I enjoyed the discussion kicked of by Tamsin Edwards’ piece in the Guardian yesterday. Maybe I’d had too much coffee or something, but I found myself in opposition to many of the leaders of my field.
Oliver Bothe wrote a good, immediate and thoughtful response. Given that he quotes a few of my tweets, I thought I might expand on a few things. These points should be seen in the same light as Bothe’s – a first draft.
I claimed that I’m detecting a shift in attitudes towards climate policy advocacy, as a younger generation of climate scientists start to mature professionally.
This might well be my personal bias – I tend to hang out with, and communicate with, those that share my views. We all do. It also might be my institutional cultural bias – I work in a place where political advocacy is strongly discouraged. You are asked to leave your political affiliations at the door: you serve the citizens of the UK. All of them.
I’d be interested to see if there is any evidence that the generation that came of age (got their PhDs/first jobs) post climategate has got different views from those who were working before.
I also tweeted that my generation was learning from the experiences of the previous generation, for example trying to avoid getting caught up in vexatious FOI requests or court cases. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t advocate policy because it will lead to an easier life. I am suggesting that we shouldn’t advocate policy because that is the right thing to do.
I think it will lead to better transfer of information to policy makers, a better, more neutral climate science communication environment, and in the long term, to better policy making. This is a long game. I think protecting the integrity of science in general is more important than any short term climate policy “victories” that might come about because scientists are seen to be advocates.
Check your bias
One of the accusations levelled at Tamsin is that she was being hopelessly naive. All scientists are human, humans have opinions, and to deny that is both foolish and dangerous. While I agree to a certain extent, I don’t see a problem with holding climate policy neutrality as an ideal, while acknowledging human motivations. The idea is to make sure that the science that we produce is good. We should acknowledge that scientific results can be biased by the motivations of those doing the work, and of those checking the work. The aim must be to find ways to minimise those biases, and to show that our processes work to that end. This is why I think open access science is so important.
I’m not naive enough to think that this will make motivated and unjustified attacks on climate science go away, by the way. Just that we should be able to point to the fact that we are being as transparent as possible.
I do not think that being actively policy neutral means that we shouldn’t engage with the public, with politicians, with the media, and even in policy debates. Scientists should be seen to be human, should show their (sometimes messy) working, should be able to point out their own biases, and their ignorance when it comes to (e.g) policy. Yes, I know that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations will have an impact on the planet’s climate. No, I do not know if a carbon tax will work to bring those concentrations down. Yes, you should be robust in pointing out when someone is wrong. No, I do not approve of you calling someone a denier, you are polluting my communication environment.
Here is a thing that always comes up in these debates – the idea that climate scientists are like medical doctors for the planet. It was pointed out for me that we go to medical doctors for advice on our health, and that medical doctors have been successful advocates for things that have saved millions of lives (e.g. vaccinations).
I think that this is a terrible comparison. Our society has long experience with getting advice from doctors, and has developed processes for making sure that we get good advice from them. We spend enormous amounts of money and time making sure our doctors know what they are talking about, that they don’t do harm, that they are accountable for mistakes, that they as individuals don’t have too much power. Where doctors or the medical system abuse those powers, we have mechanisms for removing them, or for changing the system.
If you are a climate scientist, you are not here to save the planet. It is incredibly arrogant to see yourself as some kind of planetary doctor, able to save the planet. You cannot save the planet. You can (probably incrementally) increase the sum of human knowledge about the planet. That is a good and extremely valuable thing.
I’m probably a bit more liberal on all of this than I come across. My views are possibly closer to Gavin’s than Tamsin’s (although in my mind, these two are quite close). I think that having a spectrum of views and approaches to policy advocacy in climate science is a good thing, and beyond this piece, I won’t go round chiding individuals for being policy advocates. But I do think that the idea of explicit policy neutrality as a position deserves a stronger voice. Well done Tamsin.