The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1)


Credit: National Center for Atmospheric Research; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. DOE

Scandalous, isn’t it? How medical researchers keep saying that we need to develop new treatments for disease, I mean. Or suggesting that people should change their exercise and eating habits to reduce their risks for developing medical problems—that is so out of line. Complex economic, social, and political variables are every bit as relevant to sound healthcare policy as narrowly biomedical ones are, if not more so, and scientists’ expertise does not carry over into those areas. The decision to help people live full, healthy lifespans carries profound consequences and tradeoffs that should not be dismissed lightly. Researchers’ presumptuous advocacy for a healthier population undermines their value as objective evaluators of medical science in the eyes of the public. Thank heavens the pro-disease lobby is here to slap them down for it.

While I’m at it, these astronomers urging the government to build an asteroid-collision defense system ought to hush up, too. Yes, someday a big asteroid will slam into the Earth again, and maybe it would take out a city or worse. But that could be centuries from now, and for astronomers to petition that work on a space defense should begin now shows not only unprofessional bias on the subject but a careless, nay, reckless disregard for all the other priorities facing the government. Astronomers’ proper role is to keep on watching the stars and to announce an impact with Los Angeles or wherever when it is imminent. Our leaders in Washington, D.C., will sort out what to do then in a timely way.

–Forgive the heavy-handedness of the satire, but you take my point. Climate scientists often get criticism, some of it from their own peers, when they speak out about a need to take rising temperatures seriously and to act accordingly. To do so is characterized as unprofessional if not counterproductive. My PLOS BLOGS sibling and climate scientist Tamsin Edwards made that argument herself recently in “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies,” co-posted on The Guardian’s Political Science blog.

I respectfully disagree. I’m all for scientists being clear about the limits of their expertise, and it is unquestionably true that the findings of climate science are only one component of what should figure into sound climate policy. Yet the admonition for scientists not just to stay out of politics but to stay out of conversations relevant to politics gets pushed to ridiculous extremes—extremes that somehow aren’t usually seen to apply to other issues, as in my tongue-in-cheek examples above.

In the title of her post, Tamsin’s objects to climate scientists advocating “particular policies,” but as I read it—and my apologies if I’m getting this wrong—it seems as though her objection goes far beyond partisanship for a specific piece of legislation or other detailed plan that I would consider a policy. It seems as though she faults them for publicly favoring any general end, such as cutting CO2 emissions by unspecified amounts over an unspecified timetable. To me, that seems to curb their useful contributions to a policy discussion unduly.

Tamsin writes (emphasis added):

But I care more about restoring trust in science than about calling people to action; more about improving public understanding of science so society can make better-informed decisions, than about making people’s decisions for them. Science doesn’t tell us the answer to our problems. Neither should scientists.

I appreciate the good intentions of that sentiment, but allowing scientists to speak about policies is a far cry from making people’s decisions for them. When have scientists ever had this tyrannical power to bend policy to their will? Really, has there ever been any important policy issue on which scientists were given free rein to decide what should be done without pushback from nonscientists? It’s evading me if it has. The reality, I think, is that when scientists speak out about climate, policymakers and the public recognize them as just one more voice in the din.

So the selectiveness with which climate scientists are so often singled out for censure seems odd and unnecessary to me, and it is only one reason why I disagree with that recommendation. Here are a few more.

Politics isn’t a dirty word. Granted, many people hate to argue politics, and I do understand the risks to individual scientists and climate science itself in becoming embroiled in such matters. But Tamsin’s recommendation presupposes that there is much choice in the matter. No matter how we respond to climate change, whether by pushing for mitigation or adaptation or doing nothing at all, there will be economic, social, and political consequences that outrage and disadvantage someone. People will find reasons to blame climate scientists no matter what they do, or what they fail to do.

Politics is messy, rude, and frustrating because it’s supposed to be. It’s how we are supposed to thrash out conflicting views, interests, and ideas to arrive (ideally) at sensible compromises. Completely removing scientists from that discussion when they could be passionate, informative participants in it sounds like a failure for democracy. We shouldn’t be pushing to protect science from politics; we should be pushing for a better informed, more honest and more reasonable politics that climate science needn’t fear.

The prohibition is asymmetrical. Even if scientists did avoid making policy statements, politicians, industrialists, environmentalists and everyone else still involved in the struggle would continue to make claims about the science, many of which would be wrong (through ignorance or design) and some of which would make their way into policy. I can’t imagine the outcome of that being good for science or society.

Avoiding political involvement is a losing strategy in politics. If climate science is presented as only weakly or subordinately relevant to climate policy, then its role in policy discussions will only become more marginal. Those who counsel scientists to stay away from policy statements seem to think that their standing will improve if they surface in these discussions only as neutral sources of information. To me, that’s naïve: political figures frequently don’t want good information as much as they want good messages, because good messages are compelling. Scientists who scrupulously avoid connecting their findings to policy recommendations risk coming across as passionless and disconnected.

In her post, Tamsin credits her “hardline approach” with “taking the politics and … the heat out of climate science discussions,” and she takes pride in skeptics considering her an “honest broker” rather than a zealot. That may be so, but I have a suspicion they accept her because at some level they see her the way Douglas Adams said the alien authors of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy saw the human race: “Mostly harmless.”

Even a semblance of policy neutrality is impossible to maintain to those who demand it. The problem with trying to remain above the fray in politics is that the fray will rise to engulf you. In a policy debate as fiercely polarized as the one over climate is, both sides will eventually interpret your silence in keeping with their suspicions or needs. Those opposing strong climate actions will sniff for any trace of bias in your statements and then accuse you of pursuing a secret agenda. Alternatively, they may co-opt you as a passive ally by claiming that your silence only proves that policy proposals lack good scientific support. And if you try to correct those impressions, your bubble of neutrality pops.

Look at how the views of climatologists are commonly caricatured. James Hansen has been described for the past quarter century as a doomcrier who sees imminent apocalypse unless we all but abandon industrial civilization—whereas for much of that time, Hansen has actually been  rather optimistic about the possibility that modest, committed changes in emissions policies could avert many of the most serious problems. (I’m not sure how optimistic his current views are.) Or look at the late Steven Stephen H. Schneider. I think most of those who knew him would agree that he worked to be a balanced, responsible voice in climate discussions, and that he tried to present climate science from a position of reasonableness in his outreach to the public. Yet opponents of climate action painted him as a lying extremist. I’m thinking, for instance, of Bjorn Lomborg’s choice in The Skeptical Environmentalist to pull an old quotation from Schneider out of context so that it sounded like he was in favor of lying to the public about climate science. Lomborg continued to repeat that interpretation of Schneider’s remarks long after the error was pointed out to him.

[Update added 8/12/13: Bjorn Lomborg contacted me via Twitter to protest that my statement about him is incorrect: “You claim that I misrepresent Schneider in The Skeptical Environmentalist but I never cite him. In my answer to Scientific American, I refer to his *entire* quote, including both ‘honest and effective.’ So I never called Schneider a ‘lying extremist’ and didn’t continue to repeat it ‘long after the error was pointed out’ to me. Might be worth correcting? All the best, Bjorn. P.S. We actually dedicated ‘Cool It’ film to Schneider.” For now, I’m going to note his complaint and I’ll reexamine my evidence about this in preparation for a further comment or retraction. What I do recall clearly, though, is that in my conversations with Schneider, he was specifically irritated about this very point—because he was the one who called my attention to Lomborg’s use of the quote in the first place.][Update added 8/13/13: And indeed, I did err in my statement. A full discussion of that error and of the history of the abuse of Schneider’s words can be found here.]

Scientists commenting on policy doesn’t seem to have much effect in any case. Let’s face it, the liberty that climate scientists have felt to advocate for policy to date certainly hasn’t swung the public to their side very forcefully. Some critics may perversely argue that if scientists hadn’t spoken up, more of the public would favor acting on climate—but that’s a position that makes no sense at all. If one credits the case for cultural cognition that Daniel Kahan and others have been building in recent years, people’s attitudes toward the climate issue are largely predetermined by their other cultural affiliations. As such, I’m not sure it makes any difference what climate scientists say, so why shouldn’t they advocate for policies they think might help? Or rather: Understanding those cultural influences might be useful in crafting more persuasive ways of conveying climate messages, and scientists may not always be the best ones to deliver those messages, but that isn’t automatically reason for them to sit out the discussion.

The climate debate was politicized long before scientists came to it. But I think I’ll hold off on reviewing the extensive evidence for this point until my next post.

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9 Responses to The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1)

  1. Pingback: The inevitable politics of climate science (part 2) | Retort

  2. Susan Anderson says:

    Admirable! I cannot praise highly enough the straightforward thinking and writing here. Though rereading it I see the sting in the tail leads rather than following … and rightly so.

    I presume to extract your headings from the article above (and one parenthesis), which make the point as clear as it can be, though some sophists will no doubt find a way to indicate their freedoms are more important than those of the rest of us:

    Politics isn’t a dirty word.
    The prohibition is asymmetrical.
    Avoiding political involvement is a losing strategy in politics.
    Even a semblance of policy neutrality is impossible to maintain to those who demand it. (Look at how the views of climatologists are commonly caricatured.)
    Scientists commenting on policy doesn’t seem to have much effect in any case.
    The climate debate was politicized long before scientists came to it.

    Thank you.

  3. LearDog says:

    “I’m all for scientists being clear about the limits of their expertise”. But of course, they haven’t. Not at all. Nor have they engaged in honest, factual debate. Their approach is not at ALL scientific – continually trying to PROVE their hypothesis, rather than the inverse of setting a clear null hypothesis and changing their hypothesis to address the data.

    When honest scientists are quiet when the likes of Gore, Mann, Briffa, Jones, Pachuri and Hansen represent the state of the art of their craft – their aggregate reputation suffers. The only person who has dared take them on (Curry) is considered a pariah.

  4. James says:

    ‘In the title of her post, Tamsin’s objects to climate scientists advocating “particular policies,” but as I read it—and my apologies if I’m getting this wrong—it seems as though her objection goes far beyond partisanship for a specific piece of legislation or other detailed plan that I would consider a policy. ‘

    Yes, you’ve got it wrong. Your apology is accepted.

    • John Rennie says:

      Thank you. You’re very magnanimous.The correction would be more persuasive if it were coming from Tamsin herself, however.

      In the Twitter exchange with climatologist Gavin Schmidt to which she referred in her column, the specific issue seems to have been whether it’s appropriate for climate scientists even to discuss a carbon tax (Tamsin said no, Gavin said yes with caveats). Opinions on this may vary, but I think broad public discussion of an idea like the carbon tax—a measure that hinges entirely on its details—is a far cry from advocating a specific policy. And if mere public discussion of something like a carbon tax is supposed to be off limits for scientists, then it’s hard to see how my interpretation of her suggestion is not in fact correct.

      I should also emphasize that although I pointed out Tamsin’s remarks, I’m more concerned with a sentiment shared by many others that scientists really should keep their mouths shut about anything related to policy because it would be an abuse of their expert standing (even if the politicians and economists in the discussion suffer no similar rebuke against getting the science wrong). Strangely enough, many of these people also seem to think the need for any action is less urgent than the scientists often do, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

  5. Pingback: A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation | Retort

  6. Pingback: The futility of “just the facts” climate science | Grist

  7. Pingback: Politics, culture, and global warming |

  8. As a citizen of the USA, James Hansen and any other citizen has the right to comment on policy. Freedom and Citizenship come with that responsibility.