by Judith Curry
We find ourselves in scientific hell when we discover that our powers of persuasion are limited to those who were already predisposed to agree with us. – Philip Tetlock
Resulting from a comment made by Joe Duarte on a recent blog post, I have been communicating with him via email, and he has introduced me to some papers in political psychology. Political psychology shares some common challenges with climate science in that much of the research occurs in the political arena (e.g. racism, wars, etc). Duarte sent me one of his recent papers (a blog post on this will be forthcoming), which introduced me to this 1994 paper by Philip Tetlock:
Abstract. This article proceeds from the premise that a completely value-neutral political psychology is impossible. The article goes on, however, to argue that our collective credibility as a science depends on self-critical efforts to monitor and minimize the influence of scientifically irrelevant values on inquiry. I also identify logical and empirical strategies that investigators can use to check the influence of extraneous values. These strategies include rigorous skepticism toward counterfactuals that underlie causal claims in historical analyses, embedding of experimental manipulations in representative sample surveys to isolate determinants of public opinion, developing methods to translate case studies into standardized data languages so that we can more readily identify potential sources of bias, and continual open-mindedness to the possibility that patterns of thinking that scholarly observers laud as cognitively or morally superior in one set of political settings may look quite maladaptive or immoral in other political settings.
Excerpts from the paper (JC bold):
What exactly is scientific hell? I use the concept to denote the complete collapse of our credibility as a science. We find ourselves in scientific hell when we discover that our powers of persuasion are limited to those who were already predisposed to agree with us (or when our claims to expertise are granted only by people who share our moral-political outlook). Thoughtful outsiders cease to look upon us as scientists and see us rather as political partisans of one stripe or another.
How do we fall into scientific hell? The principal temptation in political psychology-the forbidden fruit-is to permit our political passions to trump normal scientific standards of evidence and proof . Researchers sometimes feel so passionately about a cause that those passions influence key methodological and conceptual decisions in re search programs. When journal reviewers, editors, and funding agencies feel the same way about the cause, they are less likely to detect and correct potential logical or methodological bias. As a result, political psychology becomes politicized.
It is one thing, however, to argue that values can easily influence inquiry and quite another to argue that values inevitably drive and determine the conclusions of inquiry. Value neutrality is an impossible ideal, but it still remains a useful benchmark for assessing our research performance. Indeed, the price of abandoning value neutrality as an ideal is prohibitively steep: nothing less, I believe, than our collective credibility as a science.
Do we seek scientific knowledge of causal relationships? Or do we seek to advance certain moral or political causes by stigmatizing groups with whom we disagree and applauding groups with whom we sympathize? These skeptics raise serious questions that merit serious responses. We should be candid about our motives as political psychologists. Very few of us, I suspect, are driven by purely epistemic motives or by purely partisan motives of policy advocacy. We are motivated, in part, by causal curiosity and in part by the desire to make the world a better place in which to live. And, being human, we don’t like to acknowledge that these goals occasionally conflict.
My own view is that epistemic and advocacy goals frequently collide. The most overt cases of politicization tend to occur when evidence of causality is particularly weak and the policy stakes are particularly high. It is understandable that political psychologists as citizens often lend their voices to one or another political cause; it is less understandable when political psychologists (consciously or unconsciously) bend normal scientific standards of evidence and proof to advance those same causes.
Granted that the temptation to politicize our field is often strong, to what lengths should we go to resist temptation? If I attach high priority to the epistemic autonomy of science and low priority to policy activism, my choice is an easy one. I will argue that we should never bend standards of evidence and proof, no matter how morally inspiring the cause. It is not enough, moreover, just to admonish everyone to be fair-minded; we need to institutionalize procedures that apply the same methodological and logical standards to politically popular and unpopular hypotheses alike (no small order in an ideologically skewed subfield where most researchers and reviewers hold left-of-center values). If I hold the opposite value priorities, the choice will again be easy. I will argue for the “consciousness-raising” functions of political psychology and for an active role of the discipline in promoting desired social change. If I attach high importance to both epistemic and policy advocacy values, I will argue for some form of integratively complex compromise solution that will look neither attractive nor principled to the “extremists.”
I take an integratively simple stand on this question. It is generally a bad idea to dilute the goal of doing high-quality science with a host of additional moral and political goals. I believe that if we fail to institutionalize checks on the overt politicization of political psychological knowledge (most importantly, rigorous and even-handed peer review), we sacrifice our collective credibility as a science. We become just one more partisan voice clamoring for media attention. Because we choose to investigate such controversial topics, political psychologists-more than most scientists-should continually ask themselves “Stockman’s question”: “Are we ideologues masquerading as scientists: Have we rigged the research dice in favor of our political agenda?” We should ask these questions because we claim-in our journals, in our classrooms, in our conversations with those who wield power-to represent a self-correcting scientific community.
Tetlocks’ 1994 paper on the dilemmas faced by political psychologists is stunningly relevant to climate science in 2014.
Tetlock defines scientific hell as discovering that our powers of persuasion are limited to those who were already predisposed to agree with us. Well, this seems to happening in context of the public debate on climate change.
The reason for this is issue advocacy by climate scientists. I’ve discussed issue advocacy by individual scientists in a number of posts; while I generally think it is not a good thing, it is up to each scientist to decide where they stand in the value conflict between the epistemic autonomy of science and the partisan motives of advocacy. As Tetlock points out, the real issue of concern is the institutionalization of such advocacy (something I warned against in (Ir)responsible advocacy).
I’m intrigued by Tetlock’s proposes for strategies to check the influence of extraneous values. While some of these strategies aren’t particularly relevant for climate science, but there are two of relevance: rigorous skepticism toward counterfactuals that underlie causal claims in historical analyses, and continual open-mindedness to the possibility that patterns of thinking that scholarly observers laud as cognitively or morally superior in one set of political settings may look quite maladaptive or immoral in other political settings.
There is an important difference between the fields of political psychology and climate science: political psychologists have some awareness of the problem regarding the influence of extraneous values, whereas climate scientists seem not to. Consider this twitter exchange circa Jul 19/20 in response to my blog post On academic bullying.
Julio Nieves: Dear Judith: I do not know any other case in history of Science where someone has acted like you (some context: Nieves is NOT complimenting me)
curryja: Someone with a big cv interested in research integrity rather than politics & careerism?
curryja: Its my job, and the job of all academics paid by the government, to protect research integrity
There’s Physics : suggests that you think you are somehow purer than others. I’d call that sitting on a high-horse.
All of this was gleefully retweeted by Michael Mann. Because I talk about research integrity and try to defend it and point out problems when I see them, I am somehow dismissed as trying to present myself as purer than others.
Am I the only climate scientist on the planet that is concerned about these issues and reads the social science literature relevant to these concerns? Well, I seem to be the only one speaking out publicly on these issues. Are those scientists that are so wrapped up in AGW ideology completely blind to the impact that their advocacy is having on climate science? Again, the main failing is not with individuals, but with the institutions – professional societies, journals, funding agencies, etc (see (Ir)responsible advocacy).
Until climate scientists and the institutions that support them wake up and start confronting this issue, they are paving the road to climate scientific hell. The punchline for me of Tetlock’s article is this:
Indeed, the price of abandoning value neutrality as an ideal is prohibitively steep: nothing less, I believe, than our collective credibility as a science.