Some more thoughts on advocacy in climate science

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.

Generation shift

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.

Engagement

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.

Planetary doctors

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.

Finally

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.

47 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this, Doug. I believe Tamsin’s post was both courageous and wise. Criticism from colleagues was relentless, perhaps unfairly so. I do want to note that she never said scientists must be silent, never using our public voice. She only wrote about the hazards of advocating particular policy solutions. In other words, I do speak often about the importance of addressing climate change, and I use the science as the foundation of those talks. However, I do not speak about whether we should do so via a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, etc. Doing so is out of my specialty, and furthermore, it is outside my perception of my role as a public scientist. Of course, I have opinions on these topics, as does Tamsin, but it is not OK, in my personal value system, for me to tell the public which solution is best, at least in my role as a public scientist. No veiled criticism of those that do so–but nothing anyone tweeted yesterday has changed my mind. I perceive this as a very appropriate boundary for me as a public scientist.

    I am second to no one in my admiration for the heroic efforts of climate scientists. You all have been so mistreated by denialists and by monied public-relation campaigns that have no basis in scientific evidence. I can’t imagine how we plant pathologists would hold up under such sustained abuse. However–and this is really important–I t think many climate scientists don’t realize that they may foster public division when they spill over into advocacy for particular solutions to climate change. This isn’t just conjecture. At an online conference over a year ago, Jon Krosnick (Stanford) presented data showing that public trust in scientists is diminished by even a short venture into advocacy. (As far as I know, the data are still unpublished. I know, I know…I wish the data were published too, but in the meantime, I saw the talk and I communicated with him afterward, and that is what he reported to hundreds of colleagues, and so I am not disposed to dismiss his comments. If in doubt, contact him directly and maybe he will share the presentation. I saw it online, so maybe it is still available that way.)

    No amount of words will settle this debate, and that is OK, but I do think Tamsin has written something really important.

    I really admire climate scientists, and when given the opportunity, I like to buy you folks a glass of a fine Kentucky bourbon to honor you all. Maybe I’ll get the chance to do so for both you and Gavin.

    1. “by denialists and by monied public-relation campaigns that have no basis in scientific evidence”

      if you keep saying this loudly enough, do you believe it becomes true?

      1. gubulgaria · ·

        If you keep denying it loudly enough, do you think it will go away?

        http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/feb/14/funding-climate-change-denial-thinktanks-network

  2. Doug, what you say at the end of your post is similar to something I too have wondered. At the end of the day it did seem like there was much more agreement than it, at first, seemed. The problem seemed to be partly a difference in how people where defining certain aspects of the argument. I doubt that Gavin would be arguing that if you’re in front of a senate/parliametary committee that you should focus on your opinions about policy if you’ve been asked to be there to discuss your scientific evidence. I also get the impression that, maybe, Tamsin wouldn’t object to a scientist answering a reporter’s question about their opinion on what should be done, as long as the scientist made it clear that this was their opinion on what should be done and not a conclusion that one could draw directly from the scientific evidence (i.e., the scientific evidence may suggest that we should do something but doesn’t – by itself – tell us what to do). Ultimately, it seemed that most were arguing for openness and honesty (and maybe humility) and noone really knows how this could be enforced.

  3. Steve Bloom · · Reply

    Hi Doug, will just mention a couple of things for now:

    Climategate has little resonance in the U.S., although clearly (and understandably) it still does at the Met Office. Do you think it has much anywhere outside the UK? Anyway, IMO you’ll need some other benchmark.

    You said “Yes, I know that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations will have an impact on the planet’s climate.” But does that imply you think it’s a legitimate policy choice, one you ought not to gainsay in your role as a climate scientist, to go ahead and let it increase? Tamsin says:

    “There are many ways to try to minimise climate change (with mitigation or geoengineering) or its impacts (adaptation) and, given a pot of money, we must decide what we most want to protect. How do we weigh up economic growth against ecosystem change? Should we prioritise the lives and lifestyles of people today or in the future? Try to limit changes in temperature or rainfall? These questions cannot be answered with scientific evidence alone. To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicise their preferred policy options.”

    That reasoning allows for some very bad choices to be made, doesn’t it, with Tamsin being no more willing to object to those than she was to answer that carbon tax question.

    Of course the basic policy choice has already been made in the form of the UNFCCC commitment (signed onto by the UK, meaning it’s already the policy of your government) to avoid dangerous climate change. So it is indeed “try to limit changes in temperature and rainfall.” That should make it easy for you as a Met Office employee. The question is why doesn’t it make it easy for Tamsin?

    But pretending for the moment that the UNFCCC doesn’t exist, look carefully at that passage again. Doesn’t it seem essentially amoral? Is that a quality to which climate scientists should aspire?

    1. Steve Bloom

      I think you’ve misunderstood the role of the Met Office in the UK government system. The fact that the government is currently signed up to any particular policy does not actually make it easier to speak for or against this policy, as the policy may change. The government could in theory propose that the UK leave the UNFCCC, or change or even repeal the Climate Change Act. As civil servants, we’re required to give objective advice to the elected government of the day – see the Civil Service Code.

      Your idea that the Met Office works *for* the government in implementing climate policy is incorrect – but this claim is frequently used as a way of undermining the science, by presenting it as biased.

      1. Incidentally, I should point out that the Civil Service Code http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/values applies to Doug and myself because we’re Met Office employees, but not Tamsin – she’s an academic. So it’s all the more impressive that she’s choosing to take this stance in her Guardian article, as she clearly feels its the right one.

      2. The CCA has provision for the revision of the target if the science changes. Outright repeal is not necessary in order to adapt its provisions and targets to the new reality of lower than previously calculated climate sensitivity to co2 emission.

        it’s high time we stopped relying on the biased IPCC for the judgement call on this.

    2. Steve Bloom · · Reply

      Richard, you’ve cited the Civil Service requirements to me before. I see nothing in them supporting your stance, and FYI I’m rather experienced at parsing legislation and regulations (having written a fair number and struggled through court challenges with some of them). Of course the requirements do establish lines that aren’t to be crossed, but as I see it you seek to stand at a considerable distance to one side of those lines.

      You said “The fact that the government is currently signed up to any particular policy does not actually make it easier to speak for or against this policy, as the policy may change.”

      I suggested no such thing. What I suggested instead was that as a civil servant you can take (and state) existing policy as a given.

      Section 11 (under Objectivity) says in part “You must not frustrate the implementation of policies once decisions are taken by declining to take, or abstaining from, action which flows from those decisions.” Action, I think, fairly includes providing information to the public (Section 10: “You must provide information and advice, including advice to Ministers, on the basis of the evidence, and accurately present the options and facts(.)”) Noting also the Section 3 requirement to be “truthful and open,” you should not be silent in order to hold back relevant information.

      So what you would be barred from doing is asking the set of questions Tamsin did (the passage I quoted), as she did so in a way that casts doubt upon policy choices that have already been made.

      You can even discuss the pros and cons of policy options, relative to prior policy and the science, per the Section 10 mandate to “provide information and advice, including advice to Ministers, on the basis of the evidence, and accurately present the options and facts(.)”

      So there we have it. You’ve got rather a lot of latitude. Use it.

      Also, while we’re on the general subject, you also said:

      “Your idea that the Met Office works *for* the government in implementing climate policy is incorrect(.)”

      That view directly contradicts the Section 11 passage I quoted above. Just sayin’.

      1. Steve

        Sorry, I forgot you know more about the way the Met Office works than I do. I’ve worked here for twenty years, and you’ve worked here….oooh, how long is it now… ah yes… never 🙂

        I do agree with you that it’s perfectly acceptable for me to say “current UK govt policy is….” since that’s merely a statement of fact . However, that’s not advocacy. Advocacy of a particular policy is offering an opinion on whether it’s right or wrong. That’s different.

        And yes of course we can discuss pros and cons of policy options (as long as we’re qualified to do so, and do so objectively). Again, that’s not advocacy.

        I disagree that my statement you quote above contradicts Section 11. There is a difference between implementing policy and not frustrating it. Holding back relevant information would be frustrating it, and we definitely don’t do that. We share all our scientific results.

        As it happens, we’ve just had a message round today reminding us of the rules on taking part in political activities, because the Party Conference season is coming up soon. They also pointed us to Section 4.4 in the Civil Service Mangement Code http://resources.civilservice.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/CSMC-July-2013.doc

        Finally, you do seem to making some assumptions about what climate scientists political views actually are. The UK government supports UK oil and gas production https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/maintaining-uk-energy-security–2 and considers shale gas as being part of the UK energy mix https://www.gov.uk/oil-and-gas-onshore-exploration-and-production – would you be so keen to hear me advocate policy if I were to come out and speak in favour of fracking?

  4. Steve Bloom · · Reply

    Hi Paul, you say: “I do speak often about the importance of addressing climate change, and I use the science as the foundation of those talks. However, I do not speak about whether we should do so via a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, nuclear energy, carbon capture and storage, geoengineering, etc.”

    I’m curious, where do your speeches go after you’ve established the importance of the issue?

    Note also the distinction between your view and Tamsin’s. You at least seem to not think it’s a plausible policy option to let the emissions do their worst to our descendants while the present generation continues to live it up.

    Re Krosnick’s work, as I pointed out to Doug on Twitter I don’t think it really showed much beyond the obvious effect that when you get right in people’s faces and tell them they’re going to have to make an undesirable change for however good a reason, you’re bound to get a degree of pushback from some of them.

  5. Steve Bloom,
    Science is amoral. It’s is supposed to be amoral. It’s strengthened by being amoral. Amorality is essential to permit someone to weigh evidence without regard to what they think is ‘moral’ vs. ‘immoral’ and instead look to see what the evidence tells us about the truth or falsity of various conjectures about how the universe and planet works. To a large extent, scientists gain trust that their diagnoses of evidence is fair precisely because they are willing to be amoral rather than filtering their advice and views of evidence through a filter of their personal views on about what is moral or immoral.

    So, yes, to some extent, with regards to application of science, climate scientists should aspire to amorality.

    1. To a certain extent, certainly. Science should be objective and a scientist’s conclusions should be based on the scientific evidence. However, if a scientist (or group of scientists) concludes that their evidence suggests that we – as a society – should act to prevent some future problem, wouldn’t it be immoral to remain amoral? So, at the moment it seems that if a climate scientist openly expresses an opinion about climate policy, they’re tagged as having lost some scientific credibility. Although there could be circumstances where such a conclusion might be warranted, I would argue that it would be much worse if climate scientists decided not to express an opinion if the evidence warranted doing so.

      1. Steve Bloom · ·

        Yes, when the choices involved are fraught with implications for the future of our species and the biosphere, amoral become immoral. Tamsin seems to be trying hard to not be aware of that.

        I should say that I think the underlying issue with her isn’t that she’s a bad person, but that her physical intuition tells her that things really won’t get that bad. Physical intuition is very hard to change in the face of evidence, even for scientists.

      2. “Yes, when the choices involved are fraught with implications for the future of our species and the biosphere, amoral become immoral.”

        Yes, that has been the rhetorical trick.

        If I, as an advocate for a political cause, frame my preferred policy in this manner, i.e., as a dire matter of consequence ‘fraught’ with implications for the ‘future of our species’, then those scientists working in related fields have no choice in the matter but to take sides and align themselves with you, isn’t it?

        It is just a form of the precautionary principle, which itself, is an offspring of the Pascal’s wager. “What if my steadfast neutrality costs the earth?”

        The ascendancy of science has meant that political causes are disguised and present as scientific imperatives.

        Then the outside world is told, ‘you have to accept this because science says so’ and those inside are brought on board as scientists would have to follow their own logic to its conclusions.

        What needs to be realized is that there is a meta-narrative of doom and catastrophe that arose independent of, and parallel to the growth of such disciplines as climate science and other environmental sciences. The meta-narrative provides the framework and the points de capiton on the which emerging, useful facts from climate science are arranged.

        The climate activist’s trick is to claim the facts emerged and arranged themselves to be so and there’s no other way to see it. ‘There is no other choice’.

      3. wootsup….

        So, at the moment it seems that if a climate scientist openly expresses an opinion about climate policy, they’re tagged as having lost some scientific credibility.

        ‘Tagged’? You will lose credibility with some people. Which behaviors cause others to trust or distrust is not your call. Each gets to decide for themselves. And in some issues, not passing analysis of facts through a “morality” filter will improve your credibility, with others the opposite occurs. You can complain this is unfair or try to use a verb liked ‘tagged’, but sometimes, things just are the way they are.

        I would argue that it would be much worse if climate scientists decided not to express an opinion if the evidence warranted doing so.

        You may argue that. But it would be interesting to see which evidence you use to decides whether their expressing their opinion on policy is warranted. The evidence about reality of climate change? Or the evidence that people may tag you as reporting biased science because you have become a policy advocate? And the evidence that people might refuse to act because they don’t trust science if they believe it has become tainted by policy advocates who might wish to act for different reasons?

        If action is vital, but your calling for action reduces the likelihood of action, then your calling for action could be deemed immoral. And nothing about understanding climate science suits anyone to being particularly well able to know whether your trumpeting your policy preferences reduces or increases the likelihood for action. So, insisting that your preference on advocating policy must be “moral” while someone else’s immoral isn’t particularly credible. It is especially not so when — as far as I can tell– you merely decree it ‘moral’ without regard to any evidence about the likely outcome of your decision to indulge in behavior you prefer.

        My view: the manner in which anyone who would pick a denigrating handle of containing ‘wottsupwiththat ‘ likely prefers the goal of polarizing. Having such a goal tends to result great loss of credibility with respect to their ability to be objective about either science or policy. Choice of that handle likely reduces your credibility on any climate issue to a low level and by polarizing decreases the likelihood that climate policies you prefer are adopted.

        Of course, I may be wrong. Possibly, polarizing, denigrating, mocking and other sorts of unfriendly behavior improves the likelihood of action and makes people believe you are dispassionate in your interpretation of science. (It’s worked so well so far. 🙂 ) I suspect you think so and will continue to believe that somehow, your behavior is advancing some cause you consider moral. But in the meantime, I — and I suspect many others– will be remain dubious about any claims about science or morality that comes from anyone who adopts a mocking/snarky handle of the sort you have elected to use.

      4. Lucia, I did wonder if my choice of handle may play a role in your response (assuming you made one – and I did wonder if you would). You may have a point. It was rather a spur of the moment choice, although it wasn’t intended to be denigrating – although it may seem that way. Imitation is sometimes regarded as the sincerest form of flattery – so not obvious why my choice of handle should be seen as denigrating and I would argue that I’ve tried hard to avoid making disparaging remarks about those with whom I disagree.

        Anyway, enough about me. I don’t really understand your response. My point was fairly simple and I thought I had at least agreed with part of what you said. As much as science should aim to be amoral, surely there are occasions when remaining amoral would be regarded as the wrong thing to do, given the evidence. I’m not suggesting that all scientists should suddenly become activists, simply that there may well be occasions in which it would seem appropriate for scientists to start advocating that action should take place so as to avoid a future problem. This isn’t necessarily specific to climate science, simply a hypothetical situation in which remaining amoral may not be appropriate, even if that is how we would typically encourage (or like) scientists to behave.

      5. SteveBloom’s argument seems to be that Tamsin’s position on the inadvisability of climate scientists advocacy is evidence that Tamsin is mistaken about what science tells us about the consequences of climate change. But if so, then Steve Bloom ought to be able to point out her scientific errors, as she is perfectly willing to present the scientific evidence for any consequences.

        I suspect that Steve Bloom will be either unwilling or (more likely) unable to point to any scientific errors on Tamsin’s part.

      6. wottsupwiththat…

        so not obvious why my choice of handle should be seen as denigrating and I would argue that I’ve tried hard to avoid making disparaging remarks about those with whom I disagree.

        Not obvious to whom? I would suggest it’s quite obvious the handle will be seen as denigrating ‘wattsupwiththat’ particularly as your subject matter is often criticism of wattsupwiththat and it does so even if the choice was “spur of the moment”. But you may chose to think it’s ambiguous if you wish to think so. That doesn’t change what the reader is likely to interpret one iota.

        However, if a scientist (or group of scientists) concludes that their evidence suggests that we – as a society – should act to prevent some future problem, wouldn’t it be immoral to remain amoral?

        Remain amoral on about what? About science? Science is by definition amoral on weighing evidence to test hypothesis. When it is not, it ceases to be science. Similarly, if you were to conclude, based on evidence, that future problems would be prevented if only 1+1=3, it would not become “immoral” to remain amoral and decree that, nevertheless 1+1=2. These is not a moral judgement– there are simply the definition of science and an amoral observation about math.

        So no, it would not become “immoral” to remain amoral about the practice of science. In fact, the question is simply non-sensical.

        If the bit you left out pf your question was “wouldn’t it be immoral to not advocate action”?, let me answer that by quoting myself– as I think what I wrote already answers that

        You may argue that. But it would be interesting to see which evidence you use to decides whether their expressing their opinion on policy is warranted. The evidence about reality of climate change? Or the evidence that people may tag you as reporting biased science because you have become a policy advocate? And the evidence that people might refuse to act because they don’t trust science if they believe it has become tainted by policy advocates who might wish to act for different reasons?

        If action is vital, but your calling for action reduces the likelihood of action, then your calling for action could be deemed immoral. And nothing about understanding climate science suits anyone to being particularly well able to know whether your trumpeting your policy preferences reduces or increases the likelihood for action. So, insisting that your preference on advocating policy must be “moral” while someone else’s immoral isn’t particularly credible. It is especially not so when — as far as I can tell– you merely decree it ‘moral’ without regard to any evidence about the likely outcome of your decision to indulge in behavior you prefer.

        As it seems possible that did not answer the question you asked in response to my saying it before, I’ll say this: Assuming you are correct that people must act on climate change, whether it might be immoral to advocate depends more on the evidence about whether the advocacy itself is likely to result in the action and less on the scientific evidence that action is required. And, I note your question does not specify
        (a) whether you have any evidence about how advocacy itself affects the likelihood of action,
        (b) how your brand of “wottsupwiththat…” advocacy is likely to affect action,
        (c) whether your group of scientists has the faintest expertise in determining whether advocacy (especially their method) will improve or degrade the likelihood of action and
        (d) whether they even care to contemplate whether their type of advocacy is leading to positive actions.

        So: since your conditional (i.e. these scientists have concluded we should act) is nearly irrelevant to deciding if their lack of advocacy would be immoral, and the relevant evidence is missing, I would suggest the answer is “Absolutely not”. Their judgement about the need to act does not make it immoral to not advocate.

      7. Steve Bloom · ·

        “she is perfectly willing to present the scientific evidence for any consequences.”

        No, and as James Annan just noted, so far she has been quite hesitant to do so, pretty much sticking to the meta. Indeed, after putting a teaser on the subject in one of her posts some months back, to this day she has neglected (unless I somehow missed it) to mention just what her group’s sensitivity results were. Wouldn’t want to prematurely scare off the natives, right?

        wotts, I assume you’re aware, but ICYMI Lucia is a rather famous purveyor of word salad.

      8. SteveBloom,
        It is the case that if someone asks me a question like “wouldn’t it be immoral to remain amoral?” I will answer it. It happens to be the case that answering such a question requires some discussion. Moreover, if someone tries to bundle up their claim, the full argument in support of their claim and all evidence for their claim with little more than ” I would argue that it would be much worse to X”, and I think it would not be much worse to “X”, I will engage that claim by providing my own discussion explaining why I think X is not ‘much worse’.

        If wottsupwiththatblog prefers to argue by merely saying “I would argue X” (providing no additional argument) or by asking what appear to be rhetorical questions (which possibly he thinks prove a point merely by being asked), I see nothing wrong with actually posting my argument or answering his question. He’s free to actually provide the argument he said he would argue or give his own answer to his own (apparently) rhetorical question. Or not.

  6. Elmar Veerman · · Reply

    Everybody agrees that dangerous climate change should be avoided. All governments have signed an agreement, stating that they will take measures to prevent the atmosphere from warming up more than 2 degrees Celsius. Scientists have a pretty good idea what should be done to reach that goal. So climate scientists have a good reason to advocate certain policies that bring the stated goal, on which everybody agrees, closer. All while maintaining their amorality.

    All they would be saying is: if you mean what you said, people of the world, here are your options. What you are doing right now doesn’t make sense and is definitely not part of those options.

    That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact.

    1. Remitrom · · Reply

      Sweeping statement that. Perhaps you could put a measure on where the CO2 levels should be or perhaps you could point me in the direction of any scientist that has put a clear figure on the ppm value. After all. at nearly 400 ppm (and still rising) and temperature stasis for 16+ years perhaps we are at the ideal now

  7. “Climategate has little resonance in the U.S.,”

    Yeah, right.

    As for the rest, let us first try to be (a) honest and responsible, here, in this life, in our lives first (b) hesitate a bit before readying to transfer our guilt to our children without compunction. Our children will value honesty, openness and cheerfulness than to remember us as dark guilt-ridden brooders who circumvented their progress. Honesty is a better foundation for the future than facile concern ‘for the planet’. The ‘planet’ doesn’t care. There is no ‘the planet’.

  8. Doug, some interesting points above, but this one I think one wasn’t helpful…

    “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.”

    We all find the climate debate frustrating, especially when our motives and moral characters are questioned. However, I don’t see any evidence that climate science has been ‘attacked’, or that climate scientists are made of stronger moral fibre than any other party in the debate. If there is a perception of a siege in climate science, it is owed less to the sceptics than to many parties’ expectations of science.

    If you acknowledge that climate science has been politicised by expectations, with scientists overstating the science for policy ends, you must also accept the implication that climate science becomes the battleground of a proxy war. That’s inevitable when so many political ambitions — from ending global capitalism, through to dolphin-friendly utopias — are invested in ‘what science says’.

    The climate scientists I *have* seen being attacked recently are: Mike Hulme, Richard Betts, Tamsin Edwards, and Judith Curry. Mostly the anger directed at them seems to be the result of their eschewing the notion of twin opposing camps in the debate, which seemingly gives succour to ‘deniers’.

  9. Paul Matthews · · Reply

    Doug, a very good and thoughtful post. It’s an interesting idea that the younger generation is learning from the experiences of, and dare I say, mistakes of, the previous generation. I don’t really know if this is true, but I hope so.
    Your “protecting the integrity of science in general is more important than…” is of course much the same as Tamsin’s “I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action”.

    It’s great to see a climate scientist point out that the analogy with doctors is a very poor one. I will try to remember your comments and refer to them next time someone tries to use it in an argument!

  10. Comitting to an opinion on a point contaminates your judgement on that point; it is desirable to keep professional judgements uncontaminated.

    If I say ‘global warming is a serious problem’, and then try and measure global warming, then I may (subconciously) interpret the uncertain measurements in a way supporting that assertion, biasing the result. In situations where the measurements are very uncertain, this effect could be important.

    The ideal experimenter is impartial about the system being studied. I want global warming measured by people who don’t care whether or not it is happening. (Who care only about the accuracy of their measurements).

    There is nothing wrong with advocacy, but be an advocate or an analyst, not both.

    I’m older than Doug.

    1. Michel Crucifix · · Reply

      +1. This is the advantage of working on palaeoclimates

  11. I agree that being policy neutral needs to at least be an accepted stance to take. The idea that a moderator would prod someone for an answer to a policy question should not be encouraged. Too often politicians are cited as being unable to formulate policy for lack of expertise (an argument which has no merit).

    All that said, I personally believe there is a distinction to be made between advocating for a specific policy and advocating awareness of a problem. I don’t agree that all value-derived statements should be stripped from science. The notion that a scientist should not make a value judgement on something like the unsustainable depletion of a vital water source seems absurd. However, it is possible to make value judgments without making policy recommendations.

  12. Steve Bloom · · Reply

    I’m curious what you make of this fresh effort at communication, Doug.

  13. I think this is all bizarre and ahistorical, as I said on Twitter. Scientists have been vigorously involved in policy since WWII and at least until recently have not been shy about promoting what can be fairly called the scientific worldview. This began in Britain (read some C P Snow rather than just mentioning him in passing) so this oddly misplaced fastidiousness over on your side is particularly baffling.

    The useful distinction is not between “science” and “advocacy” in my opinion. It is between “science” qua process and “scientists” qua participants.

    The process of science and its instruments (broadly construed, I am thinking primarily of the institutions in particular and the peer review system in particular) need to be scrupulously neutral, or they are hopeless at any of their missions, including effectively informing the public discourse. Certainly.

    But failure to inform the public discourse is as bad a failure as corrupting the science with opinion. This is where the analogy to medicine makes sense. It is as if you refused to take the advice of the best educated specialist on the grounds that it would corrupt their expertise to make recommendations. For heaven’s sake, why?

    Science asks the public to pay the costs of advancing human knowledge. Should that knowledge be hoarded as soon as it is seen to have substantive implications? Why exactly are they paying us again?

    The role of informing the public discourse must be performed by scientifically literate people. Pielke’s “honest broker” is dead weight in the absence of substantial domain expertise. The utter failure of the press and the resulting grotesque confusion that pervades public perception of just about any policy-relevant science demonstrate that we cannot leave the serious business of science communication to agenda-driven activists, self-promoting hucksters, and dilettante journalists.

    Those with the best grasp of a situation are the ones best in a position to explain and recommend the parameters of a workable policy.

    Consider the interesting spectacle of an agreement this week between Ray Pierrehumbert and Richard Muller on a policy-relevant matter. When these two dramatically different personalities with their dramatically different perspectives agree on something, I would not bet on the person they are disagreeing with.

    http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/two-climate-analysts-fault-gas-leaks-but-not-as-a-big-warming-threat/

    It’s very difficult to imagine such an immediate confluence of opinion among two nonscientists with comparably opposing politics.

    I think the example is instructive. Neither Muller nor Pierrehumbert has been shy about expressing opinions on the climate-energy nexus. Each has now (Muller with his BEST results and now Ray with his defense of fracking) have acted against the received wisdom of their respective activist allies when the evidence warrants.

    To claim that we need less of this, rather than more, utterly baffles me.

    Muller suggests we prepare for a very substantial warming. Ray thinks we should try to avoid it. But when it comes down to objective facts they are compelled to agree. Does this weaken science? Does it weaken politics? I think neither, to say the least.

    1. “the institutions in particular and the peer review system in particular) need to be scrupulously neutral”

      It’s a pity they’re not then, isn’t it? In fact there is a frequently invoked argument that sceptics must be wrong because nearly all the worlds big science institutions have position statements pronouncing that global warming is mostly human caused.

      This may be true, especially considering the positive adjustments made to station data, but this oft-invoked ‘consensus of the institutions’ hardly looks “scrupulously neutral” to me.

  14. Michel Crucifix · · Reply

    Perhaps as a backup of the comment above, I had a chance to have a look back at the book ‘Complexity’ by Mitchell Waldrop (Peter Cox’s gift, thanks Pete), p. 57 :

    “Then after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war was over, many of the scientists on the project started forming political activist groups lobbying for the strictest possible control of nuclear weaponry — civilian control, not military. Those years saw the founding of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a magazine for dealing with the social and political consequences of this new form of power, and the formation of activist organisations such as the Federation of Atomic scientists. (snip). “The people from the Manhattan Project who went to Washington were listen too very carefully” says Cowan. In the 1940s, after the bomb, the physical scientists were looked at too as miracle workers. (snip). “But that effort wasn’t as completely supported by scientists as it might have been” (snip) and the scientists’s activism largely died away. It was probably inevitable : the culture of science does not mix well with the culture of politics . “Scientists who go to Washington as scientists generally leave screaming” he says “it’s totally alien to them. They want politics to be made on the basis of logica and scientific facts, and that’s probably just a will-o’-the-wisp”. But for whatever reason, the researchers went happily back to their labs, leaving war to the generals and politics to the politicians. And in so doing, says Cowan, they blew a chance for access and influence that they may never have again.

    End of citation

    Sounds familiar, isn’t it ? Note the ‘ as scientists ‘ in the sentence “Scientists who go to Washington as scientists generally leave screaming”. And that’s the whole point : advocacy or activism obey to different rules and ethics than scientific practice. There is nothing wrong in politics in using the ethos argument (I “am” someone so listen to me) and the methods of political action and influence are very different than the logic of scientific discourse. I suppose that if a scientist feels the moral urge to use the register of political action and influence (s)he must be given the right to do it as long as this activity is clearly identified as such. But of course the ‘ethos’ argument has in principle no validity in a science article, and a scientist would loose rather than gain credit with respect to his/her peers if he/she was using it a little bit too systematically (though it is useful in proposal to funding agency). So, I suppose the open question is what scientist should do to protect his/her credit with respect to his/her peers if (s)he engages into political activism.

    @mcrucifix

  15. Gareth S Jones · · Reply

    I think there have been some really interesting points made here and on twitter.

    On one hand I don’t agree that climate scientists should never reveal their views about what (if anything) should be done about climate change – they are people too and their opinions are as valid as anyone elses.
    On the other hand I can see how it may distract from the science that may be being communicated possibly giving the impression of vested interests and that the scientist is actually knowleable in policy issues and should be listened to. And of course when giving scientific advice to policymakers political impartiality is important.
    [I personally have too many strong opinions on the science to have any left over for policy issues these days… 😉 ]

    I do disagree with Doug when he says the analogy of climate science with doctors giving advice is poor. His “planetary doctor” strawman is obviously easy to knock over but no one was suggesting that analogy.
    Historically doctors have suggested policies and changes to peoples behaviour in response to evidence about health problems caused by different factors. A doctor sees something that concerns him/her, finds evidence for the cause, recommends to officials what to do (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1854_Broad_Street_cholera_outbreak). To maintain the “trust” in medical science should the doctor have skipped the last step?

    I am not convinced that “trust” and “climate science policy” issue is one that concerns most people. It is something that climate “contrarians”/”denialists”/”conspiracy theorists” focus on. Do we spend too much time worrying about a small group of people’s views about climate science/scientists when they are unlikely to change those views? Should we spend more time on what needs to be done to maintain “trust” in climate science in the wider community? Why is “trust” in climate science important in the first place is probably a question worth asking.

    1. “Why is “trust” in climate science important in the first place is probably a question worth asking.”

      Because it was badly damaged in the public eye when the climategate emails revealed that the scientists were saying one thing to the policy makers and public, and another in discussion between themselves.

      In fact, your question should be:
      “Why is lack of “trust” in climate science important in the first place is probably a question worth asking.”

      Then you might get somewhere with the real problem.

  16. MTobis

    promoting what can be fairly called the scientific worldview

    Promoting the scientific worldview is not the same as promoting a specific policy to respond to climate change.

    you refused to take the advice of the best educated specialist on the grounds

    The difficulty with your analogy is that climate scientists are not the best educated specialists on policy responses to climate. And no one suggested they are not permitted to give advice in their area of specilization which is what the climate response is expected to be. So, your analogy is simply meaningless to Tamsin’s suggestion.

    Science asks the public to pay the costs of advancing human knowledge. Should that knowledge be hoarded as soon as it is seen to have substantive implications? Why exactly are they paying us again?

    I know these are rhetorical, but they are also besides the point. No one has come close to suggesting knowledge be hoarded. What is suggested is that people share their knowledge of climate, but not use that knowledge to try to gain their policy preference– which they have no expertise in. And moreover the public does not pay climate scientists to develop policy responses to climate. The public pays others to do policy, and the proper role of scientists would be to do what they are paid to do which is try to transfer knowledge about their area of expertise— here climate– and let those whose job is to develop policy use that information when developing policy.)

    Muller suggests we prepare for a very substantial warming. Ray thinks we should try to avoid it. But when it comes down to objective facts they are compelled to agree. Does this weaken science?

    Yep. If we get into the policy domain, two people who agree on science utterly disagree on policy. That is: agreement on the science does not dictate proper policy response. So, I should think this supports Tamsin’s suggestion: Stay out of policy advocacy.
    In fact, policy responses are not a primarily scientific issue. They are driven by lots and lots of other factors that have little or nothing to do with climate science. On that issue, the climate scientists may have opinions — but neither Ray, nor Mullers nor any other scientists is more valid than the joe down the block whose values might differ.

  17. Gareth

    Historically doctors have suggested policies and changes to peoples behaviour in response to evidence about health problems caused by different factors. A doctor sees something that concerns him/her, finds evidence for the cause, recommends to officials what to do (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1854_Broad_Street_cholera_outbreak). To maintain the “trust” in medical science should the doctor have skipped the last step?

    There is an important difference between this example and the one of climate scientists advocating policy. Policy decisions always require value and economic judgements. In the case of physicians, it has generally been the case much of the ‘value’ judgements are simply agreed on by everyone. That is: there is near universal preference for the notion that we should reduce cholera and that we should wish to spend a fair amount of money to prevent cholera epidemics. Neither of these preferences are based on medical expertise. Even people who have zero medical expertise have a strong preference for reducing deaths from recurring epidemics like those seen in places like London. In the case where there is near universal agreement on the value and economic, the only meaningful manner in which physician’s input is solicited is for medical expertise: That is, the answer questions like “Will doing X reduce cholera outbreaks?” This question is not a policy question at all. It is a subject matter question.

    Moreover, generally speaking, when physician’s seem to be providing policy advice it is in a area where there is broad agreement on value. Even so, controversies do erupt in matters like treatment for patients who are terminal. Society at large– and many doctors– recognize that the decision to use all means possible to extend live is not primarily a medical one. Moreover, policies related to those decisions are also not primarily medical. It’s not at all clear that physicians’s input on this is singularly valuable and their input is not necessarily weighted any more heavily than that of families whose relatives suffered agonies before death, religious figures and any number of other people.

    So: yes, doctors are consulted for their medical advice and on questions related to their specific medical advice. And in the Cholera outbreak, the expert gave essential input on a medical health issue. That input is along the lines to answer to things like “What is causing the outbreak?” or “If we fix this well, will that solve the local epidemic?” and “Should be avoid digging wells near sewers in future”. No one was asking him, “Are cholera outbreaks a bad thing?” or “Should we wish to reduce death’s due to cholera?”

    And I think Tamsin is saying you should answer the questions that fall directly in your domain of expertise, but not use your expertise on those things to try to elevate your position on questions that are dominated by value judgements or issues outside your realm of expertise. I would suggest that largely, the medical profession follows Tamsin’s advice, though this may not be obvious to those who forget that “I don’t want to die and I don’t want my friends to die” is a widely shared value and consequently, doctors “policy” advice is generally domain-specific ‘how-to’ advice given when actual policy makers ask, “What can we do to prevent people from dying?”

  18. Suppose a designated reporter DR from a daily magazine DM asks you about a problem P.

    You pause.

    Do you stick to facts? Perhaps not: you may believe that your judgement J is involved.

    How to decide if J is the best available, or even authoritative?

    If DR contacts you, is it not because he already knows this J?

    If DR had no remorse to advocates what helps DM to gain eyeballs, who cares about the legitimacy or not of J?

    Do you really believe that by not wish to advocate for anything, your J won’t be taken as such?

    The most important thing to what I’m saying right now is this: what you, the scientists, say matters n.

    As Frank Lunz says: it’s what people hear that matters.

  19. Steve Bloom · · Reply

    Richard and Doug, please see my reply to Richard near the top of the comments.

    If either of you think my analysis is incorrect, I would appreciate hearing why.

  20. […] scientists shouldn’t be advocates for particular policies, and kickstarted a huge debate. I liked Doug McNeall’s contribution, which includes lots of […]

  21. […] 2013/08/01: DMcNeall: Some more thoughts on advocacy in climate science […]

  22. […] scientists must not advocate particular policies“. Various rebuttals have appeared. Others support her. What do you […]

  23. […] I have been meaning to start a blog for some time, but it needed an issue that I felt strongly about to finally turn this intention into a reality. The trigger has been an excellent and thought-provoking piece written by Tamsin Edwards for the Guardian last week, entitled Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies. This generated a passionate debate on Twitter, prompting responses such as these by James Annan, Oliver Bothe, Sophie Lewis and Doug McNeall. […]

  24. This is a very nice civilized verbose argument. Following the lead of this item, which is mildly OT but shows the line of country we are headed for, I would suggest that those who remain silent abandon the field to others by default. Those others include a large field of less informed people and a large contingent with professional leadership who may or may not know they are being led into making political assertions in place of factual ones. Some of the more skilled distractionalists are busy at work here. They are happy to keep you from doing anything else other than arguing with them. They are everywhere, exploiting every little nook and cranny to promote ignorance.

    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/36822/title/Climate-Change-and-Violence/
    “Climate Change and Violence: .An analysis of 60 studies finds that warmer temperatures and extreme rainfall lead to a rise in violence.”

    I do wish I knew a better way to promote self-respect among the general population, but they would have to realize that said self-respect is not lazy and requires looking right into the facts and to some extent abandoning their addiction to ever more rapid media to do more study in depth. The AGU has done its bit, and I’m grateful to them for that.

    Those who know the most should not be silenced, though as to policy that is, as has been said, best left to those who know what they are talking about. I’d like to see the same with science, but it seems a very small minority have some very big megaphones and they are not at all bothered with qualms about morality about expressing their opinions.

  25. […] the discussion started by Tamsin’s post on advocacy in climate science, I tweeted a bunch of reasons that […]

  26. […] was going to write a long essay on why I try to avoid advocating for any one particular policy for climate, but I think this probably makes the point fairly […]

  27. […] over whether scientists should also be advocates for climate action (see here, here and here). Rockström […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: