by Judith Curry
By advocating social policy positions, scientists may be forfeiting their credibility, instead becoming just ordinary folks with opinions. – Greg Breining
The StarTribune has an interesting Commentary entitled Too much advocacy? Scientists and Public Policy (h/t Kip Hanson). Some excerpts:
James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently wrote in the New York Times that if Canada continues to pump oil from its tar sands, “it will be game over for the climate.” This from the same climate scientist who warned three years ago, “We’re toast if we don’t get on a very different path.”
Hyperbolic and emotional as they are, these statements are examples of a scientist speaking not as a scientist, but as an advocate. They address policy, not science. And for these kinds of proclamations, Hansen is embraced by environmentalists and excoriated by climate-change deniers.
But what about all the people in the middle? People who may be willing to accept that the globe is warming, that humans are probably responsible, but still wonder what we might do about it?
Most likely, their bullshit detectors just went on high alert.
JC comment: Finally, someone who gets it. The ‘bullshit detector’ issue is much more cogent IMO in explaining skepticism than ‘motivated reasoning.’
But by advocating policy positions — overtly or by stealth — scientists may be forfeiting their privileged positions as scientists and becoming just ordinary guys with opinions, and in the process, undercutting the credibility of their scientific work.
JC message to Jane Lubchenco: read previous paragraph 10 times.
“Scientists increasingly seem to be joining the political fray by equating particular scientific findings with political and ideological perspectives,” writes Roger Pielke, professor of environmental science at the University of Colorado. “From the perspective of the public or policymakers, scientific debate and political debate on many environmental issues already have become indistinguishable.”
At least Hansen’s flag is flying in the breeze for all to see. Other advocacy masquerading as science is harder to recognize — so difficult that scientists themselves may not see it.
George Wilhere of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife calls it “inadvertent advocacy” and labels it “professional negligence.” Robert T. Lackey of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls it “stealth policy advocacy.”
JC comment: ‘professional negligence’, I haven’t seen that label used in this context. I agree in principle, but the professional coda for research scientists does not emphasize this point. I think a big part of the problem is that this is so widespread and the ‘norm’ in some fields, that most scientists aren’t even aware of their stealth advocacy.
Erica Fleishman, researcher at John Muir Institute of the Environment, University of California, Davis, had noticed stealth advocacy in the research papers submitted to Conservation Biology after she was hired as editor a bit more than two years ago. It didn’t occur often — in perhaps one paper in 10. But she began asking authors to strike unsubstantiated opinions and policy statements, or at the very least, identify them as opinions.
“In the scientific papers themselves I encouraged authors to use value-neutral language. Stick to the facts rather than emotion,” Fleishman says. “I really wanted the journal to be seen as an honest broker of science to anyone who cares to use science regardless of their politics.”
This spring, the Society for Conservation Biology gave Fleishman the boot. She was told that some authors and the governing board were, as Fleishman recalls, “unhappy with your insistence that policy preferences and value statements either not be included or be clearly identified as opinion in research papers.”
JC comment: wow, I hadn’t previously heard about this. I know next to nothing about the field and culture of conservation biology, but it seems appalling that the Society for Conservation Biology came out explicitly in favor of including policy preferences and value statements in scientific papers.
First, a lot of people will become not just skeptical, but unreasonably so. People are always looking for ways to avoid challenging information — Al Gore’s movie is called “An Inconvenient Truth,” after all. By being able to suspect the motives of the messenger, listeners can discard the whole unpleasant message.
Second, not only will individual scientists lose credibility, but the whole scientific endeavor will become just another story, a narrative concocted for dramatic effect or self-serving motives. Science will become just another advocacy group — in a lab coat.
Third, a collapse in credibility means that science will play an even less constructive role in public-policy debates. And when “stealth advocacy” enters the debate dressed up as science, it will become a proxy for clearly expressed values so that the values themselves are never discussed. As Wilhere puts it, “Inadvertent policy advocacy undermines the rational political discourse necessary for the evolution of society’s values.”
Finally, while scientists have plenty to contribute to public debate as “honest brokers” of scientific knowledge, they are not particularly good at staking out policy. This is why we elect politicians and hire regulators.
But scientists’ advocacy in politically charged debates does give opponents an opportunity to impeach their credibility and turn the conversation from science, which is hard to argue, to motives and doubt, which are a lot easier.
JC summary: In the previous post on this topic Activate (?) your science, I addressed problems associated with integrity in science. This article clearly lays out the problems with advocacy by scientists in public policy debates.
To those who think better ‘communication’ is the key to action in the climate change debate, with scientists as activist/communicators, I hope that they will realize the damage done to their policy agenda (not to mention the science) by this strategy.