As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate. – Tamsin Edwards
Tamsin Edwards has an excellent post entitled Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies. Excerpts:
As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate.
This comes mainly from environmentalists. Dan Cass, wind-farm director and solar advocate, preferred me not to waste my time debating “denialist morons” but to use political advocacy to “prevent climate catastrophe”. Jeremy Grantham, environmental philanthropist, urged climate scientists to sound a “more desperate note…Be arrested if necessary”. A concerned member of the public judged my efforts at public engagement successful only if they showed ”evidence of persuasion”.
Others ask “what should we do?” At my Cheltenham Science Festival event Can we trust climate models? one of the audience asked what we thought of carbon taxes. I refused to answer, despite the chair’s repeated requests and joke (patronisingly; his aim was to entertain) that I “shouldn’t be embarrassed at my lack of knowledge”.
Even some of my colleagues think I should be clearer about my political beliefs. In a Twitter debate last month Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and blogger, argued we should state our preferences to avoid accusations of hidden agenda.
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. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.
But it’s not just about improving trust. In this highly politicised arena, climate scientists have a moral obligation to strive for impartiality. We have a platform we must not abuse. For a start, we rarely have the necessary expertise. I absolutely disagree with Gavin that we likely know far more about the issues involved in making policy choices than [our] audience.
To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicise their preferred policy options.
Others say it is simplistic and impossible to separate science from policy, or that all individuals are advocates. But there is a difference between giving an estimate of the consequences of a particular action and giving an opinion on how or whether to take that action; between risk assessment, estimating the probability of change and its effect on things we care about, and risk management, deciding how to reduce or live with that risk. A flood forecaster provides a map of the probability of flooding, but she does not decide what is an unacceptable level of risk, or how to spend the budget to reduce the risk (sea defences; regulation of building and insurance).
I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment. 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.
The twitosphere is abuzz with discussion on this. I won’t attempt to summarize, but the most interesting response (to me) was a post by David Westcott entitled Informed opinions: surplus to requirements. Excerpts:
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.
JC comment: seems like a strong argument for climate scientists not engage in advocacy, seems to be counterproductive to their ’cause.’
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.
Pielke Jr tweets that he doesn’t like the title:
Title just wrong. Advoacy of policy (defn=a specific course of action) is just fine. You are advocating actions to increase trust.
There is also discussion of a generational and gender divide in terms of perspectives on this issue.
JC comments: Bravo Tamsin! Many scientists don’t understand when they are being a political/policy advocate. I recall a few years ago when I was discussing this issue with a mainstream climate scientist and IPCC coordinating lead author. He did not regard himself as an advocate, for this reason which I paraphrase based on my memory of the exchange: “I just tell people what needs to be done in terms of how much emissions need to be reduced on what time scale. I don’t tell them how to do it in terms of which policies to use in the emission reduction, so therefore I am not a policy advocate.”
The other point that Tamsin gets is that skeptics listen to her and respect her, even though her perspective on the science is mainstream, because she does not advocate for policies and is respectful towards skeptics (she often comments at BishopHill). She is also correct that much of climate science skepticism is driven by “a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence.”
Tamsin also gets the rebuilding trust thing.
JC message to Tamsin: watch out, you are on your way to being classified as a ‘denier‘:
Committed to reason, evidence, and open inquiry, she is willing to examine legitimate points the climate skeptics may be making — as well as the evidence and arguments from mainstream climate science.