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 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.