Protecting the Legitimacy of Science in World Politics

This article is part of the Global Governance Debates series

By Peter M. Haas
Professor, Department of Political Science
UMASS Amherst


Organized science’s role in global governance is under attack in the USA, UK and at the UN from climate denialists and other groups who fear the regulatory consequences of relying on scientists and experts. Yet it can be defended through debates which invoke broader justifications for the utility and legitimacy of science than used by the critics of science. Through rhetoric and careful debate the political authority of science in global governance may be defended.

Organized science enjoys ongoing legitimacy in global governance as a privileged source of expertise used to attenuate uncertainty for decision makers. Until recently the reliance on science as a source of technical advice had become an institutionalized social fact. Scientists and politicians continue to speak of the need for scientific governance for making sound policy decisions.

Indeed, science and expertise have contributed to many of the major multilateral achievements of the post-World War 2 global order, such as: reductions in infant mortality, improvements in life expectancy, macroeconomic coordination and sustained economic growth, nuclear nonproliferation, advances in public health, and environmental protection.

“science enjoys authority in global governance because of science’s social reputation for usable expertise”

Science is an institution which confers a source of governance in opposition to rule by force or theology or plutocracy derived from dynasties, monarchies, or organized religion. Scientists are accorded authority because of the benefits they are believed to provide.

Without the regular provision of objective and impartial advice (or at least the confidence in the warrants behind technical advice) the governance of highly technical issues such as climate change, finance, and public health, among others, would fail and the international system would lose legitimacy in the eyes of those who value the effective delivery of public goods and the enhancement of social welfare.

And yet the authority of science to meaningfully contribute to global governance/world politics is now contested to an unprecedented degree since the Dark Ages. This challenge is but one new feint in a war of interests in world politics, where science is being threatened by populists in conjunction with corporate interests who have been threatened by the policy implications of scientific findings.

But the effects may be more pernicious than just undermining the technical foundations of effective global governance. As Hannah Arendt wrote:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world is being destroyed.

Populist attacks have targeted the political role of science nationally and internationally, focusing in particular on science’s impartiality and track record. In the USA most notably attacks started in 2007 after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize, indicating the surprising degree of political authority enjoyed by science. In the USA a concerted campaign, carefully described by Naomi Oresekes and Erik Conway in their 2010 Merchants of Doubt, aimed at undermining public faith in science as a way to shoot down what the fossil fuel industry regarded as the messenger of an inconvenient truth.  Individual climate scientists in the USA and England were publicly harassed by their governments, being asked to provide emails about their participation in IPCC reports.  The IPCC itself faced some scandals regarding transparency and accuracy of some studies on the consequences of global warming on Himalayan glacial melt. Under the Trump administration the Environmental Protection Agency has muzzled scientists, many mid-level experts have been fired in the administration and not replaced, and public climate change databases have been discontinued and removed from government web sites and from the internet.

Still, science enjoys authority in global governance because of science’s social reputation for usable expertise: that is expertise which deploys credible, legitimate and salient advice. Its power rests on its ability to exercise influence over states. But it does not enjoy uniform influence. Its influence – or power – depends upon the extent of legitimacy which scientific institutions command in the eyes of the relevant audiences. While science operates within a political space, there are clearly identifiable criteria by which political actors accord science and scientists with authority and legitimacy, and choose to defer to scientific advice.  Science’s legitimacy can be defended through rigorous contestation based on the roots which have supported its authority over the years.

The general concept of legitimacy is contested by scholars, but there is broad consensus on a variety of components that contribute to legitimacy. While it is unknown if these components are widely endorsed by audiences, and to what extent different audiences hold different criteria of legitimacy, satisfying more criteria is better than fewer. Legitimacy is a social fact, created by the actors who confer legitimacy on others. There is very limited empirical work on the legitimacy of science, or general criteria of legitimacy at the global level.

Practitioners and high profile science panel architects have reflected about the legitimacy needs for scientific institutions, reflecting an awareness of many of the features of legitimacy expressed in the academic literature. They stress the value of science in mitigating uncertainty and providing a range of policy options for states to choose between.

“IPCC reforms indicate a successful strategy to respond to the post-truth challengers”

The institutional designers and members of the science policy community are acutely aware of the need to maintain and preserve the legitimacy of their institutions, and design them accordingly. Attention to legitimacy has informed the design of international science panels, as well as in implementing institutional reforms for the IPCC to restore its legitimacy and authority.

To a large extent the response to challenges to the authority of science in the IPCC rested on invoking more general justifications of science’s authority than the relatively narrow ones used by science critics and climate denialists. For example, IPCC reformers (governments, the IPCC secretariat and the InterAcademy which drafted the report) defend the role of science based on its general professional reputation, encouraging the geographic distribution of scientists serving on IPCC assessments, and defending the impartiality and independence of scientists. In addition more transparency about how consensus is formed within the scientific community and how experts are chosen has been promoted. Moreover, the application of science to policy resonates with such broader systemic principles as embedded liberalism, sustainability, and national sovereignty.

IPCC reforms indicate a successful strategy to respond to the post-truth challengers. By stressing and applying a fuller list of legitimacy criteria for science the IPCC reformers were able to tap into broader beliefs about science, and hence circumvent the critiques. More generally, these international efforts to protect the role of science in world politics and defend it from challenges can be repeated at the national level and in other issue domains through reference to multiple criteria of legitimacy, and through active deliberative engagement with the critics of science.


This is the first piece for our debate on “Science, politics, and policy.” Read the response by Annabelle Littoz-Monnet entitled, “Science is Embedded, and yet Legitimate.”


Photo credit: NASA


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