by Judith Curry
The time for debate has ended. – Marcia McNutt, editor of Science
We have had many discussions on the topic of scientists who advocate for public policy. Some seem to think that I advocate for public policies (but they can’t really say which policies), although I do not regard myself to be a policy advocate.
Here is a clear-cut example of advocacy by a scientist, Marcia McNutt, who also happens to be the Chief Editor of Science: The beyond-two-degree inferno. Read the whole thing, its only about 600 words. I cite here the passages that I particularly want to comment on:
The time for debate has ended. Action is urgently needed. The Paris-based International Energy Agency recently announced that current commitments to cut CO2 emissions [known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)] from the world’s nations are insufficient to avoid warming the entire planet by an average of more than 2°C above the preindustrial level. To set more aggressive targets, developed nations need to reduce their per-capita fossil fuel emissions even further, and by doing so, create roadmaps for developing nations to leapfrog technologies by installing low-CO2–emitting energy infrastructure rather than coal-fired power plants as they expand their energy capacity.
I applaud the forthright climate statement of Pope Francis, currently our most visible champion for mitigating climate change, and lament the vacuum in political leadership in the United States. This is not the time to wait for political champions to emerge. Just as California has decided to go it alone, every sector (transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, construction, etc.) and every person need to do whatever is possible to reduce carbon pollution by conserving energy, adopting alternative energy technologies, investing in research, and capturing CO2 at the source.
In Dante’s Inferno, he describes the nine circles of Hell, each dedicated to different sorts of sinners, with the outermost being occupied by those who didn’t know any better, and the innermost reserved for the most treacherous offenders. I wonder where in the nine circles Dante would place all of us who are borrowing against this Earth in the name of economic growth, accumulating an environmental debt by burning fossil fuels, the consequences of which will be left for our children and grandchildren to bear? Let’s act now, to save the next generations from the consequences of the beyond-two-degree inferno.
So why am I highlighting this essay? It’s typical boilerplate stuff from the ‘alarmed’, although the Dante’s Inferno stuff is sort of clever. I happen to disagree with most of what is written here, but that is not my particular concern. My concern is with WHO wrote this essay, combined with WHERE it was published.
If this essay had been written by James Hansen, a climate scientist and self-avowed global warming advocate who is now retired from NASA, and posted on his personal web site, I would have no problem with this essay (other than my personal disagreement) and I wouldn’t bother to highlight it at Climate Etc. .
So, with her very impressive credentials, is McNutt an expert on climate change? McNutt is a geophysicist who has no apparent primary expertise in climate science, although she has been involved in assessing geo-engineering proposals. By stating ‘the time for debate has ended,’ she appears to be speaking beyond her expertise and has latched onto a real tar baby. The IPCC doesn’t think the ‘the time for debate has ended‘; they are gearing up to write their 6th Assessment Report.
But my main concern is this – the editorial was published in Science and written by McNutt who is the CHIEF EDITOR for Science. I have previously raised the concern about advocacy by professional societies (e.g. AGU, APS) in terms of their policy statements about climate change. These professional societies publish journals, and such statements can bias the editorial process. So is this really a major concern? Maybe not for the APS; they publish very few climate-related papers. The AGU publishes a lot of climate papers; one can hope that at least some editors/reviewers are evaluating papers without bias (or pay no attention to AGU’s policy statement).
My concern re introducing bias in Science is several orders of magnitude greater. Science, along with Nature, has far and away the highest impact factor of any scientific journals on the planet – Science matters. Like Nature, Science sends out for review only a small fraction of the submitted papers. Apart from the role the Chief Editor may have in selecting which papers go out for review or eventually get published, this essay sends a message to the other editors and reviewers that papers challenging the consensus are not to be published in Science. Not to mention giving favored status to papers by activist authors that sound the ‘alarm’ – pal review and all that. After all, ‘the time for debate has ended.’
In 2013, Marcia McNutt wrote an editorial Climate Change Impacts, that at least acknowledges the complexity of the problem:
Tackling problems of cumulative dimensions is a priority if we are to find viable solutions to the real environmental crises of the coming decades. There is a need for all scientists to rise to this challenge.
Activism and advocacy by editors of scientific journals reduces the credibility of the journals, introduces biases into the science, and interferes with the policy process that is informed by science.
Can anyone identify any other scientific journal editor that has written that the time for debate about climate change has ended? Can anyone identify another example where an editor of Science or Nature has declared that the debate is over for any other scientific topic? I don’t read their editorials often enough to have a sense for this.
Re the Dante Inferno allegory. Digging In the Clay has an interesting and entertaining post Climate Scientists Road to Hell:
But there is another road to hell for climate scientists and editors of journals and professional societies, that involves
- Appeal to authority
- Absence of doubt
- Intolerance of debate
- A desire to convince others of the ideological ‘truth’
- A willingness to punish those that don’t concur
JC message to Marcia McNutt: You have an important and influential position as Chief Editor of Science. You also have the power to damage Science and science through your activism and advocacy of climate change policy, particularly your declaration in a Science editorial that ‘the time for debate has ended‘.
Especially given that your salary is paid by the AAAS, I encourage you to read the report from the AAAS Workshop on Advocacy in Science, and the discussion of this Workshop on my blog (Ir)responsible advocacy.
There is more than one road to hell in the debate on climate change.
p.s. I have met Marcia McNutt several times, most recently at the Workshop on Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty, where she gave a presentation on fracking the first day, then left. Too bad she didn’t stay for the entire Workshop.