by Judith Curry
. . . some scientists are mixing up their role with that of a climate activist. – Lennart Bengtsson
Professor Bengtsson’s persecution shows precisely why independent think-tanks such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation are essential. Truly, the old joke is becoming ever more true: what’s the opposite of diversity? University. – Matt Ridley
At Climate Etc., I have had numerous posts on the issue of scientists engaging in advocacy:
The real issues for scientists engaging in public policy debates (whether or not they are advocates) are even more complex than the simple choice to advocate or not. Some recent comments illustrating the conundrums facing climate scientist who engage with the policy process and politics:
Bengtsson tells the Mail: “Some people like my views, other people don’t, that is the way when it comes to science.” That’s precisely the point. Science is a methodical process of open inquiry. Those who enforce orthodoxies and engage in name-calling aren’t doing science, even if they’re scientists.
Steve McIntyre: Begtsson’s planned participation in GWPF seemed to me to be the sort of outreach to rational skeptics that ought to be praiseworthy within the climate “community”.
Johanna Haigh: “Whatever anyone’s views are on the role, motivation and integrity of the GWPF in this matter, it is up to individual academics whether or not to associate themselves with it.
“It is regrettable that perceived political stances on the climate issue are apparently so affecting academic activity. The Grantham Institute at Imperial has always opposed such behaviour, believing that scientific progress requires an open society. We try to engage with a wide range of figures, some with radically different views on climate change.”
“The outcome in this case is probably a reflection of the ‘us and them’ that has permeated the climate science debate for decades and which is in part an outcome of – and reaction to – external pressure on the climate community.
Tweets from Tamsin Edwards @flimsin:
I understand why some think disagreement makes science look less reliable, but I believe masking it makes it look worse.
I disagree with people being judged by who they talk to, rather than by what they say. For those asking me I can say some general thoughts: I think it’s better if sceptical organisations have access to mainstream scientists
Tweet from Ryan N. Maue
So senior scientists want to be involved in climate politics but not get dirty in the process?
In his resignation letter, Bengtsson stated: It is a situation that reminds me about the time of McCarthy. Is what is happening to Bengtsson ‘McCarthyism’? Well, there are insufficient details to tell exactly what kind of intimidating emails Bengtsson has been receiving. An article in the National Review entitled Science As McCarthyism has some interesting comments on this issue:
Especially significant was a tweet from Gavin Schmidt, a leading climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute, who for many years worked alongside James Hansen. “Groups perceived to be acting in bad faith should not be surprised that they are toxic within the science community,” Schmidt tweeted. “Changing that requires that they not act in bad faith and not be seen to be acting in bad faith.”
Evidently the right to practice and discuss climate science should be subject to a faith test. It is an extraordinarily revealing development. Fears about unbelievers’ polluting the discourse, as some academics put it, illustrate the weakness of climate science: The evidence for harmful anthropogenic global warming is not strong enough to stand up for itself.
Climate McCarthyism has been described in a post by the Breakthrough Institute entitled Climate McCarthyism Part I: Joe Romm’s intimidation campaign. I have been ‘McCarthy-ed’ by Joe Romm, having been frequently referred to as ‘the most debunked climate scientist on the planet’, ‘anti-science’, etc. For a recent example, recall the treatment of Roger Pielke Jr’s 538 article.
So what is the impact on a scientist of the so-called climate McCarthyism? As a result of smearings by Romm, Mann, et al., I am excluded from serious consideration for administrative positions at universities, offices in professional societies, consideration for awards from professional societies, a number of people won’t collaborate with me, and anyone who wants to invite me to be a keynote speaker has to justify this in light of all the cr*p that shows up if you google ‘Judith Curry’. Does any of this really ‘matter’? I’ve convinced myself that it doesn’t (well not as much as my own conscience and integrity), but I suspect that such things would matter to most scientists.
Joe Romm engaging in such practices is reprehensible, but it is an issue of much greater concern when other scientists do it (notably Michael Mann). Bengtsson’s concern was raised over his treatment and the reactions by his so-called ‘colleagues.’ Having dirt thrown at a scientist as part of the political process is one thing; when their own colleagues start throwing the dirt, then this becomes a frightening situation for science.
Is it appropriate to call this ‘McCarthyism’? I don’t know, and that’s not really the point. The key concern is attempts stifle open scientific inquiry and policy debates on the topic of climate change. Bishop Hill perhaps more aptly describes this as ‘The bigotry of the consensus.’
Scientist engagement with think tanks and advocacy groups
It is is somehow perfectly acceptable to involve green advocates (including those employed by green advocacy groups such as Greenpeace) as authors on the IPCC reports (Donna LaFramboise has discussed this). But holy hell breaks loose when a scientist like Bengtsson takes an unpaid position on the advisory board of think tank that is not ‘green.’
Whether or not a scientist is an advocate, they may choose to become involved with think tanks and/or advocacy groups. From the Wikipedia:
A think tank (or policy institute, research institute, etc.) is an organization that performs research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, and culture. Most policy institutes are non-profit organizations, which some countries such as the United States and Canada provide with tax exempt status. Other think tanks are funded by governments, advocacy groups, or businesses, or derive revenue from consulting or research work related to their projects.
If you look at the Wikipedia list, groups like Cato, Heartland, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Pacific Research Institute are included on the Think Tank list, whereas Greenpeace, Environmental Defense, National Resources Defense Council are not included. The latter group are referred to as advocacy groups. Some think tanks play an advocacy role; the key issue is whether they actually lobby (in which case they lose their tax exempt status).
All of these arcane details are of relevance to discussion about the GWPF, which is a think tank (as per UK list) with tax exempt status. Bob Ward is claiming that GWPF is lobbying (I do not think that it is) and therefore should not have tax exempt status; apparently the GWPF is now undergoing a change to remove the tax exempt status to avoid this particular criticism.
Back to Gavin Schmidt’s ‘groups perceived to be acting in bad faith.’ Apparently advocacy groups acting according to the UNFCCC/IPCC ideology are acting in ‘good faith’, whereas the think tank GWPF is acting in ‘bad faith’ since it questions the UNFCCC/IPCC ideology.
The irony of the situation is this. I do not regard Bengtsson as an activist or an advocate; rather he is a scientist that wishes to engage in the policy discussions and debates surrounding climate change. Gavin Schmidt is a self-declared advocate (who does not apparently have any direct affiliation with any think tanks or advocacy groups).
So, should a scientist engage with think tanks or advocacy groups? If so, what are the pitfalls? In my early days of trying to navigate this, circa 2005, I participated in several events organized by green advocacy groups. I scrupulously avoided taking any funds (for travel, honorarium, etc). Even so, this triggered the accusation by Roger Pielke Jr that I was a ‘stealth advocate’, or was being ‘used’ by green advocacy groups. Since then, I’ve avoided any formal contact with think tanks or advocacy groups, although at one point I visited Fred Smith at the Competitive Enterprise Institute while I was in DC to follow up on an extensive email exchange.
I am starting to rethink this, since I think that think tanks have the potential for stimulating interdisciplinary discussions on the major policy issues, that are difficult to undertake in an academic or university environment. So I may start to engage a little bit more with think tanks. The next issue is then whether to accept funding from a think tank (for travel, service on a report, consulting, etc). I am currently in a position where I don’t need the funds, but that position might change soon. The green witch hunt to identify any hint of indirect funding from an energy company or the Koch brothers makes this a tricky issue to navigate.
There is a high degree of hypocrisy here, whereby employees of green advocacy groups can participate as authors of the IPCC reports (without apparent criticism), but a non-advocate scientist cannot participate in a (non-green) think tank without censure from scientist colleagues. Scientists should be judged for the arguments and the integrity of their behavior, and should not be censured over who they choose to talk to. Wider participation of climate scientists in substantive debates regarding climate policy is a good thing. Honest brokers are to be preferred over advocates; but the real problem arises when advocates seek to stifle scientific and policy debates.