31 July 2013

Informed opinions: surplus to requirements?

How Americans view climate scientists
My brilliant pal Jamie Vernon alerted me to a column written by Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol entitled "Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies." I really don't mean to insult someone who has clearly done so much to help educate people on this critical issue, but I just can't endorse her approach to policy.

I hope you read the entire piece because I don't want to be accused of taking quotes out of context, but here are some of the "high" points.  Dr. Edwards writes:
I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence...
Even scientists who are experts – such as those studying the interactions between climate, economy and politics, with "integrated assessment models" – cannot speak for us because political decisions necessarily depend on values...
To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicise their preferred policy options. 
To be fair, I can't tell if Dr. Edwards is only applying this argument to climate scientists.  I don't know where she stands on the American Academy of Pediatrics' advocacy for mandatory vaccines to enter public schools, or the National Science Teachers Association's public position on teaching evolution and not creationism in public schools, or even Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson's public opposition to cuts in NASA's budget.  Maybe she thinks these specific policy issues aren't multifaceted or don't require "values" to debate.

I do agree with Dr. Edwards about something: trust in science has been diminished in the debate over climate.  But it's for two specific reasons.  First, too many climate scientists are actually taking Dr. Edwards' advice and sitting out the difficult conversations where leaders hash out actual, specific solutions.  Second, the "advocacy" from many climate scientists has just plain sucked.  A disorganized group of people with little to no experience in communications or politics have prioritized mediocre tactics and scattershot messaging over a coherent and well-executed campaign strategy. In my experience as a communications professional, I think you lose virtually all your credibility not by having a "skin in the game" or an interest to disclose, but by outlining a problem without suggesting a solution.

Meanwhile, climate science's opponents have virtually no credible analysis on their side, yet they continue to just plain crush this community through a multi-faceted campaign of mass communication, obfuscation, intimidation, and lobbying.

Sadly, I think essays like the one written by Dr. Edwards is just the latest example of climate scientists being figuratively beaten into submission. Standing up for your beliefs is a courageous thing to do, and we need those who have the most knowledge on this topic to stand with us.


Anonymous said...

Scientists of all persuasion, be they molecular biologists,chemists, aerodynamicists or physicists... All scientists HAVE to speak out when falsehoods, misinformation and flat-out lies are propagated in the name of political manipulation.

When billionaires are funding propaganda specifically aimed at obfuscating the facts and the truth in pursuit of their own personal agenda, it is VITAL that those scientists with fact, logic and data, TEAR those falsehoods to shreds.

How can any scientist (I am one) stand by, as misinformation, lies, slander and stupidity seek to demolish the foundation of fact, truth and impartiality that science is built on.

We need to point out that the same science that brought us the steam engine, electricity, flight, the iPod, WiFi, antibiotics is the science that brings us climate change and evolution; the same rigour, the same methodology, the same adherence to data, facts and logic....

The fact that SOME science has been politicized, does not change the scientific method; if we are dealing with factions that want to argue the facts, then we need to point out that those people arguing climate change, might as well argue about aerodynamics, or DNA sequencing; they have as much "fact" and "knowledge" of those subjects as they do regarding climate change, but those sciences have not been politicized in the same manner that climate change, or evolution have been.

It's time for the nonsense to STOP.! Use brutally efficient tactics to overwhelm their self-serving fallacies; flood them with peer-reviewed documents; call them liars when they lie, destroy their straw-man arguments with data.

The general public is being led down a path where personal, uninformed opinion has become equivalent to actual fact and truth.

Paul Vincelli said...

I agree that scientists have important public voices, but Dr. Edwards writes about the problem of promoting *particular* policy solutions. I very much make the case that we humans should address the causes of climate change. However, whether we do that through carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, geoengineering, subsidies to renewables, nuclear energy, etc., etc., are not scientific questions. Yes, we can inform the discussion with good science, but these are policy questions, not scientific questions, and if we use our platform as scientists to promote our particular policy solutions, we undercut our credibility as scientists. At a conference about a year ago, Jon Krosnick at Stanford presented unpublished data showing exactly that: that trust was eroded when scientists spoke about policy solutions. So this isn't just conjecture. Each scientist must come to her/his own decision on this question, but there is clearly no one "right answer".

Anonymous said...

She is talking about climate science - the clue is in the title. Unlike most climate scientists, and unlike you, she has talked to skeptics and learnt what their concerns are. One of these is scientists behaving like advocates for political actions.

The first anon talks of billionaires funding propaganda. Al Gore perhaps?

David said...

To clarify something for anonymous commenter (comment #3) - I've spoken with far more than my fair share of climate skeptics over the years. I worked on energy issues for a US Senator. I lived in Kentucky, an unapologetic coal state, for years. I work very hard to discuss things and reason with people who don't think the way I do.

With respect, the idea that having expertise on a subject disqualifies you from advocating a particular point of view related to that subject is just wrong.

If the author is only talking about climate science, as you point out, she hasn't shown why this specific area is so special that only non-experts can debate it.

In Congress these issues were not afforded some special "fast track" status that limited amendments or restricted debate to a single chamber, like trade bills or executive nominations.

I really think that point of view is undemocratic. This is a common tactic of those who find themselves losing an argument on the merits - try to prevent your opponent from discussing the merits.

The perverse logic that learning about a topic makes you less credible on it is really a threat to freedom.

MikeR said...

Edwards is 100% right. The comparison to vaccines and such isn't relevant: There is no real scientific debate about vaccines. There is a tremendous scientific debate about exactly how much warming to expect, what the ecological and sociological impacts will be, what it will cost to mitigate and who will be hurt either way. Many of us see that publicly visible climate scientists are not restricting themselves on these issues to what they actually know about.

Generally, scientists are pretty trusted; most of us who are not scientists will assume that we should accept their judgments on the facts. However, that trust can be lost, and has been lost here. It isn't because of a billion-dollar disinformation campaign - Gleick managed to prove pretty well that there isn't one and isn't that much money out there against pro-AGW - it's because scientists who act like PR people don't look like scientists any more.
"After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you've lost the power to convince them of anything else."

David said...

the comparison to vaccines is indeed relevant - first, there is an active group of people who deny their scientific validity in the same way that climate skeptics do, and there are intricate issues about vaccine schedules and combinations and how to deal with allergies and objections and other issues. I do work in that area, I have personal experience with it.

as for the rest of your comment, if you don't think there's a well-financed effort to obfuscate science, on any number of issues, you've never worked in politics or PR. Generally speaking each side points to their own "facts" while urging you to ignore the other side's "myths."

you are certainly right that some scientists advocate positions beyond their expertise. The same is undeniably true for skeptics. the same is undeniably true for members of Congress.

People who are disciplined and effective communicators are more likely to reach their goals. Scientists don't have to "act like PR people," whatever that means, but they should be strategic in communicating their priorities and not simply tactical. Everyone has to communicate.

My concern is that scientists who have well-informed opinions are being bullied out of the debate. If you want to have a discussion about what constitutes the most effective communications strategy, I think that's a great discussion to have. Some people may go overboard and lose credibility. Many, indeed most, won't.

And here's the other thing - I'm not saying people without expertise are disqualified from debating. I'm not saying you need a PhD in an issue to be relevant. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a voice.

srp said...

The host has a huge bias in understanding the public debate over climate science and climate policy. He actually believes that people like Judith Curry, Richard Lindzen, Steve McIntyre, Andrew Montford, etc. are part of some giant, well-funded PR operation to help fossil-fuel interests. And he also appears to believe that the ethanol, solar, wind, nuclear, and green lobbies do not collectively have greater institutional and financial support--by far--than the constantly vilified opponents of activist climate policy.

But anyone studying the institutional structure of climate policy will see that the activists control the high ground everywhere, from the IPCC to NASA to the White House office of science policy. Activist propaganda in the mass media and in K-12 education outnumbers its opponents by at least an order of magnitude.

The delusion that all the activist side needs to win is "more cowbell" in the form of better, tighter messaging is PR myopia. Even the pro-activist academic literature from science-studies, communications-studies, etc., shows pretty convincingly that more scientific information, more consensus-touting, and more alarmism have zero or counterproductive effects on motivating the public to support CO2 mitigation.

Ralf said...

This is gorgeous!