We need Judges, and Politicians, who are Scientifically Literate.

In today’s senate hearing Judge Amy Coney Barrett was asked about her views on

climate change. Her response, which we have heard often from policymakers, was “You

know, I’m certainly not a scientist,” she said, and added that “I have read things about

climate change — I would not say I have firm views on it.”

Imagine instead if she had been asked about her views on the Holocaust. Would

the response “You know, I’m certainly not a historian. I have read things about the

holocaust, but I would not say I have firm views on it”, been acceptable?

We have different standards in the public arena regarding scientific literacy

versus any other kind of literacy that should be expected from intelligent, educated

citizenry. At a time when almost all major policy questions—from health issues

including pandemic preparedness and response, to energy issues and national security,

have a scientific component—we should no longer allow the copout “I’m not a scientist”

to insulate public figures from the requirement of demonstrating they have sufficient

literacy to inform sound policymaking.

There is little doubt that a variety of scientific issues—evolution, genetics, climate

science, stem cells to name just a few—lead to in heated policy debates. There is an

important difference between policy and science, however. Informed individuals can

propose radically different, and potentially sound, policy initiatives on the basis of the

same science. But if empirical evidence is not used to inform, then policies are not likely

to be sound.

When I tweeted about my concern regarding Judge Coney Barrett’s statement

numerous respondents took umbrage. Some claimed that as a judge she merely had to

understand the constitution. Others felt my criticism was cloaking possible concerns

about her politics.

I do disagree with Judge Coney Barrett’s politics, her conservatism, and her

apparent religious fundamentalism. As an atheist I have little regard for religious

doctrine as a possible basis for policy. However, while I think from a political

perspective selecting a Supreme Court Judge so close to an election is inappropriate,

and I would probably prefer a candidate whose politics more closely reflect my own, I

have little doubt that Judge Coney Barrett has, by current standards, the intellectual and

professional qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice. Nor am I wasting energy

wringing my hands about what looks, for all intents and purposes, like a done deal.

I used the qualifier ‘by current standards’ not to demean Judge Coney Barrett but

to reflect my concern that we are provide a free pass to public officials to use their lack

of scientific credentials as protection against demonstrating an understanding or basic

science. Vice President Pence made a now famous, and ignorant, defense of teaching

creationism as an alternative to evolution in public schools when he was a member of

Congress. Evolution is not a political question, it is a scientific question, and the science

has been settled.

While evolution may have been a hot button issue in the 1990’s, climate change,

along with pandemics and public health, is clearly one of the pre-eminent scientific

questions impacting upon public policy at the current time. There is certainly room for

public debate about how to address human induced climate change, given the known

risks and known uncertainties, but the key aspects of the science, involving very basic

and fundamental physics, are settled.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, the abundance of which has increased from

315 parts per million to 420 parts per million in the last 60 years. That increase has

resulted in increased atmospheric absorption of infrared radiation emitted by the Earth

in response to incident energy from the Sun. In equilibrium, the Earth radiates the same

energy into space that it receives from the sun. Increased absorption of radiation

produces a thermal imbalance called ‘radiative forcing’ that is measured in Watts/cm 2 .

This has resulted in a global temperature change of approximately 1 degree C over the past

century. It has also produced a measurable change in ocean acidity. Sea level rise, due

simply to thermal expansion of water in response to the increased heat energy stored in

the ocean, has been measured, and will result, independent of issues of glacial melting,

and independent of future fossil fuel usage, in sea level rise of at least 25 centimeters

this century.

This is empirical science, not speculation, and whatever one may decide are the

appropriate policies to deal with climate change, these basic facts about climate are

something that should be used to inform those policies. And these issues are not just

relevant for policymakers but they may be of relevance to judicial decisions. When

deciding, for example, whether the EPA should be allowed to regulate greenhouse gas

production as a public health issue, understanding whether they even have the potential

to be a public health issue might be an important first step, for example.

When a Supreme Court nominee is asked about climate change, it may be

reasonable for her to say that she doesn’t see that as germane to the issue of her

appointment to the court, but it shouldn’t be acceptable to claim ignorance or

indifference. Similarly, bringing a snowball into the Senate in order to argue against

global warming should result in the same kind of public embarrassment that would

result if the Senator from Oklahoma argued that looking out over the dry plains in his

constituency proved the Earth was flat.

Lawrence M. Krauss is a theoretical physicist. He was Chair of the Board of

Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 2007-2018. His newest book, due

out in January is The Physics of Climate Change.

© 2018 Lawrence M. Krauss