Business Ethics and Science Part 2: Climate Change

Two days ago, I blogged about Business Ethics and Science. I asked how businesses should deal with scientific controversy, and I offered a few possibilities for discussion. (Roughly: default to safety, default to freedom, and set some threshold for what counts as “serious” disagreement.) I didn’t get many comments.

Maybe a concrete example will help.

From the Wall Street Journal: The Climate Change Climate Change

…A growing number of Australian politicians, scientists and citizens once again doubt the science of human-caused global warming.

Among the many reasons President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority are so intent on quickly jamming a cap-and-trade system through Congress is because the global warming tide is again shifting. It turns out Al Gore and the United Nations (with an assist from the media), did a little too vociferous a job smearing anyone who disagreed with them as “deniers.” The backlash has brought the scientific debate roaring back to life in Australia, Europe, Japan and even, if less reported, the U.S.

The number of skeptics, far from shrinking, is swelling. Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe now counts more than 700 scientists who disagree with the U.N. — 13 times the number who authored the U.N.’s 2007 climate summary for policymakers….

Now, this concrete example should serve to illustrate the kind of scientific disagreement I’m talking about (or one of the kinds, anyway). But my question isn’t about climate change per se. Presumably whatever your answer is regarding how business should behave in the face of controversy over climate change, your answer will be the same regarding how business should behave in the face of other scientific controversies, right? Or rather, the particular behaviour might differ, because the degree of controversy might differ; but the principle or standard applied should be the same.

4 comments so far

  1. richardwilsonauthor on

    Hi again – maybe one component of the answer should be that businesses (and everyone else for that matter) should look carefully at the credentials and affiliations of those being cited on either side of said ‘controversy’ – be that climate change, smoking, evolution, or HIV and AIDS. With AIDS, we have a formerly well-respected virologist, Peter Duesberg, as well as a nobel prize-winning chemist, Kary Mullis, together with a long list of others, many of them also scientists, who have disputed that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Yet when you look in detail at the names, you find that none of them have ever actually carried out research on AIDS and HIV, and that very few had managed to publish anything on the subject in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    One odd feature of science is the extent to which well-reputed scientists can sometimes seem to lose the plot completely – or as the NY Times puts it “strike off half-cocked into unfamiliar territory”. Even the great biologist and contemporary of Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, fell foul of this tendency – going in to bat for vaccine denialism back in the late 19th Century.

    Perhaps one way of correcting for the ‘crank factor’ is to worry less about long lists of names and job titles than about the comprehensive picture painted by systematic literature reviews, such as the work done by the Cochrane collaboration. When we apply this criterion to HIV/AIDS the ‘controversy’ suddenly looks a lot less troublesome – the evidence that HIV causes the disease is absolutely overwhelming. I haven’t looked closely at the systematic reviews on climate change (and unfortunately Cochrane is limited only to medical science) but I’d guess that they might prove similarly useful.

  2. Mark Edwards on

    The best way business can deal with complex scientific issues like climate change is to let the scientists debate it and independently reach their conclusions. As far as global warming goes, the corporate world has not taken this approach. Rather than (among other unhelpful responses) funding front groups that support a few unqualified scientists who’s role it is to delay action, muddy the waters and confuse the public, the business world should expand their ethical horizons just a tad and let the science emerge without interference.

    Mark Edwards

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Fair point, about a hands-off approach. But that leaves the question of what to do in the meantime. In at least some cases, companies need to make marketing decisions — sell or don’t sell — based on the available science.


  4. richardwilsonauthor on

    I know that you’re only using climate change as an example, but it’s arguably not the best one to use for this particular point. Notwithstanding the opinions of Senator Inhofe and the Wall Street Journal, it’s far from clear that there is actually a genuine scientific controversy around any of the really substantive (and business-critical) issues on climate change – any more than there is a genuine “controversy” around HIV-AIDS, evolution, homeopathy, telekinesis or asbestos… In fact, it could perhaps be argued that the very notion of ‘scientific controversy’ as commonly portrayed in the media is something of a misleading caricature.

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