived soon enough, as we now globally face the triple threat of 1) massive biodiversity loss, 2) nutrient cycling disruption (greenhouse gases, Montreal Protocol gases, nitrogen fertilizer caused eutrophication, etc.), and 3) water quality degradation (saltwater intrusion, depleted aquifers, lack of clean drinking water, etc.).

Dr. Sheila Jasanoff, in Science and Public Reason collates a measured historical discourse, through her articles, explaining to us how the ascendency of science and technology into the public and political sphere impacted global democratic institutions over the past 100 years. This 100-year upward trend from superstition and ignorance to knowledge-based decision-making is described in detailed analysis via snapshot analyses at various sectors. This "scientific reason as demonstrable proof of practice" theme has allowed us to apply scientific reasoning to demonstrate how public good could be enhanced and improved, and then scaled to greater society through, for example, global public health interventions, which have resulted in longer human lifespans.

Yet, at the same time, as evident to all of us with even a cursory interest in climate change mitigation politics, advocacy, and policies, scientific demonstration has become the scapegoat, the boogieman, and the strawman of any institution or individual hoping to prevent society today, as a whole, from the benefits of mitigating climate change. These individuals and institutions conflate and on purpose confuse the intellectual and linguistic processes of "belief" with "truth" resulting in an obviously disregarding the demonstrable scientific process of hypothesis testing with proof for a political agenda based on "non-truth" even though these same institutions and individuals benefit each day from the demonstrable scientific benefits of improved global health.

This is why Dr. Sheila Jasanoff’s Science and Public Reason is a remarkably appropriate addition to the times we live in. As global climate change leaders conclude their first week of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties 18 (COP), in what some us call COP18.

Should we not ask why the effective alliance between science, technology, and democracy that culminated with the race to the moon in the 1960s has ended? While all acknowledge that scientific and technological advances have made our lives healthier and longer, explains Dr. Sheila Jasanoff, why then is our utopian ideal of an enlightened society based on sound scientific principles underpinning public policy unable to provide us a roadmap so that we can pollute less greenhouse gases, end massive biodiversity die-off, and stop catastrophic water pollution.

As Dr. Sheila Jasanoff describes, two types of responses are impacting our decision-making capacities. We are either in denial expressed by the "unintended consequences by well-intentioned individuals, institutions, and policies" crowd or we are in the "calculated risk management" crowd.

She summarizes by suggesting we need a new form of public accountability based on a democratic, scientific "new reason" approach, while expressly allowing for faith and truth to coexist, would result in governments renegotiating trust with their citizens and stakeholders, markets, and institutions. This would allow our trusted scientific processes that govern our institutions to begin immediately to mitigate climate change, promote healthy nutrient cycling, improve global water quality, and massive biodiversity loss.

How to order:

Science and Public Reason
Author: Sheila Jasanoff, Ph.D., J.D.
Publisher: Earthscan from Routledge
ISBN: 978-0415524865

Gabriel Thoumi, CFA, Climate Bonds Initiative Advisory Panel, is also a natural resource scientist.

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By: Gabriel Thoumi, CFA (December 03, 2012).

Science and Public Reason - book review.