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Makt- og demokratiutredningens rapportserie, ISSN 1501-3065

Rapport 48, november 2002, ISBN 82-92028-54-4

Ideological obstacles to scientific advice in politics?

The case of "forest rain" from "acid rain"

Nils Roll-Hansen


Sound advice for political decision-making is a main task of science in a modern society. However, there are indications of growing difficulties. Two kinds of sources naturally come to mind. On the one hand there are what we can call objective changes in the human situation having to do with the startling growth in human knowledge and technological power during the last few centuries. On the other hand there are what can be called subjective or ideological factors, namely how we look upon the human condition and in particular the nature of science and its social role. Conflicting views of science with different implications for its management and use are presently competing for attention and support, and these competitions or “wars” are not without practical consequences.

Objectively we are facing graver and more unexpected consequences of the effects of human activity on natural systems. This magnifies the problems of decisions based on partial and uncertain knowledge. There are also radical objective changes in the social conditions of science. The growth of knowledge, of the number of scientists and of specialization has reduced cross-disciplinary criticism and debate within science and at the same time increased the distance between advanced scientific knowledge and the general public. Together the alienation of the general public and the fragmentation of science are threatening to undermine the external criticism that is essential for an effective liberal democratic communication between science and politics.

This paper focuses on the subjective aspects of the problem of scientific advice, i.e. on the effect of our ideas about science on the advisory process. I will discuss how different ideologies of science can have implications for the workings of the advisory processes and for the way we form their institutions. Ideology is here used not in the negative sense of false consciousness but in the positive sense of “norms, values and arguments that serves to guide and legitimate action or activity”.[1] On this interpretation ideology is a necessary foundation for social activity and not something that can be dispensed with. But it can be more or less adequate or appropriate to the situation or task we are faced with. This paper aims to examine ideologies at work in present processes of scientific advice and to suggest ways of improving them.

The general discussion is linked to a case study from the field of environmental science and politics. In this field what I will call the “enlightening” effect of science on politics has been particularly clear in recent decades. By enlightening effect I mean the role of science in forming the basic aims and questions of politics rather than the means of reaching and solving them. Another way of describing this effect is that science is a fundamental force in forming the political agenda and not merely a servant in its execution, or that science discovers the problems and provides the conceptual means to formulate and think about them, not merely instruments to reach goals set by politics. I will argue that in present politics of science there is a tendency to emphasize the instrumental role of science at the expense of its enlightening role, and that this tendency can have harmful effects on the governing and use of science, in particular on the process of scientific advice.

The course and effects of global warming is perhaps the biggest question of scientific advice in present environmental politics. But in order to grasp and analyse obstacles to sound scientific advice it may be easier to examine a case where controversy has now died down. Forest damage due to acid rain received great public attention and had large impact on political decision-making from the early 1980s into the 1990s. The dramatic catchword was “forest death”. Today it seems clear that the fear of catastrophic damage to forests because of acid rain was greatly exaggerated, that it lacked a sound scientific foundation. Contrary to available scientific evidence pessimistic whistle-blowers were listened to and sober experts were neglected. In the following I will show how dominant public beliefs were indeed contrary to contemporary scientific knowledge and qualified judgement, and I will ask what were the mechanisms that promoted such discrepancies between public belief and scientific knowledge. I will focus on the case of Norway to illustrate and analyse characteristic forms of interaction between science, mass media and politics. The effects on political decision-making will also be discussed in a broader international context, pointing out significant differences between Norway and Germany for instance. Furthermore the role of specific ideas about science will be pursued by examining the accounts of forest death and acid rain in recent sociological and political science literature, asking whether certain inadequacies may be due to dubious assumptions about the nature of science.

The need to make decisions on the basis of uncertain knowledge is typical of much environmental politics. As it is expressed in a recent book on Science and Politics in international environmental regimes, “precautionary action will usually have to rely at least as much on tentative hypotheses and unsubstantiated beliefs as on ‘core knowledge’ “ (Underdal et al. 2000: 4). That forest death from acid rain was an illusion is a feature of this case that helps to highlight the problem of decision-making under uncertainty. The fear of forest death was crucial in securing a breakthrough for an international agreement on long-range trans-boundary air pollution in 1985. An immediate thought is that these agreements would be in jeopardy when the illusion was revealed. But this did not happen. Because there are other good reasons for adhering to such an agreement there has not been any serious effort to overturn the agreement. Still, it is problematic when sociological and political science literature neglects this problem and simply describes the role of beliefs in forest death because of acid rain as legitimate reason for the agreement. Does this complacency with poor science indicate a fundamental weakness in their ideas about the role of science in political decision-making?

The problematic influence of an instrumental view of science is a central theme in the following accounts and analyses. In situations with set goals and clearly defined problems the role of science can be viewed as instrumental. Science can then often provide means to solve the problems or achieve the goals that have been set by politics. But as already indicated science has a different role when it discovers new problems and sets the agenda for politics. The discovery of acid rain and its environmental effects was an important example of this enlightening role of science.

I will argue that attention to this role is essential for an adequate understanding and organization of the communication between science and politics.[2] Decisions under uncertain knowledge depend on openness to changing scientific insights and ability to sort out what is the most reliable scientific advice. If the political system is focused one-sidedly on the instrumental role of science and neglects its enlightening aspects this can blunt the sensitivity of the political process to degrees of reliability and uncertainty in scientific knowledge.

The approach in this paper assumes a considerable degree of realism in the interpretation of scientific claims, i.e. that they presume to give more or less correct or truthful descriptions of their objects as these exist independently of the investigator. More radical instrumentalist or constructivist interpretations of scientific knowledge claims that take this kind of correspondence truth to be mistaken or irrelevant cannot serve as a basis for the enlightenment role of science which I am focusing on. The point of such enlightenment is that it tells us about objects and events as they exist independently of what we think about them. It is this property of correspondence to independent objects that makes it possible to judge claims as to their (relative) truth or falsehood (compared to alternative claims on the same matter).

Especially when the strength of highly uncertain and contested knowledge claims is to be assessed such a realist perspective is important. In such cases a criterion of “truth” or acceptability primarily based on agreement in the community of scientific experts is insufficient. It is the strength of the evidence and the arguments that the contesting parties can produce in favour of specific claims that decides their reliability not the number of persons that support them. Even if all experts agree on the most plausible claim the strength of evidence and argument can be assessed. In fact this is routinely done in science when a claim is placed on the scale from working hypothesis (interesting guess), to claim that is probably true, to accepted fact (claim that is so well supported that it is hard to imagine how it could be overturned).

Social scientists in their accounts of the role of natural science knowledge in politics often rely on consensus as a criterion of truth. Consensus among serious experts is no doubt a good indication of the truth of a claim. But in the case of uncertain or contested knowledge a more or less exclusive reliance on this criterion is often of little help and can be dangerously misleading. There are other causes than the strength of evidence and argument that can lead to agreement among experts - common political aims, economic interests or cultural background, pressure from patrons, etc. It has been well documented by historical and sociological studies of science during recent decades that such factors can under certain circumstances completely submerge or push aside the dependence on scientific evidence and argument.

It is thus problematic to base an analysis of the role of science in environmental politics on a consensus criterion of truth, like many social scientists have done. Here is an example: order to qualify as ‘knowledge’, a proposition must be consensual or intersubjective in the sense that any competent scientist, applying scientific method correctly, will reach the same conclusion. Should scientific disagreement occur, there are two possible explanations: either at least one of the researchers is biased (i.e., not genuinely seeking the ‘truth’), or at least one of them has applied the scientific method erroneously (see, for instance Collingridge and Reeve, 1986). Accordingly, true knowledge can - with some reservations - be distinguished from mere knowledge claims by the operational criterion of consensus among competent and serious scientists.

(Skodvin and Underdal 2000: 24)

As I have argued, in much of the science that environmental policy builds on there is no clear consensus and therefore no operational criterion of consensus which politics can make use of. But this does not imply that no reliable assessment of scientific claims can be made beyond the criterion of expert consensus. The case of forest death and acid rain is useful in demonstrating this as well.


In the early 1980s public opinion in many European countries became convinced that acid rain threatened the forests with catastrophic destruction. The general perception was that a dramatic rise in damage to forest trees was taking place and that it was caused by air pollution transported over large distances. This fear of “forest death“ (“Waldsterben“) was a major factor in the development of anti-air pollution measures. For instance, Germany’s turn-about in 1982 in the international negotiations to limit emissions of sulphur dioxide has been attributed to the “discovery“ of forest death at that time.[3] Some forest scientists, especially in Germany, took on the role of whistle blowers. Others were sceptical. They saw the reports of rapidly spreading damage as exaggerated and found the prophesies of catastrophe to lack sound scientific foundation. But in the overall international picture the whistle-blowers were most active, or at least they were given most attention and had most impact on public opinion.

However, by the early 1990s the sceptics were vindicated. No catastrophe had occurred or appeared imminent. And closer studies showed that the health condition of European forests was not alarming. It appeared rather to be fluctuating within a normal range. Air pollution was one among many agents of damage. Direct damage from gases in the air was important in certain areas. But in general climatic factors like drought and sudden drops in temperature as well as fungi and insect pests appeared more important for the observed fluctuations in forest health. There was no substantial evidence for an international epidemic of forest decline due to long-range transport of air pollution affecting soil conditions. Reports were starting to come that forests were in fact growing better than before.[4]

The international work to limit acid rain progressed successfully even when the threat of forest death receded into the background. There were other good reasons for supporting this work, like damage to human health, to historic monuments, to buildings, to fish in lakes and rivers, etc. It is not an aim of this paper to investigate beliefs in harmful effects of acid rain in general. I will focus on the development of two specific beliefs, namely that there existed a widespread serious and rapidly increasing damage, “forest death”, and that this development was caused by acid rain. The acid rain controversies were concerned with a number of other issues as well. Important for Norway and Sweden was damage to fresh water life especially fish. But for a period from the early 1980s into the 1990s forest death was the dominant issue.

Due to its special environmental conditions, a Northern location and a sparse population, Scandinavia provides an interesting case. While environmental degradation from pollution is less than in more densely populated regions the harsh northern climate diminishes the vitality of the trees and other living organisms. Furthermore it was in Scandinavia that the long-range transport of air pollution and its effects on the natural ecosystems were first discovered. These discoveries were publicized at the United Nations environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972 and soon brought radical change to political thinking on environment and pollution. Air pollution was not only a local and national problem. It was also a serious international problem.

A pioneering research program on the effects of acid rain, “Acid precipitation: Effects on forest and fish“ (“Sur nedbørs virkning på skog og fisk“ or “SNSF”), was conducted in Norway in the period 1972-1980. This research program played a central role in the first phase of international acid rain research. It documented that environmental damage due to acid rain, was taking place in Norwegian rivers and lakes, and it developed methods and theories that became important for further research on the problem.

From 1974 to 1980 the Norwegian minister of the environment was Gro Harlem Brundtland, best known internationally as chair of the UN commission of the environment, and more recently as general director of the World Health Organization. In 1987 this commission delivered the Brundtland Report with “sustainable development“ as its key term and idea. During her period as minister of the environment the SNSF research program expanded greatly and its results were more closely geared to diplomatic efforts to regulate emissions of sulphur dioxide and other air pollutants. Both scientifically and politically Norway, in close cooperation with Sweden, played an important international role in the acid rain controversies of the 1970s and -80s. The SNSF research program and its political context makes Norway a case of particular interest for the study of acid rain research and politics in general and for the issue of “forest death“ in particular.

2.1 Beginnings of acid rain research

Acid rain in the sense of air pollution transported over long distances was a scientific discovery of the late 1960s. But the idea had been around for a century at least. In his play Brand, first published 1866, Henrik Ibsen had described how the smoke from British coal burning in the future would suffocate the lush green vegetation of Norway.[5] Building on earlier work of Swedish meteorologists, soil scientists and field biologists Svante Odén in the late 1960s formulated his theory of distant transport of air pollution, primarily sulphur compounds, causing acidification of Scandinavian soil, lakes and rivers. He also claimed that because of this acidification fish disappeared and probably the health and growth of forest trees was damaged. His ideas were first published in one of the main daily newspapers, Dagens Nyheter, and then in a scientific series from the Swedish national environmental protection agency.[6]

By the end of the 1960s acid rain was recognized by Swedish and Norwegian governments as potentially a very serious environmental problem. There was at this point a widespread view among Scandinavian scientific experts that acid rain was a main cause of the acidification of lakes and rivers which led to disappearance of trout and salmon from large parts of Southern Sweden and Norway. And there was growing concern about damage to forest trees. Most forest scientists were sceptical of Odén’s ideas on this point. But other biologists shared his worries. Two Norwegian botanists and ecologists, Eilif Dahl and Oddvar Skre, made a rough calculation based on certain theories about leaching of nutrients from the soil. They concluded that an accumulating loss in growth of up to 1.5 % per year was quite likely in Norwegian forests (Dahl and Skre 1971). An effect of this magnitude would imply enormous losses to the forest industry within relatively few years. It should also be large enough to be measurable, for instance on the width of the annual growth rings of the trees.

As a result of these Scandinavian worries about acid rain two large research projects were started in 1972, the year of the epoch-making UN conference on the environment in Stockholm. The first was the Long Range Transport of Air Pollutants approved by the OECD in April 1972. Prime mover in this international cooperation between the producer and receiver countries was Brynjulf Ottar, chemist and director of the Norwegian institute for atmospheric research (NILU). The purpose of this project was to test the theory of a massive long-range transport of air pollution from Britain and central Europe to Scandinavia and to produce reliable estimates of amounts transported between the various countries. The second was a national cooperative project initiated by a number of Norwegian institutions engaged in environmental research. This second project was named “Acid precipitation: Effects on forest and fish“ (“Sur nedbørs virkning på skog og fisk”, SNSF), and its main purpose was to investigate the possible damage to living organisms. There was close contact between the two projects. The Norwegian institute for atmospheric research (NILU) played a central role in both.[7]

It was the threat of radically reduced growth of forests that initially made the Norwegian government support the SNSF project. While fresh water fishery was of small importance forest industry had a central if declining role in Norwegian economy. But fresh water fish had great public appeal. The disappearance and death of fish soon became the driving theme of the project. It caught the attention of the public and paved the way for increased resources. SNSF soon grew to become by far the largest project that had existed in ecology and probably the largest research projects so far in Norwegian natural science generally.

2.2 The SNSF-project and its results

From 1974 on the ministry of the environment, headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, became the main financial contributor to the SNSF- project. The immediate interest of the ministry was to obtain data to support the international diplomatic campaign for restriction on emission of sulphur dioxide and other air pollutants. Acidification of lakes and rivers as a cause of widespread harm to fish was soon substantiated by the project. But no corresponding damage to the forests could be registered. The lack of documentation did not necessarily mean that forests were not in danger at all. Leaching of nutrients from the soil could be so slow that it would take time before its effects showed up. Preliminary results of the SNSF-project were summed up and discussed at an international conference for environmental scientists, managers and politicians organized by the Norwegian Ministry of the environment in June 1976. The purpose of this conference was to have the results of the SNSF project approved by the international scientific community and to publicise them to important decision-makers.

The lack of evidence for damage to forests was a disappointment to the Norwegian diplomatic campaign. And representatives of the British government with some glee made fun of Norwegian attitudes. In December 1976 a memo from the British Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), “Notes on the effect of European pollutant emissions on Norway“, reported that claims about damage to forests had not been upheld by Norwegian officials at the June 1976 conference, though “they claimed adverse effects on fish with renewed vigour“. “For them it is a crusade, the Norwegian minister is insisting on an extreme policy“, said the memo, and presented a dubious calculation showing that if Norwegian demands were to be accepted it would cost Great Britain approximately 500 000 pound sterling per saved fish! The LRTAP (Long Range Transport of Air Pollutants) project had demonstrated that a substantial part of the pollution that reached Norway originated in Britain. But the biological effects and their costs were still highly disputed. In the eyes of the Britons the Norwegians were exaggerating the effects, and lacked proper sense of the costs involved in repairing them.

British doubts were fuelled by internal scientific controversy in Norway. A Norwegian geologist of high international repute, Ivan Rosenqvist, sharply criticised the SNSF research in soil chemistry. He argued that the neutralizing capacity of the soil had been underestimated and presented an alternative explanation of the acidification of rivers and lakes. According to Rosenqvist the primary cause was changing land use. Grazing by cattle and sheep had diminished sharply since the late 19th century and new vegetation including spruce forests had taken over large areas. This change in vegetation led to more acid soils and was the main cause of acidification rather than air pollution.

It took almost another decade before British doubts about responsibility for acidification of Norwegian lakes and rivers was pacified. A new research program to follow up SNSF, the Surface Waters Acidification Program (SWAP), was financed by the British government, managed jointly by the Royal Society of London and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and carried out in cooperation between British and Norwegian scientists. This new program produced further evidence and finally convinced the British government.

But already by the conclusion of the SNSF project in 1980 there was broad international scientific consensus that long range air pollution was a much more important factor than changes in land use for acidification of lakes and rivers in southern Scandinavia. Among experts in acidification research Rosenqvist was an outsider in holding so strongly on to his alternative hypothesis.

By the early 1980s Scandinavian demands had not made much headway in the international negotiations over long-range air pollution. To the large industrial nations the costs of cleaning up appeared much too big compared to the damage done to Scandinavian fresh water ecology. Nevertheless Scandinavian research and diplomacy made a significant impact on international public opinion. The discovery that invisible pollution produced in one country could kill fish in another country more than thousand kilometres away was surprising and frightening. It stimulated the public to think about pollution in a new way as an international and global problem.

2.3 Reports of forest damage in the 1980s

It was only with the appearance of “new kinds of forest damage” (“neue Waldschaden“) in Germany in the early 1980s that the efforts to establish an effective international regime for diminishing air pollution made important progress. A change in public opinion was precipitated by the prospects of widespread and serious forest damage - “forest death“ (“Waldsterben“) as it was called in popular discourse. This sentiment was especially strong in Germany and brought about the rather abrupt change of the German government from opposing to supporting international treaties to reduce air pollution.[8] With German and EU support work progressed rapidly and a Protocol on the Reduction of Sulphur Emissions was set up in 1985 with the aim that sulphur dioxide emissions should be reduced by 30% as soon as possible and by 1993 at the latest, taking 1980 as the baseline year. Great Britain was among the countries that did not sign this protocol. [9]

In Norway great attention had been paid in the 1970s to acid rain as the cause of fish disappearing from lakes and rivers. This made the Norwegian public receptive to the new ideas about forest death emerging from Germany. Norwegian forest scientists on the other hand responded critically and demanded facts. They had already been looking for harmful effects of acid rain on forests for a decade without discovering anything of clear significance.

A wave of public interest in “forest death“ was triggered by the German news magazine Der Spiegel on 16 November 1981. The cover carried the title “There is something in the air“ (“Es liegt was in der Luft”) on the background of a picture showing a wood of healthy spruce being suffocated by brown smoke from factories. At the bottom of the cover it said: “The forest is dying“, and the article inside started with a grim warning:

In Westdeutschlands Wäldern, warnen Forstexperten, „tickt eine Zeitbombe“: Ein grossflächiges Tannen- und Fichtensterben ist, wie Fachleute befürchten, erstes Vorzeichen einer weltweiten „Umweltkatastrofe von unvorstellbaren Ausmass“. Denn der Auslöser des stillen Wald-Untergangs, saure Niederschläge aus den Schloten von Kraftwerken und Raffinerien, bedroht nicht nur Flora und Fauna, sondern auch die Menschliche Gesundheit.[10]

Forestry experts in Germany seemed overwhelmed by the reports of rapidly spreading new kinds of forest damage. They had been seriously worried about growing air pollution for years and now something dramatic appeared to be happening. Even if many were critical of the sensational presentation in the mass media there was little if any public protest.

In April 1982 a conference was organized by the Stiftung für Mittlere Technologie (Society for middle range technology). Its theme was: “Stirbt der Wald? Energiepolitische Voraussetzungen und Konsequenzen“ ("Is the forest dying? Presuppositions and consequences for energy policy“). The question mark in the title was somewhat misplaced. There was a close to unanimous agreement that the forest was dying. The question was only why. The introduction to the conference report makes this clear:

Es ist heute nicht mehr die Frage ob der Wald im Sterben liegt oder nicht. Zu weitflächig sind die heutigen Krankheitssymptome, zu Warscheinlich ist der zukünftige Krankheitsverlauf. Die eigentliche Frage ist vielmehr: „Warum stirbt der Wald?“.

(Hatzfeld 1982: 29)

Only the lone voice of a representative from the association of German coal producers (Gesamtverband des Deutschen Steinkohlbergbaus) maintained that the reports of damage were much exaggerated, and for support he pointed to the negative results of the Norwegian SNSF-project with respect to the effect of acid rain on forest growth. He also, in the words of the organizer, „tried to argue that industrial pollution was only one of many possible causes and in no way the main cause“ of recently observed forest damage (Hatzfeld 1982: 58, 10). Among the main speakers were the soil chemist Bernhard Ulrich and the forest botanist Paul Schütt who expanded on the ideas presented in Der Spiegel five months earlier. They were the two main scientific authorities on which the magazine had based its description of the sad situation in German forests. Ulrich now developed his theory of soil acidification leading to aluminium poisoning. Schütt argued that the many different kinds of increasing damage had a common cause, namely the increasing acid deposits from the air. This pollution had now reached a level that was critical to several components of the complex forest ecosystems (Hatzfeld 1982: 67-78).

The fear of imminent and catastrophic forest damage due to acid rain was propagated by scientists in a number of European countries in the 1980s. There existed widespread doubt and criticism within the scientific community of claims like those made by Ulrich and Schütt. The criticism came in particular from experts on forest disease and growth. They did not see the new forest damages as quite as new and dramatic and found that they could at least to a large extent be attributed to familiar causes. But it took time before this criticism was put in print in the scientific journals and it was not much noticed by the mass media.

The European fear of forest death from acid rain also made an impact in North America. In 1985 Plant Disease, the leading international journal in its field, published by the American Phytopathological Society, published a paper where Peter Schütt and a leading American forest pathologist, Ellis Cowling, described the “Waldsterben“ as a new and very serious kind of forest decline most likely having acid rain as its cause. Trees were “showing symptoms never seen before“ and “the time between first observation of symptoms and death of affected trees was extremely short“. They reported that the area of affected forest in West Germany had risen dramatically “from about 8% in 1982, to about 34% in 1983, to about 50% in 1984“ (Schütt and Cowling 1985: 548). These were official figures published by German forest and environmental authorities but soon criticized for poor methodology and set aside within a few years.

By 1984 German forest death made big headlines in the Norwegian press. “Forest death is spreading“, announced Dagbladet, one of the large national daily papers, on 27 March 1984. “In Germany 35 percent of the forest is either severely damaged or dead. The situation is similar for large areas in Southern Sweden“, the paper reported, and informed readers that the Norwegian minister of the environment “had already sounded the alarm“. However, the view of scientists at the Norwegian institute of forest research (NISK) was that Dagbladet and the minister were “overdramatizing“. What we know about the situation in Norway does not indicate any reason to expect such developments here, they maintained.[11]

The scientists at NISK organized a press conference to communicate more comprehensive and balanced information to the public. In their view the reports from Germany were exaggerated, Norwegian forests were in normal health and under no immediate threat from long range air pollution. The news program of the one and only television channel had reported on the calamities of German forests and sent a team to this press conference. But the journalists did not find the sobering information and judgement of the scientists to be newsworthy. It was not reported.[12]

This became a standard pattern. Alarming reports about catastrophic developments in Germany and other central European countries, as well as reports about damaged trees in Norway that could possibly be due to “acid rain“, were given large headlines in the newspapers, or ample time on radio and television. But the more precise and sobering information from knowledgeable experts, both about the so-called “forest death“ in other countries and about damaged trees in Norway, received much less attention. It was presented in small notices, and on radio rather than television, if mentioned at all. For instance, brown needles on the weather side of spruce trees near the sea was presented as a case of acid rain damage, possibly. But there was no mention that forest scientist later inspected the damage and found that most likely it was due to sea spray during a recent storm.

The mass media continued to present a selection of alarming messages with little attempt to provide the public with background knowledge that would give it some capability of judging the implications. “West-German forest is dying“ was the headline in Arbeiderbladet, the national daily paper of the social democratic party, on 14 June 1984 over an interview with the general secretary of the German union of forest owners. “Munich: The forest we are walking through is dying“, started the presentation. The readers were told that damage was widespread and rapidly increasing: 8 percent of German forests were damaged in 1982 and the following year it was 34 percent. And the cause was given without reservation: “For decade after decade diluted sulphuric acid has been poured over the trees in every rain shower. The trees have drawn their nutrients from a soil that has been systematically poisoned. Now the limit is reached – suddenly, in an almost explosive way, the trees are dying.“[13]

In 1985 there were new reports about great and increasing forest damage in Germany and other central European countries. Scientists at NISK once more ventured to tell the public that the reports were exaggerated and that there was no immediate threat to Norwegian forests. The damage in Southern Sweden was most likely due to drought and not air pollution, claimed professor Gunnar Abrahamsen.[14] However, the belief that Norwegian forests were suffering from widespread and severe damage due to acid rain had a firm hold on public opinion, including the political establishment. In an editorial with headline “Bad British manners“ the largest national daily newspaper gave full support to the Norwegian prime minister, Kåre Willoch, who had visited England and rebuked prime minister Thatcher for the “acid rain that destroys forests and fishing lakes in Norway“.[15] The claim about fishing lakes was well supported but not yet fully accepted by the British. For the destruction of forests there was no substantial evidence despite a decade of systematic investigations.

If trees could cry (“Hvis trær kunne gråte”) was the title of a book by a Swedish journalist and writer, Bo Landin, published in the autumn of 1987. It had been translated into Norwegian with support from the Ministry of the environment and carried a preface by the minister herself.[16] The book sharply criticised the scientists at NISK who refused to accept that Norwegian forests were damaged by acid rain. Landin was interviewed on television standing in the hills above Oslo, pointing to dying trees, and complaining about incompetent Norwegian forest scientists. The television news program gave no room for a response from the scientists. They had to be satisfied with the radio.[17] Thus the sobering information from the forest scientists was not directly suppressed. It was simply considered less important and received less attention.

2.4 Discrepancies between scientific knowledge and public belief

Systematic surveys of forest health were developed from 1983 on with Germany and Switzerland among the pioneering countries. Among experts there was from the beginning much uncertainty about the methods and disputes about the interpretation of the data. How much damage was there really? How did it compare to the normal state of the forest? What change from year to year was to be expected as a result of climatic variation, attacks by pathogenic fungi, insects, etc? What was the evidence for negative effects from long-range transport of air pollution? And how did this evidence stand up to a critical scrutiny?

In most countries the forest research establishment, traditionally concerned with the productivity and health of trees, was generally sceptical. Botanists and other scientists belonging to neighbouring disciplines were more willing to believe in a pending catastrophe due to acid rain. For instance, the book If trees could cry also contained an essay by two Norwegian botanists, “A Norwegian Story“ (Dahl and Høiland 1987). This essay did not object to the claims about catastrophic forest damage due to acid rain. It merely cautioned that although it was certain that acid rain killed fish in Norway, “the results are more uncertain“ with respect to the forests.

By 1986 the methods of the surveys were sufficiently stabilized to allow for reliable comparison from year to year.[18] When the first Norwegian surveys of the situation in 1987 and 1988 were published mass media reported that “the health situation in Norwegian forests is now as bad as in Germany“.[19] The main indicator of failing health was loss of needles (leaves) from the tree crowns. However, such damage can result from causes other than acid rain, such as drought, untimely frost, age, fungal diseases, insect pests, etc. The critics pointed out that the surveys showed that Norwegian forests were healthier in the South, where there was more acid precipitation, than in the North, where the climate was harsher. By this time it was also recognized by scientists as well as politicians in Germany that the early reports predicting forest death had been much exaggerated. The health of German forests was in general not dramatically worse than it had been 10 years earlier. In the Norwegian mass media, the loss of needles shown by the Norwegian surveys was nevertheless linked systematically and uncritically to acid rain.[20]

There was no disagreement among the experts that high concentrations of sulphur dioxide in the air was poisonous and had caused extensive death of forests, for instance in parts of the Erzgebirge on the border between the Czech Republic and Germany. Local damage due to high concentrations of sulphur dioxide and other toxic gases had been well known in Norway for decades. The disputed issue was the effect of much lower concentrations of sulphur compounds and other pollutants transported over long distances. The main hypothesis was that such pollution harmed the trees by leaching nutrients or creating poisonous substances in the soil. But journalists in the mass media did not take such distinctions very seriously. Many lacked the knowledge to understand the implications. Frequently their articles about the disastrous effects of acid rain, i.e., long-range transport of air pollutants, were accompanied by pictures of trees that were clearly dead from other causes. For example, pictures from the Erzgebirge.

Toward the end of the 1980s the scientists at NISK (Norwegian Forest Research Institute) became less active in their attempts to correct public opinion. There was a more restrained and accommodating line in the institutions’ public relations on the question of forest damage. Opposition to a majority view is strenuous in the long run and not conducive to economic support. New people had taken over the role as spokespersons. The director of the institute conceded in an interview that damages to Norwegian forests due to acid rain might be “of Central European magnitude“ and far more serious than first thought.[21] And one senior scientist said there was no doubt that the long term solution to the question of forest damage lay in a drastic reduction of pollution transported over large distances.[22] Such assertions could easily give the impression that it was now an established fact that acid rain was seriously damaging Norwegian forests. There was, however, no substantial new evidence. The situation had not changed since the end of the SNSF project in 1980, which concluded that in the long run it was likely that the leaching of nutrients from the soil could under certain circumstances result in reduced growth. But the amount of reduction was quite uncertain, and no such reduction had been found, despite extensive investigations.

By the late 1980s more sober and solidly documented reports on the health of German forests were being published. The picture of widespread catastrophe was gradually dispelled. The extent of forest damage appeared relatively stable and the importance of other causes than long-range transport of air pollution was more clearly recognized. For instance, a dramatic drop in temperature on New Years Eve in 1978 was thought to have been a major cause of the so-called new forest damages observed at the beginning of the 1980s.[23]

But these comforting reports received little if any attention in the Norwegian mass media. They continued to publish alarming information from Central Europe as well as from Norway, and the gulf between public beliefs and established scientific knowledge continued. With pictures and large headlines the Norwegian public was informed about diseased and dying trees with needles and leaves falling off. Acid rain was presented as the likely cause, though other possible causes were also often mentioned.[24] When closer inspection revealed that these other causes were indeed responsible – sea-spray, drought, parasitic fungi, etc. – this received little or no attention. Often the mass media relied more on the expertise of environmental activists than that of the forest scientists.

In May 1992 one of the large national newspapers provided background information for students finishing high school on topics likely to turn up at their exams. Here it was stated as a simple fact that 68 000 square kilometres of Norwegian forest had been damaged by acid rain originating in other countries. Most likely the journalist was not aware that this covered more or less the total forest area in Norway.[25]

The belief in massive forest damage due to acid rain continued to be expressed and fuelled not only by the mass media but also by the Ministry of the environment. In August 1993 the minister made England responsible for extensive forest damage due to acid rain. Leading national newspapers reported him as claiming that 84 000 square kilometres of Norwegian forest had been “destroyed” (“ødelagt“) by acid rain, and that in few years there would be “a loss in timber produce ... of several billion crowns“.[26] His claims about economic losses to the forest industry were based on reports from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and from ecologists at the University of Lund in Sweden. These reports were published as late as the early 1990s but largely neglected the new sobering information from the forest surveys and the forest scientist.[27]

But finally, by the end of the 1990s, reports on forest death from acid rain had disappeared from the Norwegian mass media and public fears subsided. In the long run such views could not be upheld when continuing surveys of forest health in Norway as well as other European countries showed a generally stable situation. For the two species dominant in Norwegian forests, Norway spruce and Scots pine for the period from 1986 to 1999, in Norway, as in other European countries, there were ups and downs and a small general trend toward more damage, as assayed by crown density, but no evidence of a pending catastrophe.[28] A number of recent investigations claim that for most of the European forests there is in fact an increase in growth due mainly to the fertilizing effect of the nitrogen content of acid rain. For Norway the increase is around 25% according to results from the official program for monitoring forest health (Solberg 2002).


How is this story about the rise and fall of beliefs in “forest death“ from “acid rain” to be interpreted and explained? And what are the implications for a general understanding of the relations between science and politics and in particular for the organization of scientific advice? These are central questions in this section. It will start with a critical examination of some of the literature in the field focusing on problems of the epistemological basis as indicated in the introduction. Influence from recent trends in the sociology of knowledge has coloured much of this literature with a considerable degree of scepticism with respect to the truth or reliability of the claims of natural science. This scepticism is expressed in the form of social and cultural relativism as well as constructivism. In both cases little attention is given to the more precise content of the science in question, e.g., in terms of the evidence and argument that the scientists present. The question is whether a satisfactory description and explanation of the role of science in environmental politics can be achieved without some kind of close attention to and evaluation of the scientific content.

It has been claimed by social scientists that the question of the political influence of scientific claims can fruitfully be studied independently of questions about their scientific justification. Resort to the consensus criterion of truth, as discussed in the introduction, is one way of making such an approach operational. The social scientist simply depends on the scientific community to decide such questions and takes a broad consensus at face value as a sure criterion of truth. As indicated in the introduction this approach may be more problematic and its limitations narrower than often recognized. Especially in the case of uncertain and disputed knowledge it is hard to avoid some involvement with respect to scientific argument or method. If nothing else this can happen by default, e.g., by accepting claims of environmental activists to be valid on par with those of scientific specialists. It is sometimes difficult to make a reliable judgement about who is a proper expert without relying on some knowledge about the field in question. In addition recognized experts sometimes make false judgements and amateurs present valid criticism. It is an important task for the public discourse where journalists play a central role to discover such cases.

3.1 Some social science studies of acid rain

From the late 1980s on a large number of books and papers were published on the controversies and politics of acid rain. Typical for most of this literature is that the occurrence of serious damage and the potential for a more or less catastrophic development was taken for granted. The political problem was simply how to muster sufficient political support for effective reduction of air pollution. This literature in general has little sensitivity to relevant distinctions in the theory of science relating to the reliability of uncertain knowledge, and it does not clearly recognize the importance of a differentiated understanding of causes of forest damage: What precisely was the type of damage? What causes were likely for the different types? What was the extent of various types of damage and how quickly were they increasing? Which claims were well substantiated, of a factual nature, and which had the nature of speculative hypotheses? In these respects the literature tends to mirror mass media reporting and public opinion without taking into account the arguments and evidence presented by scientific experts. No doubt it can be a legitimate approach for certain purposes in social science to make the beliefs of the decision-makers during the negotiations the central concern of analysis.[29] The question is how much this limited approach will tell us about the role of science.

In North America forest damage was generally a minor concern. A representative early study is The Acid Rain Controversy (Regens and Rycroft 1989) that mainly describes the North American scene. One of its authors worked in the United States Environmental Protection Agency 1980-83. Damage to human health, historical monuments, buildings and other constructions are emphasized. The account of tree damage is vague and reserved. Another American study, The Politics of Acid Rain. Policy in Canada, Great Britain and the United States, similarly emphasizes human health but is even less specific about the kinds of damage (Wilcher 1989).

In European literature the health of forests has been a dominant concern. A Study of Acid Rain. Rhetoric and Reality (1987) by a geographer from Lancaster University, Chris Park, discussed at length the effects on forests in Central Europe and Britain. From Germany Park reported figures from the same type of early official surveys that Schütt and Cowling had used in their 1985 paper. According to Park, while 9% of spruce forest in the Federal Republic of Germany was damaged in 1982, it had grown to 41% in 1983, 51% in 1984, and 52% in 1985. He cites the environmental informational magazine Acid News, published by a group of environmental activists as his immediate source. As a probable causal explanation Park presented the hypotheses of the soil chemist Bernhard Ulrich, that acidification of the soil leads to leaching of nutrients and formation of toxic substances (Park 1987: 102-3).

Park gave special attention to the debate in Great Britain. The Forestry Commission maintained that the British situation was normal: There was no indication of a new kind of epidemically spreading forest or tree damage. But the Friends of the Earth, inspired by events in Central Europe, launched their own survey in 1984. This gave a picture of dramatic tree damage in Britain and got extensive publicity in the mass media (Park 1987: 106-108). Park’s sympathy is clearly on the side of the environmental activists. However, his account does not follow the British debate beyond 1985, an unavoidable consequences of the date of publication. But within a few years the surveys of the Friends of the Earth were discredited not only by forest experts but also in the eyes of the public, and the claims were not even upheld by The Friends of the Earth themselves.

The picture of forest damage increasing on a catastrophic scale was quickly entrenched in the public consciousness of a number of European countries. As I have shown for the Norwegian case it took years before it was displaced by more realistic judgements. In the 1980s experts knew how misleading the foundations of this picture was but the public was not receptive to such information and criticism. Forest death was in this sense a “social fact” of great importance. It was a widely held belief promoted by the mass media and accepted not only by a broad public opinion but also to a large extent by government administrators and politicians.

Social scientists studying environmental movements and politics often take forest death from acid rain simply as an established fact that needed no critical scrutiny.

A significant example is the influential sociologist of environment, Ulrich Beck. His 1988 book, Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, simply states that damage to forests is increasing and “is currently around 53 per cent, an unimaginable high increase on the figure of 1982“, giving no further explanation or source of this information (Beck 1996: 44). With the massive environmentalist propaganda in the mid 1980s this lack of critical perspective may be understandable if not quite excusable. However, the second edition of Beck’s celebrated Risk Society, published in 1992 and widely used as a university textbook even into the 21st century, contains a number of similarly superficial and misleading claims about forest damage due to air pollution. Forest death from acid rain is one of the major examples of environmental problems that underpin the book. Due to industrialization forest destruction has become a global problem, Beck tells us. “(E)ven in the northern reaches of Scandinavia” forests are dying because of the acid content of the air (p. 36). There is a worldwide “rapid transformation of forests into skeletons” (p.55). And Der Spiegel is praised for its way of putting environmental science on the political agenda: “From the wealth of scientific hypothetical findings, publication in the mass media selects specific examples which thereby achieve the addition of familiarity and credibility that they can no longer attain as pure science” (p. 197). Beck does not appear to think that the difference between well-founded scientific support and the “credibility” produced by mass media publicity is important to his account of post modern “risk society”. It is a worrying sign of general social science neglect of natural science when social science students are relying this book to form their views of the role of science in environmental politics.

Another example of how the popular picture of the late 1980s has been taken over quite uncritically is John Hannigan‘s Environmental Sociology. A social constructivist perspective (1995). Acid rain is a central example and Hannigan uses Park’s 1987 book as source for his account of the British debate on tree damage: “Opponents responded“ to the Friend of the Earth report of 1985 “by branding the survey as scientifically flawed and Friends of the Earth as Scaremongers“ (Hannigan 1995: 142). Apparently he does not take the forest scientists criticism of the surveys by the Friends of the Earth very seriously and has not taken the precaution of looking at the development of the debate beyond Park’s account.

Hannigan is also quite imprecise about the types of damage from acid rain. For instance, he discusses the claims of damage to Scandinavian “forests and lakes“ without distinguishing the well supported claim of damage to fish from the unsubstantiated claim of damage to forests (Hannigan 1995: 88). What primarily interests Hannigan is the processes of communication that formed public opinion about the state of the environment and led to political action. Whether these views could be supported by factual observations and sound scientific arguments lies outside the perspective of his analysis. Thus there is little room in his account for understanding science as an institution with a special ability to discover new phenomena and correct earlier beliefs, scientific as well as popular.

Hannigan is not unaware that some of the claims about damage from acid rain were criticized and given up. But apparently he thinks that such developments are not important to his analysis. He only remarks that: “The harmful effects of acid rain on lakes and forests, for example, is constantly being discovered, debunked and rediscovered“ (Hannigan 1995: 99). The changes in scientific knowledge seem merely to support his attitude that the development of the scientific issues has little relevance to the politics. What the environmental claims are, and whether it is the same claims that are “debunked“ and “rediscovered“, seems to make little difference.

In Maarten Hajer’s The Politics of Environmental Discourse. Ecological Modernization and the Policy Process (1995) acid rain is the primary case. The book is frequently quoted and appears to be generally well regarded by social scientists. It is controversial for its theory of modernization but not for its account of the effects of acid rain. “Ecological modernization“ refers to a reformist and optimistic view of environmental politics. According to this view we are not faced with any immediate ecological catastrophe as was frequently claimed by the environmental movement in the 1970s; there is time to solve the problems without any drastic reduction in economic and material progress or radical changes in our social institutions.

Hajer compares the path to ecological modernization in Britain and Holland. In Britain the political establishment reluctantly and gradually gave way to the new environmental aims and considerations. In Holland politicians were much quicker to accommodate or co-opt the radical environmentalist views, and there was less confrontational public controversy. But the end result was similar. By the 1990s both countries ended up with much the same kind of ecological modernization policy. A moderate and reformist environmental policy had been accepted without any radical change in political approaches or institutions. Hajer attributes great causal effect to public beliefs in forest damage for the development of anti-pollution policies in the 1980s. Trees had a symbolic value that made them essential to the political drive. But beyond the original discovery of acid rain and its damaging effects, exemplified by Svante Oden, science played a minor and often negative role in the progress of policy on acid rain, for Hajer as for Hannigan.

Hajer presents the story about the controversy between the British Forestry Commission (FC) and the Friends of the Earth (FoE) in considerable detail based on interviews and broad reading of literature on both sides. He tells how the minister of the environment, William Waldegrave, in November 1985 set up a Tree Health Group that included representatives of the scientific establishment as well as the Friends of the Earth. Waldegrave “hoped to use the image of the dying tree as a lever in bringing about change within the government“ (Hajer 1995: 135). In other words he was acting more in Dutch than British fashion, cooperating with rather than confronting the environmental activists.

According to Hajer “pressure from Whitehall“ made the Forestry Commission (FC) “adjust its position“. He claims there was a “cultural shift“ in the FC and makes it appear as if it changed its stand so as to vindicate the claims of the Friends of the Earth (Hajer 1995: 132-138). However, Hajer does not provide any statements by the FC to make it clear what the change consisted in. Neither does he tell about the FC’s reports on forest damage in the following years. According to recently published official surveys there was indeed a deterioration of forest health, especially of conifers, in the late 1980s followed by an improvement in the early 1990s, corresponding to the running reports made by the FC.[30] This development fits well with FC’s claim in the mid-1980s that the situation did not indicate any great and growing effect of air pollution. Changes in tree health due to variation in climate and pest attacks was a regularly occurring phenomenon. Hajer neglects the development of knowledge about forest damage from the mid-1980s to the mid 1990-s. He only presents a figure that shows dramatic rise in the proportion of trees damaged between 1985 and 1987, from ca. 10% to ca. 50%, without giving any source for the figure or its data (Hajer 1995: 134). It could well be the surveys of the Friends of the Earth.

To be fair, some political science literature on acid rain is more aware of the limited validity of prevalent public beliefs. In Acid Politics. On acid rain in Germany and Britain Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen and Jim Skea, political scientists with a German and British background, take into account that the extent of forest damage was much exaggerated, and that already by the mid-1980s this was becoming clear not only to scientists but also to at least some centrally placed politicians and administrators. They write that Germany’s “great national crisis“ over Waldsterben ended in 1985 when the Kohl government informed the Bundestag that there was no rapid increase in forest damage and that the reported damage had a number of causes, not only acid rain. From then on the term “Waldschaden“ (“forest damage“) replaced “Waldsterben“ (“forest death“) in the vocabulary of German politicians (Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea 1991: 199).

But also in the account of Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea scientific research is a marginal factor beyond the early discoveries. After the harmful nature of acid rain had been discovered, the rest was a question of politics. The deciding factor was the political decision-makers’ belief in damage rather than continuing scientific research into the problems. Or at least this distinction between public belief and scientific knowledge has little importance in their analysis. In their own words the book is “concerned almost exclusively with the social, political, administrative and economic pressures which led to policy-making taking the particular course that it did“. It is “(t)he policy-making processes themselves” in the UK and Germany that is “the focus of attention” (Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea 1991: 3). This marginal interest in the science corresponds to the subordinate and instrumental role that is attributed to science in the book’s conclusion:

Science has turned out to be the servant rather than the master in the making of acid-rain policy in both Britain and Germany, although the nature of its role has been very different. British policy was less active because policy was understood to be driven primarily by the scientific assessment of environmental damage. More explicit account was taken of factors other than scientific evidence in the German policy-making process.

(Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea 1991: 277)

This instrumental role of science is supported by a comparison of the paths that Britain and Germany toward accepting international regulations on SO2 emissions in an account that depends problematic use of relativist and constructivist considerations. “The perception of environmental damage is not an objective process”, we are told, because it depends on a number of social and cultural factors ranging from economic and political interests to cultural attitudes to man’s place in the natural world. The political reactions to certain ecological damages can of course differ greatly according to such circumstances. But in the case of forest damage there is little doubt that scientists saw their research as striving towards objective conclusions about biological damage, and that scientific claims were seen as the objectively valid basis for political action by the political establishment as well as the general public. There is no reason in this case to suppose that the end result was not dependent on objectively valid scientific conclusions.

From the beginning the British government, relying on British forest scientist, did not accept forest damage as a relevant ground for reducing SO2 emissions. There simply was no good evidence that SO2 was a major cause of the forest death observed in central Europe in the early 1980s. Germany, on the other hand, accepted reductions on such grounds. Boehmer-Christiansen do not dispute that “Britain’s resistance to emission controls has repeatedly been justified on grounds described as scientific”. But they immediately add their reservation: “whether science was the rationale for establish policy or merely the public justification is less clear” (Boehmer -Christiansen and Skea 1992: 276). This reservation suggests that the reference to science was just a smoke screen for other motivations, e.g., the protection of British industrial and economic interest. But is it not simpler and more plausible to take the British argument at face value? Why assume that the British government participated in some kind of deception or conspiracy in this case? The British government stayed with its judgment and was vindicated. The sceptical forest scientists were roughly right about acid rain and forest death, and they had considerably better arguments than their environmentalist opponents. At the beginning of the 1990s, when Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea finished their book, there was plenty of evidence available both with respect to the actual situation in the forests and with respect to the methodical weaknesses of the early reports of pending catastrophe. Already at this point the case gave little support to the instrumental conclusion of science as a servant to politics, that Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea drew. It appears that also in their case lacking interest and knowledge of the ecological actual ecological problems and the relevant scientific research led to misleading conclusions about the role of science in the political process.

3.2 Self-interest and the reliability of science

The narrow self-interest of scientists is a serious threat to scientific research as an objective and sound input to political processes. This problem is not new but it is likely to increase with growing complexity and specialization of the research system. No doubt natural scientists are often too naïve about the objectivity of their own conclusions, as so many historians and sociologists of science have liked to point out during the last couple of decades.

In analysing the role of science in the politics of climate change Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen has provoked scientists by pointing out how tempting it is to publicize scenarios of catastrophe in order to obtain funds for their own research. She argues that “science, as an activity always in search of funding, has little incentive to say we know enough, because diagnostic knowledge will itself become increasingly redundant as the policy process moves from assessing a problem towards a solution“. The more funding of a group of scientists or a scientific institution is dependent on research into a specific politically controversial topic, the greater is the “possibility of an ‘unholy’ alliance between knowledge makers, reluctant policy-makers and potential losers“ (Boehmer-Christiansen 1997: 111-2). In other words powerful international companies in the energy business, responsible for emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere, politicians reluctant to loose their support, and scientists whose research thrive on continued controversy may have a common interest in dragging their feet. For scientists the continuation of their research may take priority over solving the environmental problem. Financial dependence makes for reluctance to produce and publish data and theories that may jeopardize the aims of their patrons and is, of course, a problem for all science and scholarship that is funded more or less directly by those interested in its practical relevance. It is a threat to scientific objectivity that needs to be taken very seriously. In view of new tendencies in science policy aiming to integrate basic and applied research more closely into a system for knowledge production more closely linked to practical political and economic purposes the problem is likely to increase in coming years.[31]

Boehmer-Christiansen assumes that the science associated with the international Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) is flawed by such self-interest. She claims to demonstrate this by adopting a model of analysis where “science ceases to be viewed as the provider of objective knowledge, arbiter of disputes and source of authority“. She does no want to deny that “science may well do all this“ but “hopes to show that the IPCC should be studied as a political institution acting in the interest of ‘science’ and research bodies rather than environmental protection“ (Boehmer-Christiansen 1997: 113-14). In other words, in the case of the IPCC science has acted in its own interest, to survive and expand as a particular institution, rather than in the common societal interest of solving environmental problems.

This appears as a rather narrow view of the political role of climate research of recent decades. Even if self-interest has been an important factor in deciding some conclusions it appears that this research has also served our common social interests by providing us with genuine understanding of climate change. The threat of global warming was discovered by science and Boehmer-Christiansen’s own argument about self-serving science is quite dependent on accepting this discovery as an objective and valid insight. The model that she recommends is problematic because it does not leave proper room for the genuinely objective side of science. A provoked climate researcher might well ask if she is pushing her relativist and sceptical model in search of results that are sufficiently striking to secure funds for her own research.

No doubt there are cases in environmental politics where further research “is really irrelevant to any outcomes, except to scientists themselves“ (Boehmer-Christiansen 1997: 116). This may be true for particular parts of climate research. But a sound judgment of this question can hardly be reached without evaluating the soundness of the natural science evidence and argument. Boehmer-Christiansen is not very careful about the limitations of her sceptical claims. She gives them a generality that is in conflict with her own basic assumption that global warming is a real threat and not simply a result of “social construction” without basis in objective knowledge about nature. Thus the relevance of her claims for science or climate policy are not clear. To make sensible judgments on this question we need a framework that includes the insights of natural as well as social sciences. The problem of self-interest is likely to be no smaller for social than in natural science research.

Nevertheless, Boehmer-Christiansen’s critical analysis is important and useful. It reminds us how important it is to uphold methodological ideals and organizational structures that can form a science that will serve society as a whole rather than narrow scientific self-interests in cooperation with particular patrons. However, this is hardly a new problem and historical experience indicates that it can be kept at bay.

3.3 Mass media, science, and public illusions

What was the role of mass media and science respectively in forming the public beliefs about acid rain and forest death? We have seen that in the case of Norway forest experts in the first phase were critical of the mass media reports about “Waldsterben” in central Europe and held that in any case such a catastrophic development of forest damage was quite unlikely in Norway. But the mass media reports prevailed over the critical and sobering information and judgment from the scientists. And Norwegian politics led by the Ministry of the environment followed public opinion.

But the situation differed between countries. The strong divergence between the judgment of forest scientists and the picture presented by the mass media was special for Norway. In Britain the forest scientist had much the same attitude as in Norway. But the fear of “Waldsterben” never gained any strong hold on public opinion. Politicians and mass media showed only moderate interest in the problem. In central Europe, however, mass media acted in concert with leading forest scientists in forming a massive public belief in “Waldsterben”.

A thorough study of the scientific and public discourse on “forest death“ in Switzerland has been carried out by Wolfgang Zierhofer (1999). Due to the close links between Swiss and German culture this study also provides good insight into the German situation. It confirms the general picture of initial political disagreement, an illusory scientific discovery and mislead public opinion, and final convergence to a scientifically sound conclusion that I have described in the preceding. But the role of local scientific community in the path to the consensus of the late 1990s is different from that in Norway or Britain. In Switzerland the belief in forest death from acid rain had strong promoters among forest experts. The majority of forest scientists rather uncritically accepted “Waldsterben” as a real phenomenon. With respect to air pollution and more specifically long range transport there was more doubt. But only by the early 1990s was there a clearly expressed majority opinion among Swiss forest experts that the threat had been much exaggerated and that air pollution was not a general cause of what had been recognized as “new forest damages”.

Inspired by Jürgen Habermas’ ideal of open and critical democratic communication and the duty to follow the best argument Zierhofer demonstrates the methodological weaknesses of the early scientific consensus. Lack of clear concepts made “Waldsterben” an elusive phenomenon, and a strong public opinion in favour of environmental protection and against pollution made it difficult to formulate and get a hearing for theories that made the “neue Waltschaden” less threatening. Zierhofer shows how mere circumstantial evidence for causal links was taken for solid proof, how critics were rendered suspect by dubious rhetoric, and how it was argued that this was a situation of distress that demanded action rather than discussion.[32]

Only by 1987-88 did more serious criticism within the scientific community make a public impact. In August 1988 the new director of the Swiss national forest research institute (EAFV)[33] gave his first general report on the problem of forest damage arguing that air pollution was only one among several important causes for recent forest damages and defused the picture of a threatening catastrophe. This change of perspective was also picked up by the press and presented to the public (Zierhofer 1999: 113-4). A similar change took place in Germany at about the same time. The influential weekly Die Zeit published sobering information about the extent of damages and their likely causes[34], and in the big handbook Die Fichte (Schmidt-Vogt 1989) the “neue Waldschaden” were presented as normal though serious enough problems of forestry in an industrialized environment. But it still took some years, until 1992-93, before the time of drastic headlines on forest death was definitively past in Switzerland (Zierhofer 1999: 114-18).

Zierhofer describes the episode of “Waldsterben” in Switzerland in the decade roughly between 1982 and 1992 as a grand public illusion constructed in cooperation between scientists and mass media journalists. There were in fact no good reasons to fear “Waldsterben” in central Europe and a properly functioning science in cooperation with properly functioning mass media should have been able to give the public a more correct picture of the situation.[35] Zierhofer finds science guilty of weak ability to discover its mistakes and reluctance to admit them (“zähflüssiges Selbstkritik“), and also a lacking sense of its obligation to give the public objective information relevant to current issues and critical perspectives on current dogma. The mass media on their side did not live up to their role as a forum for an argumentative democratic culture, nurturing a balanced and well-informed public debate (Zierhofer 1999: 250-3).

Why did science fail sooner to reveal the mistakes on which the public belief in “forest death“ was founded? Zierhofer points to the political expectations that scientists were surrounded by. Pressure from politicians and public opinion was mediated through large research programs made it almost a duty for scientists to prove the existence of “Waldsterben”.[36] Under this pressure the scientific culture of criticism was suppressed. It took a long time before it managed to break through the ideological obstacles.

No doubt the interaction between the two institutions of mass media and science lies at the core of an adequate understanding of the case, and the responsibility must be shared. The staunch attitude taken by scientists at the Norwegian forest research institute in the early phase represented a genuine critical scientific culture that was no doubt present throughout the international community of forest scientists. But it was more clearly expressed here than in central Europe. An important reason for the public engagement of this particular group of scientists was probably their background in the large SNSF project of 1972 to 1980 investigating possible damages of acid rain to forest and fish. As mentioned one important result was that damage to forests from acid rain could not be substantiated. Furthermore, experience from this project had sensitised them to the problem of political pressure undermining scientific objectivity. But also in this case the pressure from political authorities and public opinion made its mark, as I have pointed out. By the late 1980s the most outspoken critics became much less active in public discourse. The place as public spokesmen for the institute was taken by people more accommodating to the public belief in the threat of “Waldsterben”.

I will now point briefly to some features of the mass media and their relations to the public that are likely to produce just the kind of illusion which occurred in the case of “Waldsterben”. The mass media play a relatively minor role in the communication of precise instrumental knowledge needed to solve technical tasks, but they are a major channel for the enlightening effect of scientific research. In a liberal democratic society the mass media are supposed to provide the public with balanced information about current political issues. The case of forest death from acid rain is thus a serious challenge to a democratic political system. It shows how the discourse of the mass media can promote biased beliefs among the general public as well as political decision-makers.

There is little reason to assume conspiracy or ill will in order to explain how mass media can contribute to the production of mistaken public beliefs. Neither is it necessary to introduce theories of how scientific knowledge is formed, more or less without the scientists’ awareness, through social and cultural “construction“ mechanisms. The biased beliefs are rather an arbitrary by-product of economic conditions. Journalism in the modern mass media works under severe “constraints“ resulting from the commercial nature of the enterprise. Sharp economic competition promotes sensations because they sell. It also sets time limitations that discourage thorough investigations (Nelkin 1987: 109-113). Thus the “constraints“ of journalism undermines precision, balance, and completeness of information, all needed for the formation of sound public opinion.[37]

My account of how the belief in forest death developed in Norway also points to a simple selection mechanism in mass media communication: The media repeatedly presented examples of forest damage that some expert agreed could possibly be due to acid rain. Other possible explanations of more familiar nature were seldom mentioned because they were less newsworthy. When later investigations pointed to such other causes as the likely explanation of damage this received little or no notice. For similar reasons little effort was devoted to general background knowledge that would facilitate sound interpretation of specific stories. For instance the mass media in the mid-1980s emphasized the increasing damage in the South of Norway and neglected comparison with figures for the rest of the country, which showed that damage was greater in the North where there was less acid rain. There was no market for such sobering information. It was unlikely to attract a large audience.

Over time selective information with a particular tendency will create beliefs biased in that direction. This is likely to happen even if each instance includes a reservation. What stuck was the picture of extensive forest death caused by acid rain, not the reservation that possibly the damage was not so extensive or that it had other causes, that possibly there was no real threat of forest death. The legitimate role of a precautionary attitude on the level of politics can thus be transformed into an illusion on the level knowledge. There are good reasons to set high standards for evidence that certain technological practices are not harmful and can be allowed, but it can be highly misleading if the knowledge on which the political judgments are based becomes biased by such precaution.

3.4 How important has science been for SO2 treaties?

There is broad agreement that scientists’ “discovery” of “Waldsterben” and its cause in acid rain in the early 1980s was decisive bringing about the first important step in international control of trans-boundary air pollution in 1985. But, as I have showed there is no agreement that science continued to have a key role in the development of an international regime for the control of trans-boundary air pollution. On the contrary social science studies tend to hold that except for the initial boost scientific research played a marginal role (Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea 1991, Haajer 1995). That the belief in forest death caused by acid rain was false seems to be taken as a confirmation of the peripheral role of science rather than a disconcerting problem for political science: As long as it was widely believed in it played an important role, as a belief. But once started the process kept going on its political momentum. The triggering belief was no longer needed because other beliefs took over. When the analysis limits its perspective to beliefs themselves as causal factors the falsity of driving beliefs does not appear a pressing problem for political rationality.

A closer analysis of the case of forest death and acid rain, with emphasis on a longer time perspective, shows how misleading it can be not to take scientific validity of the effective political beliefs into consideration. A reconciliation of policy with more correct beliefs about the effects of acid rain was essential to the continued success of negotiations and the establishment of an effective regime of control. Great Britain only entered the agreements after it was acknowledged that “Waldsterben” from long-range transport of air pollution was not necessarily a valid argument. A number of other clarifications through scientific research were also essential to the continued and broadening agreement about limitations on emissions. Through scientific research the knowledge about damage from acid rain and air pollution more generally was developed and refined into a sound basis for the international agreements on pollution control. For instance, the difference of “acid rain”, in the special sense of long-range transport of air pollution, from more local air pollution was important. While the former was the supposed cause of unexpected sneaking forest death, the latter was a familiar cause of damage to health, to buildings, outdoor sculpture, etc. Likewise differentiation between damage to fish and lakes and damage to forest was important. The former had been confirmed by thorough scientific investigations in the 1970s, while the latter was remained a speculative hypothesis, sometimes useful in political negotiations, but without solid scientific support. However, political authorities often seemed unaware of this difference between a well-substantiated claim and a speculative hypothesis. As mentioned in the case of Norway, the Minister of the environment claimed great damages to Norwegian forests from acid rain as late as 1993.

Acid rain, or long-range transport of pollution, had special importance for international negotiations since this was the part where cooperation across national borders was essential. Most of the acid rain pollution impinging on Norwegian and Swedish nature was produced in other countries. This was one reason why Sweden and Norway were first to raise the issue of long-range air pollution internationally. The claim that pollution from Britain and the European continent caused damage to Scandinavian nature at first appeared spectacular and incredible. But the unexpected character increased the impact of the claims as evidence accumulated. However, as we have seen, Scandinavian fears of damage to living nature were only in part substantiated. There was clear damage to fresh water fish, but damage to forests was substantiated. Thus damage to natural ecosystems due to long-range transport of air pollution constituted only a small part of the factual scientific basis for the regime of air pollution that has been established. On the other hand damages to human health, buildings, historic monuments, etc. were confirmed by scientific investigations. To the large producers of air pollution these were weightier reasons for reducing the emission than damage to fresh water life and forests by acid rain, and they remained when forest death was revealed as an illusion.

Thus policies on air pollution, including acid rain, in Germany and Britain as well as the Scandinavian countries converged nicely towards a scientifically sound conclusion. Without this convergence the treaties could not remain viable. An adequate account of historical background of the situation at the end of the 1990s should take this into account.

However, at the beginning of the 21st century there is still a tendency to neglect significant disagreements over the scientific issues and their change over time and thus cover up the more precise role of science. In an analysis published in 2000 it is claimed that in a public hearing of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Health and Consumer Protection in 1983 “all agreed that the adverse effects of acid rain was clear”, and that “we have good evidence to assume that the existing scientific evidence was very much accepted” by the states which signed the 1985 SO2 protocol.[38] There may have been agreement that acid rain had adverse effects at hearing in 1983 but hardly any precise agreement on what these effects were. Likewise in 1985 there was hardly a precise agreement on what the acceptable scientific evidence was. It is striking that this account does not mention the deep scientific uncertainty and disagreement that existed at this time and that the crucial “fact” of “Waldsterben” was an illusion. It is misleading to claim that only the USA “gave very much weight to scientific uncertainty in its explanation for not joining the agreement”. The UK also held the evidence for acid rain as cause of “Waldsterben” to be too uncertain to accept.

By not paying attention to the more precise nature of the damage and the broader historical context the enlightening effects of science are obscured and a limited instrumental picture of the role of natural science emerges form this analysis. The continued importance of natural science research is overlooked. Forest damage is briefly touched on a couple of times, but it is not mentioned that in the early initiatives of the Scandinavian countries around 1970 it was the fear of forest damaged that was the heavy argument for limiting SO2 emissions. The “damage to fish and lakes“ (Wettestad 2000: 95), which is mentioned, was much less important. We learn that the “’Waldsterben’ uproar“ was important for Germany’s change of mind (Wettestad 2000: 99), but not that it was an illusion, that there was no “Waldsterben“. In this way the development of scientific issues of fundamental importance to the politics of acid rain are left out of sight and it is not surprising that, after the initial phase, research on the biological effects of acid rain is perceived to have had little importance for politics. In analysing the role of scientific research in course of acid rain diplomacy it is misleading to concentrate on long distance transport of pollution and neglect the question of biological effects.[39] In the first area research developed relatively smoothly with little radical controversy, but in the second area sharp scientific controversies and radical changes in public perception.

3.5 Designing a role for science in environmental politics

It is not only for acid rain negotiations and international air pollution regimes that science is considered to have played a minor role in recent decades. This is often considered to be a general tendency for the whole field of environmental politics. “A review of most of the international treaties negotiated since the 1972 Stockholm conference shows that scientific evidence has played a surprisingly small role in issue definition, fact-finding, bargaining, and regime strengthening”, claims Lawrence Susskind of MIT and Harvard University in his influential book Environmental Diplomacy. Negotiating More Effective Global Agreements.[40] Susskind himself argues that this role should be strengthened through a “Better Balance Between Science and Politics“(Susskind 1994, chapter 4) and sees the separation of science and politics as a fundamental problem that must be overcome. He insists that in order to give science its due influence, and make negotiations as effective as possible, science and politics must not be separated, as many politicians and political scientists aim to, but “balanced”. But is it the best metaphor for the integration that is needed? “Balance” suggests the picture of two separate activities in some kind of competition. Perhaps it is their integration into unified judgments of decision-making that is the fundamental problem, a hurdle that grows higher with steady increase in the extent of scientific knowledge and specialization? How to organize science and its relations to politics and the general public to facilitate such integration may be the main challenge of sound scientific advice in the future. Certainly this is also the general aim of Susskind, but how adequate are his ideas about science?

In searching for a better balance between science and politics Susskind starts from a view of global environmental negotiations as a set of more or less consecutive processes, “issue definition, fact-finding, bargaining, and regime strengthening“. It is the “use” of science in each of these processes that is at issue. Current literature holds that “(t)owards the end of the bargaining process, scientific evidence becomes less and less important, while political give-and-take dominates”. Susskind argues that the distortions of public perception that the sensationalism of the mass media creates could probably be counteracted by giving scientists a larger role in issue definition (Susskind 1994: 62-64).

The case of forest death and acid rain suggests that the literature Susskind refers to is missing something important about the involvement of science in environmental politics, namely what I have called its enlightening role. It can be argued that the issues are not defined at the beginning to remain fixed for the rest of the process. If the negotiations are extended over a considerable time the issues need scientific confirmation. New knowledge will often imply that their definition change. Sometimes the change is insignificant but in other cases it can be important, as in the acid rain example. Even if decision on a specific issue remains the same the rationale may be different. And under different circumstances this could have led to different actions. I have pointed out how social science accounts of acid rain politics are superficial in the analysis of the scientific rationale and tend to neglect its changes. So perhaps to help political science see how natural science can play a more effective role in issue definition it must first learn to see more precisely how new knowledge changes in the issues.

Susskind is also worried about the epistemic relativism implicit in some accounts of the role of science in international negotiations. For instance Peter Haas’ idea that “epistemic regimes“ carried by trans-national groups of scientists and bureaucrats can set the agenda and promote solutions of environmental problems behind the backs of ordinary politicians and the public, and that it may be a good thing that they do so. In Susskind’s opinion “it would be disastrous if scientists became nothing more than just another interest group pushing their own agenda“. Instead we need scientists who build “understanding of the consequences of technical findings within their countries, while maintaining their external ties to independent scientific organizations that can vouch for the adequacy of important scientific findings“. In this way scientists, like politicians, “must work to maintain a balance between technical and political considerations“ (Susskind 1994: 75-6). This argument as well points to the importance of the broader perspective that I have characterized as enlightening as opposed to instrumental.


The central concern of this paper is scientific advice in a broad sense and not only the instrumental use of science. It is argued that a narrow focus on the instrumental use of science can have misleading consequences in practical politics as well as in the study of politics. This problem is increased by some problematic epistemological views that have in recent decades been associated with an instrumental view of the social role of science. In social science studies the instrumental perspective has often been combined with relativist and constructivist views dismissive of traditional concepts of objective scientific knowledge. I have indicated how such factors can contribute to the production of biased public opinion and how the mass media can play a central role in enhancing the effects. Or in other words, how they can act as ideological obstacles to sound scientific advice.

In cases where the natural science aspects of phenomena and problems are relatively clearly defined, and the knowledge about them stable and reliable, the role of natural science in environmental politics can be primarily instrumental. In such cases it is often research on the social aspects of the issues that is most needed to further political solutions. Natural science can be considered as a subordinate political instrument. Its results can be refined to improve efficiency will not change the politics in any important way. How to establish a satisfactory environmental regime in such cases appears as primarily a social science problem.

A good example of such a social science approach, that takes natural science knowledge for granted, is Science and Politics in international environmental regimes. Between integrity and involvement, a study conducted by a group of Norwegian political scientists (Andresen et al 2000). They ask what kinds of institutions are most effective in solving international environmental problems and aim to understand why “some attempts at solving or alleviating international environmental problems ‘succeed’ while others ‘fail’”. The idea is that some types of institutions or systems are more capable of utilizing scientific knowledge in solving environmental controversies (Underdal 2000: 1-2). Briefly, the book tries to answer the following question:

to what extent and how is the utilization of research-based knowledge as input for international environmental policy affected by the way the science-politics dialogue is organized?

(Underdal 2000: 3)

“Science” here refers to natural science and not the kind of social science that the book itself represents. It focuses quite explicitly on an instrumental use of natural science. The science-politics dialogue in question is one about effective utilization of knowledge not about the definition of the issues. It is assumed that the issues have already been defined sufficiently precisely. The book is said to focus on the process of “transforming knowledge into premises for policy decisions” that lies at “the interface between the intellectual and the political spheres”. However, this is not a dialogue between two equal partners. Science is here a servant to the political process and has no business of questioning its aims or definition of issues. The relation between (natural) science and politics is asymmetrical. Science is “on tap and not on top”.[41]

Whether the social science that the book itself represents is also to be conceived as purely or primarily instrumental with a similar asymmetrical relation to politics is not discussed. It would have helped clarify its message if this problem had been commented on, and it could perhaps also have helped sharpen the problems that the book discusses. Some social scientists have tended to conceive of natural and social sciences as radically different in the sense that the former serve a technical interest and are fundamentally subject to an instrumental way of reasoning while the social sciences serve human freedom (emancipation). The former simply accept social goals and values while the latter study them critically and propose alternatives that make possible voluntary changes in society. Jürgen Habermas’ well known classification of sciences according to technical, hermeneutic and emancipatory governing interests – for natural, humanistic and social science respectively – became popular in the 1960s and 1970s and represents a view which has deeply influenced today’s social science.

I have argued that the instrumental approach to natural science can be legitimate and fruitful when knowledge is certain and stable but problematic when knowledge is radically uncertain and changing. This suggests that for central problems of contemporary environmental policy where we need to act on highly uncertain knowledge the fruitfulness of an instrumental view of science is quite limited.

It may appear paradoxical that an increasing tempo of scientific progress in recent decades has been accompanied by an increasing public attention to scientific uncertainty and risk. In the introduction I pointed to at least one good reason for such worries, namely mankinds increased technological power and its consequences in terms of more radical and risky influences and interventions into the processes of nature.

Uncertainty is nothing new to science or its social relations. Curiosity and lack of knowledge are basic reasons for doing scientific research, and in this sense uncertainty is, of course, its driving force. Politicians and other practitioners have always been pressing scientists for clear and certain answers where they had none. Still, the uncertainty of knowledge has always been a central problem for modern natural science, and its political significance has grown with the social importance of science. There are good reasons why so much attention is given to risk and uncertainty in present science studies. Some scholars have even suggested that we are faced with new kinds of uncertainty that demand a new kind of science, for example, “post normal science“ (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993, 1994) or science “in a preventive paradigm“ (Wynne 1992). Such claims partly appear exaggerated, however. They focus on modern industrial technology and its environmental consequences but neglect the long and dramatic history of controversies over scientific knowledge and its social implications, for instance in 19th century medicine and hygiene as well as agriculture. That science is torn between its obligation to truth and loyalty to its patrons, and that some of its most consequential practical applications are built on dubious knowledge claims is an old story.

Still, there is no doubt that questions of uncertainty and risk need to be taken seriously, both on the subjective side, in understanding the influence that our conception of science has on the way we handle it, and on the objective side, in assessing the reliability of our knowledge. The pervasive presence of science and technology has made the anxieties of daily life quite different from what they were in the agrarian and industrial life that was still typical of the Western world only half a century ago. The new situation has aptly been characterized as “risk society“ (Beck 1992).

To better grasp the implications of scientific uncertainty for the social role of science it is useful to distinguish between what can be called “calculable” and “profound” uncertainty. These are not distinct categories of course but rather the two ends of a continuous spectrum. Firstly there is uncertainty in the form of more or less calculable probability for certain types of events like the chances of getting lung cancer, being involved in traffic accident, meltdown in a nuclear reactor, or even the chances that a certain amount of acid rain will lead to reduced forest growth. In such cases there exists at least a rough understanding of the system in question which make possible more or less reliable calculations or reasoned assessments. This sphere of calculable uncertainty fits an instrumental understanding of science. There is a given basic understanding of the world that politics can rely on, and the role of science is to refine this view, fill in the details. Much like in Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a “normal science”. But there is also a more radical form of uncertainty due to a fundamental insufficiency in our concepts. Some crucial causal connections are hidden to us because we lack the theories adequately to perceive, interpret and link together the phenomena of our immediate experience. This radical uncertainty underlies all human knowledge, including science, and it is often expressed in the thesis that scientific claims are fundamentally hypothetical. By nature its content cannot be explicitly and clearly stated but only vaguely surmised. It shows up, however, when rolled back by unexpected scientific discoveries. This is the sphere where science plays its enlightening role, supplying new “revolutionary” knowledge that can lead to radical change in political aims and social values.[42]

The great social impact of modern natural science during the last two centuries is highly dependent on new scientific discoveries. They paved the way for social progress both by changing the ways that human problems were perceived and by providing new and more efficient instruments. Medicine and agriculture, health and food production, are fields where the inroad that science made on “profound” uncertainty radically changed the conditions of human society. At the same time it is important to emphasize the modesty of this scientific “progress“ and the limitations of its contributions to social progress, especially if social progress is measured against such a fundamental goal as “the good life“. It is not difficult to see today that besides relieving mankind of many old troubles science has introduced numerous new ones. Some people even doubt that the overall balance so far is positive. The tendency of 20th century modernism to believe that all human problems can be solved by science today appears naïvely utopian. Nevertheless, the process of basic scientific “progress“ has been crucial to the great social changes of the last couple of centuries and is likely to be important for our ability to solve problems in the future. Even if these problems are to a great extent the consequences of earlier progress in basic scientific understanding we will depend on further scientific progress for solving them.

Calculable and profound uncertainty confront science with different social tasks and responsibilities. Some of this differentiation is taken care of by the traditional distinction between applied and basic science. Applied scientific research is to a high degree governed by the practical interests of its patrons and thus adapted to solve problems of calculable uncertainty within an instrumental frame of thinking. Basic scientific research on the other hand is governed more by the scientific community and its epistemic interests. Its aim is to increase insight and knowledge generally and not to solve specific practical problems, and it is therefore more suitable as a basis for the handling the problems that are raised by “profound uncertainty”.

Another distinction that is crucial to processes of scientific advice is the difference between hypothesis and fact, or, in other words, between interesting guesses and claims that are well supported by existing theory and experience. The former are indispensable as guides for research. The latter are equally necessary as the basis of sound scientific advice. Research, and basic research not least, is most effective when it takes big risks. A quite unlikely guess that would be important if true is worth investigating. In practical affairs the premium is on dependable calculations and assessment, and the onus of proof lies primarily on those who propose a hypothesis in conflict with established knowledge. In recent environmental politics the precautionary principle is often invoked to give weight to not so likely but potentially catastrophic outcomes. This lowers the threshold of evidence but is still founded on sober assessment of what is likely to be true rather than the lure of what would be interesting and important if it was true. If the precautionary principle invades the research process itself so as to give increased epistemic weight to certain claims this will undermine the possibility of making proper use of the principle in practical decision-making. In this paper I have described how mass media presentations of highly uncertain hypotheses about acid rain as the cause of damage to trees produced an unfounded public belief in actual forest death due to acid rain. And the illusory public belief in turn became the basis of problematic political action.

Basic science in its explorative and enlightening role is tied to a political ideal that links science to liberal democracy. This ideal is found in Karl Popper’s promotion of an “open society“, in Robert Merton’s characterisation of the “ethos of science“, as well as in Jürgen Habermas’ idea of “communication free of dominion“ where consensus is formed in accordance with the “best argument“. No doubt modern science very often falls short of this ideal and becomes an instrument for the powers that be. But it can plausibly be argued that the ideal has been a powerful factor in the formation and upholding of modern Western culture and society.

For management and problem-solving in practical economic and social affairs research on more or less calculable uncertainties is highly important. Because of the huge total costs of such practical activities it is often economically advantageous to invest quite large sums in specific projects of applied science in order to improve practical efficiency. Thus the conditions funding are quite different from basic research. Nevertheless, planning and management of applied research depends on a broader background where the soundness and limitations of its goals and methods can be evaluated. How likely is a particular project in applied science to succeed on the scientific level, and will it really serve a common social good when all effects are considered? Boehmer-Christiansen’s problem of environmental scientists and research institutions that are more concerned with own survival than with the problems of environmental policy, is a question of the latter kind.

The distinctions that this discussion builds on – between applied and basic research, calculable and profound uncertainty, instrumental and enlightening uses of science, hypothesis and fact – are not new to either to the theory or practice of science, but they have taken on new significance with the enormous growth of scientific activities through the last. As a consequence of this development the administration and politics of science are becoming more and more bureaucratised. Science is bureaucratised in the sense that administrative principles and general theories about science rather than judgments about the specific subject matter become more important in decision-making. To some extent this development is an inevitable consequence of the growth and specialization. But there is an obvious danger that by losing contact with the intellectual content of the activity decisions also lose in relevance to the problems they are meant to handle. This appears to be an increasing problem in the governance of science as well as in scientific advice to politics.

It is significant for our discussion of ideological obstacles that in this situation science administration and policy become more dependent upon general theories about science, i.e. theories produced by the disciplines that have science as their object of study, like philosophy, history and sociology of science. This development affects not only to lay people but also scientists. Outside of own discipline and its neighbours scientists’ knowledge is also usually quite limited. The consequences of bureaucratisation is a topic of science studies that deserves increased attention, not least for practical political reasons.

Forest death and acid rain is a case where scientific advice and the governing of science did not function optimally. The dysfunction appears linked to what I have characterized as instrumental views and bureaucratisation of science. I have also argued that certain weaknesses in the exiting studies of this case indicate problems with their theoretical basis.

German research on “Waldsterben” in the 1980s and -90s has been subjected to sharp criticism. It is estimated to have cost the Federal government in the order of 500 million marks (ca. 250 million US dollars). This money was to a large extent granted in response to exaggerated warnings from the scientists who received the money. No doubt the warnings were amplified through their popularisation in the mass media. But the media based their reports on the authority of leading scientists, and scientists in general made little effort to protest against the resulting beliefs in catastrophic forest damage. [43] This appears as a salient example of Boehmer-Christiansen’s worry that scientists will serve their own interests rather than society’s. Large sums of money and extensive research efforts were expended on a problem that did not even exist.

Forest scientists in Germany have worried about their responsibility for this misguided research policy. They fear that the experience with the scare of “Waldsterben” will make political authorities and the public sceptical of scientific claims and warnings in the future. The German forest scientist Reinhard Hüttl has called this the “negative Kassandra syndrome“. The scientists are now in trouble because the press and the public were just too willing in the past to listen to their warnings, exaggerating them out of proportion. In 1986 a prognosis of the Bundesumweltamt predicted a 30% decline in forest growth by 1995. But by 1996 there was solid evidence that the opposite had happened.[44] In November 1998 the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences organized a public seminar on this theme.[45] Here Hüttl discussed the role of the mass media, how they exaggerated the warning and showed little interest in the views of those scientists who were sceptical about the real extent, as well as the nature and the cause of the so-called “Waldsterben”. The sociologist Peter Weingart presented a view similar to that of Boehmer-Christiansen. According to a newspaper report Weingart saw the organization of science as the main cause of the problem: Because of the intensifying competition for research funds scientists are outdoing each other in competing for media publicity.[46]

I have showed in the preceding how similar mechanisms were at work in the Norwegian case. But events ran somewhat differently because scepticism toward “Waldsterben” initially dominated the thinking of Norwegian forest scientist. As a result of this critical scientific attitude the media looked abroad for scientific authority stories to present, especially to Germany. The sceptical Norwegian forest experts often had difficulty in getting their views represented and opportunity to defend themselves in the mass media. Their critical activity made them unpopular rather than creditable with the political authorities. The book by a Swedish science writer, If Trees could Cry, published in Norway with support from the Ministry of environment and a preface by the minister, is evidence to this unpopularity. But continued political and media pressure had its effects. After two of the most active critics had changed jobs the spokesmen of NISK (Norwegian forest research institute) became more accommodating to the official political line. A large monitoring program for the health of the forests was established, which eventually gave the result that there was no detectable damage from acid rain.[47]

There are good reasons for social science studies of environmental politics to keep a distance to the substance of the natural science in question. Few people have much of the double scientific competence needed to integrate the social and the natural aspects in an enlightening way. But the preceding analysis also demonstrates that such distance can produce misleading results. The same applies to journalists in their selection and presentation of scientific speculations and facts for the mass media. Some minimal judgments with respect to the validity and representativeness of relevant scientific claims are essential to any journalistic or social science approach in the field of environmental politics. Low awareness of own limitations in this respect increases the likelihood of mistakes. And it is particularly problematic when the avoidance of natural science claims and judgments is supported by controversial sceptical views on the character of natural science knowledge.

There is a tendency in social science studies of science to a biased presentation of the situation in scholarship on epistemology. Sceptical and constructivist views are given more attention than traditional rationalist and realist positions. The significance in our context is that the former, if valid, would give more scope for social science explanations and less need to take the natural science claims into consideration.

Sceptical and relativist ideas about scientific knowledge were emphasized by the new wave of science studies starting in the 1960s with Thomas Kuhn’s famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) as its most influential classic. In Norway Arne Næss’ Which World is the Real One?(1969) (“Hvilken verden er den virkelige?”) represented the same general trend in the philosophy of science. The new sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) that developed in the 1970s and -80s emphasized social, cultural and psychological factors as explanations of scientific beliefs at the expense of properties of the objects under investigation. As a typical example one influential sociologist of science promoted an “empirical programme of relativism” for the study of natural science. This programme assumed that “the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge” (Collins 1981: 3-4). This concentration on the subjective side of science in explaining scientists’ beliefs and behaviour is continued in more recent constructivist studies of science.[48]

The popular attitude that one should not take the pronouncements of scientific experts on controversial political issues too seriously because there are always other experts who will claim the opposite can be seen as a corollary of this subjectivism in recent science studies. If social factors are so decisive for scientists’ beliefs it is no surprise that on controversial issues they will necessarily disagree according to their political interests or loyalties. This argument has been used with considerable success in public debates. For instance, in a debate on Norwegian TV in December 1994 over nitrogen pollution of the North Sea the minister of the environment, Thorbjørn Berntsen was furious at criticism of his policy by biological scientists. I could easily line up a hundred scientists who said the opposite of you, he claimed. And this effectively silenced their criticism. Berntsen also handled the case of forest death and acid rain, as we will return to.

Even in the generally sober study of environmental regimes that was mentioned in the introduction, Science and Politics in International Environmental Regimes (Andresen et al. 2000), this relativist tendency is noticeable. The general tone of the book is clearly rationalist both with respect to science and politics. That science can produce reliable and objective knowledge is taken an indispensable basis for a sound environmental policy. But chapter 2 of the book, which lays out the epistemic basis, is ambiguous. One pithy claim is that “if science succumbs to politics, policy will suffer in the end“ (Skodvin and Underdal 2000: 28). But on the following page it appears that such independence for science is impossible, at least if science is in any way involved with politics. The pessimistic view of a well-known book, Science Speaks to Power. The Role of Experts in Policy Making, is presented without any critical comments:

... relevance to policy, by itself, is sufficient to completely destroy the delicate mechanisms by which scientists ensure that their work leads to agreement. Consensus on scientific questions which are more than marginally relevant to policy is therefore impossible. Science under these conditions leads not to agreement, but to endless technical bickering about an ever growing number of issues.

(Collingridge and Reeve 1986: ix-x)

Among the cases Collingridge and Reeve mention as examples of this predicament of science is acid rain. But the main case of their book is lead in petrol. The extensive abandonment of leaded petrol in the years after their book was published would seem to falsify their claim.

The book uses Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific paradigms and revolutions as a main reference on the development of scientific knowledge. The presentation of Kuhn is accompanied by quotes and paraphrases from more or less relativist representatives of the SSK tradition. These are also presented with little comment. For instance Michael Mulkay is quoted saying that “intellectual consensus in science is relatively loose and flexible, and that its content is open to interpretations in numerous directions“ (Underdal and Skodvin 2000: 30). Throughout the chapter little is made of the no less relevant point that often science is able to reach stable consensus. Kuhn himself was rather sceptical of the relativist interpretations of his theory. Among the opponents of SSK only one sociologist of science is mentioned, Stephen Cole, who insists on the objectivity of “core” knowledge as opposed to claims at the research frontier. That the sceptical and relativist aspects of SSK has met sharp criticism and very little support from philosophers and has been violently attacked by natural scientists who have studied its claims, is neglected throughout the chapter. And little room is given to traditional rationalist and realist epistemic views held by most philosophers and natural scientist writing on such issues. For those who do not know the field from other sources this is likely to create a biased view of the status in epistemology.

Perhaps a problem with this discussion of the “dynamics of the science-politics interaction“ (Andresen et al. 2000, chapter 2) is that it pays too much attention to mechanisms that produce consensus and not enough to mechanisms that produce truth but not necessarily consensus. This is, of course, the core criticism of the social constructivist interpretations of science that have become popular among social scientists and humanists during the last couple of decades. In the case of “Waldsterben” there was at a certain stage massive public consensus and only a few scientists striving publicly to point out that the phenomenon did not exist – that the emperor had no clothes on. With such bias in favour of mechanisms that produce consensus at the expense of mechanisms that produce truth, it is not surprising if the role of science in environmental policy appears to be “surprisingly small“, as Susskind (1994: 62) noted.

It has been argued that a problem for the environmental movement and for green politics is that the good will is often not matched by sufficient substantial knowledge of the matters under debate, and that sceptical and constructivist attitudes to scientific knowledge can be reinforcing a negligent attitude toward scientific knowledge.[49] If scientific knowledge throughout is highly uncertain and flexible or constructed according to the interests and culture of the researchers, then it seems likely that science does not have much autonomy relatively to political and economic interests, and there is little reason to give it much attention in analysing political controversies.

Modes of argument reflecting such sceptical and relativist attitudes are widespread in politics. For instance, a Norwegian minister of the environment in a TV debate on the usefulness of sewage treatment for bringing down nitrogen content in the North Sea brushed off scientific criticism of official policy by such means. The scientific objection was that the governments program of building a very expensive chain of plants for sewage treatment along the southern coast of Norway would not contribute to any substantial reduction of nitrogen in the North Sea. But the minister simply said: “I could easily line up a hundred experts claiming the opposite of what you say“, and the experts present were at a loss how to answer this kind of political slugger tactics.[50] Within a few years, however, the government had silently retreated from its controversial plan. This was the same minister that in 1993 made claims implying that more or less all forests in Norway had been severely damaged by acid rain and that billions of crowns would be lost for the Norwegian forest industry in coming years.

It is worth considering more closely what may be the effects of a political science analysis that neglects the objective side of science. For instance, how will this influence the establishing of institutional links between science and politics. Will it be conducive to arrangements that can help prevent such misunderstandings as the “Waldsterben”, or will it rather tend to reinforce such phenomena? Social science no less than natural science is involved in a difficult dialectical play between truth and values. They can both withdraw to some extent from the political scene and nurture a relative autonomy in the name of more long term rationality and social goals – differentiation into basic and applied research has a long tradition and is by now well established in most branches of science – but they can never escape a social accountability for the effects of their activities.


A main message of this essay is that effective use of science in environmental policy depends on a proper understanding of scientific uncertainty and its implications for the institutional organization of science and its links to politics. The distinction between calculable and profound uncertainty is essential and can only be effectively implemented when other distinctions between basic and applied science, between hypothesis and fact, consensus and truth are understood and observed. The precautionary principle, for instance, can be very useful and appropriate, but when the difference between consensus and truth is lost from sight it can also be misleading, as it was in the case of forest death and acid rain. And the subtext is that all this depends heavily on more insight and interest in the knowledge and problems of the science in question than the social science studies that I have analysed in this essay generally show.

In social science studies involving natural science it can be fruitful to separate as far as possible the two following two types of questions:

  1. How much has the reigning scientific view influenced political processes, and what direction has this influence taken?
  2. Is this reigning view correct and well grounded, and is it the favourable?

The usefulness of such a separation of the effects of certain natural science beliefs from their validity is obvious. The first question can be studied without much insight into the natural science research in question, while the second often puts heavy demands on this kind of competence. Moreover the first is descriptive, but the second is normative, which implies that a completely neutral and outsider accounts of the conflicts are not accessible.

My claim is that the separation of the two types of questions is often taken too far. Unrealistic assumptions are made about their independence. In cases of highly uncertain knowledge there is no scientific consensus, no reigning scientific belief, which the social science analysis, or the journalist and political decision-maker, can start from. In the case of forest death the public conception of accepted scientific belief was constructed through interaction of some scientist “whistle-blowers” with the mass media in an arbitrary and scientifically misleading way. Whistle-blowers are indispensable in many cases. But if they are not confronted with criticism and resistance from sober scientific judgments their warnings can lead seriously astray.

The basic point in the present case is that there was no forest death and no sound scientific reasons to believe in it. On a proper scientific approach there existed no real empirical basis for the picture that the mass media presented to the public. As Zierhofer shows in detail for the Swiss case there was a failure in scientific criticism and free public discourse that made general opinion, including many forest scientists, blind and credulous. The point is that the belief in forest death from acid rain was an illusion in the sense that it was an unnecessary misunderstanding. Scientific advice did not work as it ought to. Its effectiveness was sub-optimal.

It is true that in the long run the public illusion was corrected. And this, of course, is important and reassuring. Such corrections indicate that the more radical social constructivist or relativist views of scientific knowledge are not tenable. Loren Graham has made the same kind of argument for the case of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union (Graham 1998). In that case it took three decades for scientific correction to fully make its mark, in the case of forest death it took one. But this gradual correction is not the point I have focused on. My question is why scientific advice failed in the first place. Why was the illusion produced, that it took respectively one and three decades to correct? In situations where it is necessary on the basis of uncertain knowledge to make decisions with far-reaching consequences such temporary failure in scientific judgments can be a serious problem. Environmental politics is a field where such decisions are likely to become more and more important. With respect to scientific advice the most interesting and pressing question for historical analysis is not what caused “the impression of widespread forest death to be gradually corrected”, but why did the illusion arise?[51]

Briefly, my answer is that there was a lacking understanding of the implications of scientific uncertainty not only in the general public, among journalists and politicians, but also in the scientific community. This fostered institutions and mediating processes that biased beliefs about the actual state of scientific knowledge in the eyes of the general public. An illusory belief about the situation of the forests was created and used as the basis for practical politics. Through my account of the case of “Waldsterben” and my analysis of the literature about it I have pointed to specific views about scientific knowledge and its social functions that apparently promoted the illusion. My conclusion is that these elements in the present ideology of science should be scrutinized for their possible effects as general obstacles to reliable scientific advice in politics.

The distinction between two effects or uses of scientific knowledge, instrumental and enlightening, has long been a central theme in modern philosophy, not least in the school called transcendental pragmatism. This school has argued strongly that one of the great dangers in the cultural development of Western culture is a growing neglect of the enlightening aspect of science. The problematic effects of this tendency are acutely felt in present politics of education and research, not only in Norway but generally in the Western world. Gunnar Skirbekk (2002) in another research report to the ongoing Norwegian Power and Democracy-project (“Makt- og demokratiutredningen”) has developed this view on a general theoretical level.[52] I agree that my case study of forest death and acid rain illustrates and confirms his general points about the fundamental social importance of the enlightenment aspect of science. One important insight that a case study can add is the need for a concrete realistic interpretation of many scientific claims, expressed in respect for specific scientific pieces of knowledge, “truths” as we often call them.[53] It is not sufficient to adhere to a general “pragmatic realism” saying that there exists a reality independent of our thinking and that whatever claims we make about it can meet resistance when we try to implement them.[54] The case of forest death and acid rain shows how science when properly used can make, or fail to make, reliable specific judgments about questions of crucial importance to politics and social behaviour. It is these specific bits of new knowledge, which often are contrary to general expectations or vested interests of the powers that be, that make scientific research an effective agent of enlightenment. It is the lack of interest in and respect for the specific bits of objective knowledge and how they can be reliably differentiated from arbitrary beliefs that is the crucial weakness of sceptical “postmodern” interpretations of the critical tradition of Western science.

This study of forest death from acid rain and the way this case has been treated in social science literature indicates that some of the most influential and respected studies of the relationship between natural science and politics suffer from ideological obstacles. These obstacles are inspired by the excessively sceptical trends in recent sociology of scientific knowledge and prevent an adequate analysis by neglecting the enlightenment function. They miss the serious problem of how public illusions like the forest death (“Waldsterben”) of the 1980s and -90s are created.[55]

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[1] For an example of his concept of ideology see Tranøy 1986, p.13.[]

2 A similar distinction between instrumental and enlightening uses of science has been applied to social science by Weiss and Bucavalas (1980: 269-70). They argue that the usefulness of social science is sometimes underestimated because its enlightening use is neglected. Ideas derived from scientific research provide frameworks for interpretation and action, as well as for criticism and formulation of alternative policies.[]

3 See, for instance, Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea 1991.[]

4 See, for instance, Becker et al 1990.[]

5 Norwegian original:

Værre tider; værre syner

gjennom fremtidsnatten lyner!

Britens kvalme stenkullsky

Senker sort seg over landet,

smusser alt det friske grønne,

kveler alle spirer skjønne,

stryker lavt med giftstoff blandet.

English translation:

Worse times, worse sights flashes through future nights! The sickening black coal clouds of the Brits descends on the country, soils all the fresh green, suffocates all green sprouts, moves low with poison mixed.[]

6 Dagens Nyheter, 24 October 1967; Odén 1968.[]

7 The background and development of the SNSF-project has been described in Roll-Hansen 1986, and Roll-Hansen and Hestmark 1990. The following account draws on the material in these two studies. Further details and references to the primary sources can be found there.[]

8 For an account of German policies on acid rain see Boehmer-Christiansen and Skea 1991.[]

9 See Wettestad 2000, pp.95-96.[]

10 There is a time bomb ticking in German forests the scientists are warning: The experts fear that the dying of fir and spruce over large areas is the first sign of a world wide environmental catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude. For the cause of the silent destruction of the forest, acid deposits from the smoke of Power plants and refineries, threatens not only flora and fauna, but also human health.[]

11 Fædrelandsvennen, 27 March 1984, ” – No forest damage in Norway“ (”-Ingen skogskader i Norge“)[]

12 ”pressekonferanse om skogdød-spørsmålet“, NISK-nytt, nr.3, 1984, p. 3.[]

13 ”Vest-tysk skog døende“ (”West-German forest dying“), Arbeiderbladet, 14 June 1984.[]

14 ”Norsk forsker angriper europeiske kolleger: Sur nedbør alene ikke årsak til skogsdøden“ (”Norwegian scientist attacks European colleagues: Acid rain not sole cause of forest death“) Aftenposten, 14. august 1985.[]

15 “Britisk uskikk“ (“Bad British manners“), Aftenposten, 30 October 1985.[]

16 The minister of the environment was Sissel Rønbeck. Gro Harlem Brundtland was prime minster at this time.[]

17 Gunnar Abrahamsen, “Gråtende trær og NRKs feilinformasjon“ (Crying trees and misinformation by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation), Nationen, 21 October 1987.[]

18 The official international reports now include time series starting with 1986 for some countries including Germany, France and Switzerland. See: United Nations, Forest Condition in Europe. Results of the 1999 crown condition survey. 2000 Technical report. Prepared by: Federal Research Center for Forestry and Forest Products. []

19 “ – Hogg mer skog“ (Cut more trees), Nationen, 4 January 1989.[]

20 See, for instance front page of Aftenposten, 26 ctober 1988, with headline “Bartrær utarmes av forurensning i Aust-Agder“ (Conifers impoverished by pollution in Aust-Agder)[]

21 ”Skogskadene langt verre enn antatt“ (Forest damages far worse than assumed), Nationen, 24 October 1988.[]

22 ”Hogg skadd skog!“ (Cut damaged forest!), Nationen, 4 January 1989. []

23 See, for instance: “Mythenreiches Waldsterben“, Die Zeit, 25 November 1988, p. 92; „Hie Waldsterben, da Waldwuchern“, Die Zeit, 17 November 1989, p. 80; Schmidt-Vogt 1989; Becker et al. 1990. []

24 See, for instance: “Brunsvidd skog langs kysten i sør“ (Brown-scorched forest along the southern coast), Aftenposten 2 June 1990. This article included a map showing that the damages occurred in the areas most exposed to acid rain.[]

25 ”Utvikling: Den beste miljøpolitikken“ (Development: The best environmental policy), Dagbladet, 27 May 1992.[]

26 Dagbladet and Aftenposten, 19 August 1993. (One Norwegian crown was approximately equal to 1/11 of a British pound.)[]

27 See Abrahamsen 2002: 25.[]

28 United Nations (2000), Forest Condition in Europe. See fn. 19.[]

29 This is, for instance, the approach of Andresen et al. (2000) Science and politics in international environmental regimes.[]

30 United Nations (2000), Forest Condition in Europe, Annex II-8. See fn. 19.[]

31 As promoted for instance in The new production of knowledge, by Gibbons et al. 1994. []

32 See Zierhofer 1999 pp. 101-110. Bernhard Ulrich argued that since his hypothesis of acidification of the soil had not been falsified it should be accepted. According to Poppers falsificationism hypotheses could only be falsified but not proved, he argued. Paul Schütt believed that this was a situation of distress that demanded that “Prioritäten gezetzt und Massnahmen realisiert werden”. []

33 EidgenössischeAnstalt für das Forstliche Versuchswesen.[]

34 “Mythenreiches Waldsterben“, Die Zeit, 25 November 1988, p. 92; “Hie Waldsterben, da Waldwuchern“, Die Zeit, 17 November 1989, p. 80.[]

35 “Die Wissenschaft definierte das Waldsterben als das bevorstehende großflächige Absterben von Bäumen aller Baumarten aufgrund der Luftverschmutzung. Dieses Waldsterben war ein Befürchtung, ein Phantom. Es konnte bis jetzt in dieser Form nicht beobachtet werden“ (Zierhofer 1999: 244).[]

36 “Wir haben gesehen, daß die Wissenschafter einem großen politischen Erwartungsdruck ausgesetzt waren. Von ihnen wurde nicht verlangt, ihre Untersuchungen zu manipulieren, aber die Interpretation ihrer Resultate mußte vor dem Hintergrund des Waldsterbens erfolgen: Es war praktisch ihr Plifcht geworden, das Waldsterben zu beweisen. Wer dies nicht konnte hatte sich zurückzuhalten“ (Zierhofer 1999: 246).[]

37 See Roll-Hansen 1992 and 1994 for further discussion of the role of the mass media in the case of “Waldsterben“ and comparison to other cases, in particular the controversy over whaling. This controversy was also intense during the same period. But here Norway was on the opposite side of the environmental activists, favouring the exploitation of nature rather than its conservation. The Norwegian insistence on a sound scientific basis for its policy was constant, however. []

38 See Wettestad 2000: 99. The first claim is a quotation from Park 1997: 177.[]

39 The same tendency is found in a paper by Marc Levy (1993) that Wettestad (2000) refers to.[]

40 The quote is from p. 63, and is backed up with a number of references to representative contemporary literature. []

41 In his classic monograph Government and Science (1954, p 129) Don Price writes:

The problem of advisory machinery would be quite simple if we could rely on the classical administrative theory that “the expert should be on tap but not on top” - which implies the availability of an autonomous or at least unobtrusive adviser whose expertise is at hand for the responsible executive to accept or not, in his own discretion.

But Price finds the theory unsatisfactory:

... It is a theory that applies to advisory machinery only when it has been established because the man inside the government wants advice from outside the government. []

42 A British political scientist pointed in this direction when he introduced the concept of “profound uncertainty” in discussing ways of taking the interest of future generations into account, for instance in our policies on the disposal of nuclear waste (Goodin 1978).


43 “Die erste Warnung kommt von den Wissenschaftlern“, die tageszeitung (Berlin), 24 February 1999, p.15.[]

44 “Debatte: Das negative Kassandra-Syndrom. Wissenschaft im Streit“, press release from Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Interdiziplinäre Forschungsgruppen, Juni 1998.[]

45 The Academy had just published an extensive scientific review article on the Waldsterben phenomenon by Reinhard Hüttl (1997). He showed that its extent had been greatly overestimated, also by leading scientists, and that it was a very diverse phenomenon with no unifying cause as had been claimed, for instance by Berhard Ulrich, Peter Schütt and Ellis Cowling. In conclusion he pointed out that even Ulrich had now acknowledged that his early hypothesis about a catastrophic epidemic of Waldsterben caused by acid rain had turned out to be mistaken. In 1995 Ulrich wrote that: “The hypothesis, however, of large-scale forest dieback in the near future is not backed by data and can be discarded“.[]

46 “Übertreibende Forscher“, die tageszeitung (Berlin), 24 February 1999, p.15.[]

47 Reported in 2002, see Solberg et al. 2002. []

48 I have given a critical analysis of some representative examples in Roll-Hansen 1998.[]

49 For instance by Roll-Hansen 1994.[]

50 The debate was sent on the national Norwegian television channel in a program series called “RED-21” on 15 December 1994. The minister was Thorbjørn Berntsen. Two scientists who represented one each of the two main institutes on water pollution research, The Norwegian institute for water research (Norsk institutt for vannforskning, NIVA) and The Norwegian marine research institute (Havforskningsinstituttet), had no effective answer to this argument. However, in the course of a few years the government quietly abandoned its policy. []

51 Andreas Tjernshaugen will probably disagree with this argument and my conclusion, but I want to thank him for his help in making this social science assumption and its weaknesses clearer to me.[]

52 On a more concrete political level Sverker Gustavsson has formulated sharp and persistent criticism of a prevailing instrumental attitude to research and university policy in Sweden, see for instance Gustavsson 1997.[]

53 In his general ethics of science Tranøy (1986) expresses this need as a norm of scientific behaviour which he calls “obligation to truth” (“sannhetsforpliktelse”).[]

54 See, for instance, A. Pickering’s The Mangle of Practice, 1995. Bruno Latour in his more recent work can also be interpreted in this direction.[]

55 Only the European development is discussed in the present study. The US government was sceptical about the existence of serious forest damage due to acid rain and did not immediately join international agreements on SO2 limitations. There were similar claims made about catastrophic forest damage made from whistle blowing scientists and environmental activists but without the same effect on public opinion. The situation was somewhat like that described for England. An account of some aspects of the US debates is found in the thesis of Tjernshaugen (2000). One interpretation of the American situation is that political pressure from industry prevented effective environmental action. In many cases this was certainly true. But it could be speculated that in some cases, for instance forest death from acid rain, the US industrial interest had sufficient political clout to effectively counteract one sided environmental activists and secure scope for a broader and more balanced presentation of evidence and arguments in the public debate. A comparative study of the acid rain debates in America and Europe would be interesting. It could perhaps throw interesting light on opposing attitudes in the currently hot debate about global warming and imitations in CO2 emissions.

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Publisert 25. nov. 2010 13:52