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Scientists, sceptics, and advocates

Aug 2, 2013 by | 24 Comments

There’s been a series of thought-provoking blogs on the Guardian web­site this week, focusing on the inter­twined issues of sci­ence, scep­ti­cism and advocacy within cli­mate change.

First, on Tuesday, Warren Pearce argued that it was cli­mate scep­tics, not cli­mate sci­ent­ists, that were the ‘real cham­pions’ of the sci­entific method. Next, Tamsin Edwards stated that cli­mate sci­ent­ists were com­prom­ising their integ­rity and public trust by offering opin­ions on policy, echoing a common sceptic com­plaint. And, finally, on Friday Dana Nuccitelli accused them both of falling victim to the argu­ments of ‘con­cern trolls’, who ‘feign con­cern at every little cli­mate uncer­tainty or issue they can use to man­u­fac­ture doubt and delay the action neces­sary to solve the cli­mate problem’.

I broadly agreed with Warren’s points regarding the tend­ency to over-simplify the nature of cli­mate scep­ti­cism. Not ‘all’ cli­mate scep­tics endorse free market or con­spir­at­orial beliefs (although these stat­ist­ical rela­tion­ships are real, and can’t be dis­counted in any attempt to under­stand cli­mate change scep­ti­cism). As we argued in our recent report on enga­ging centre-right cit­izens more effect­ively on cli­mate change, scep­ti­cism is typ­ic­ally attrib­ut­able to the ‘facts’ of cli­mate change failing to res­onate with the values of a par­tic­ular audience.

However, I thought Warren was over-generous in his char­ac­ter­isa­tion of some sceptic com­munities, espe­cially the Bishop Hill blog, which fre­quently and pre­dict­ably des­cends into angry, aggressive denounce­ments of indi­vidual sci­ent­ists. I think Warren’s aim is to bring about a more con­structive dia­logue, but it is a huge stretch to describe the typ­ical con­ver­sa­tion on blogs like Bishop Hill as any­thing approaching a con­structive or meas­ured eval­u­ation of science.

I don’t accept that they are the ‘true sci­ent­ists’ in the debate – but they do express many of the broader con­cerns that the gen­eral public more broadly share (e.g., the cost of cli­mate policies, or the trust­wor­thi­ness of politi­cians or energy com­panies), and its here that debates about cli­mate change are more likely to be won and lost – not in debating the detail of cli­mate science.

Tamsin’s piece argued strongly for cli­mate sci­ent­ists to refrain from offering opin­ions on mat­ters of policy, and warned that becoming ‘advoc­ates’ had led to an erosion of trust among the public, and com­prom­ised sci­ent­ists’ integ­rity. This is a huge and com­plex area of debate that speaks to ques­tions beyond cli­mate sci­ence: many scholars of sci­ence policy have struggled with these issues for dec­ades, and to my mind have not provided entirely sat­is­factory answers.

The problem – which is both prac­tical and philo­soph­ical – seems to centre on what counts as ‘advocacy’. Certainly, an aca­demic sup­porting a par­tic­ular energy policy in their pro­fes­sional capa­city would count as advocacy (although I don’t agree that this is impli­citly ‘wrong’). But is it advocacy for an aca­demic to say they are very wor­ried that the world is not decar­bon­ising fast enough to avoid dan­gerous cli­mate change? Is it advocacy to even use the term ‘dan­gerous cli­mate change’ because that is in itself a polit­ical construct?

Tamsin argued that there was a moral oblig­a­tion for sci­ent­ists to remain ‘neutral’ (whatever that means) on spe­cific policy issues, but I would argue that there’s been a gen­eral abdic­a­tion of moral respons­ib­ility among a whole range of people, including cli­mate change aca­demics, in not being honest about the degree to which they see the risks of cli­mate change as requiring ‘some kind of’ more ambi­tious policy response.

Stating that the world should be imple­menting policies that will decar­bonise the eco­nomy is expressing a norm­ative pos­i­tion, but one so con­sen­sual and weakly pre­scriptive that it would be dif­fi­cult to find fault with it. But many sci­ent­ists fear even expressing views like these for fear of being attacked as being an advocate.

It is not being an ‘honest broker’ to claim no opinion, effect­ively handing the citizen’s voice that every sci­entist is entitled to, to whichever groups in society are shouting the loudest on the issue. It is akin to not voting in an elec­tion – a non-vote impli­citly backs the powerful and the established.

Finally, Dana Nuccitelli took excep­tion to the cre­dence which both Warren and Tamsin attrib­uted to sceptic views, pointing out (again) the many and various errors and faults in the reas­oning and evid­ence of the scep­tics that both art­icles, in dif­ferent ways, were keen to defend. I agree with Dana that both art­icles were over-generous in their char­ac­ter­isa­tion of online scep­ticim, and very much with his sug­ges­tion that:

…con­stantly get­ting the sci­ence wrong, and ignoring the incon­venient data all stem from the same root cause – ideo­lo­gical oppos­i­tion to cli­mate solu­tions. No matter how much effort you put into pleasing con­trarians, they are not going to be part of the solution”

It struck me as a sur­prising thing for him to say, how­ever, given that so much of his time is spent cor­recting, re-correcting, and exas­per­atedly re-re-correcting con­traian errors. In fact, there is an entire counter-culture of myth-busting, truth-seeking fact war­riors who lavish a great deal of time and energy on proving the scep­tics’ argu­ments wrong. I don’t dis­pute for a second that they are wrong. But it isn’t the way to win over public opinion on cli­mate change.

In a funny way, Dana Nucitelli and Tamsin Edwards agree on one thing: that public opinion cru­cially hinges on an accurate com­mu­nic­a­tion of the sci­entific facts. But what determ­ines whether people believe in the facts of cli­mate science?

There is now a huge body of empir­ical social sci­ence that provides an answer to this ques­tion. It tells us that things like values, ideo­logy, social norms, ‘biased’ risk per­cep­tions and to a small extent, know­ledge about cli­mate change, determine beliefs about cli­mate change (sci­ence and policy). Communicating cli­mate sci­ence more effect­ively means finding ways of making the ‘facts’ of cli­mate change res­onate with the range of dif­ferent values and social views that people hold.

Warren Pearce, Tamsin Edwards and Dana Nuccitelli may not see this as an appro­priate role for sci­ent­ists – but to ignore the social sci­ence that tells us what public engage­ment with cli­mate change is based on seems to me to be pretty unscientific.

Adam

24 Comments + Add Comment

  • Instead of saying “the world eco­nomy does not decar­bonize fast enough to avoid dan­gerous cli­mate change” you could say “the world eco­nomy does not decar­bonize fast enough to meet the adopted 2 degrees target”.

    The second sen­tence is accurate, without passing judge­ment on the wisdom of the target.

    The first sen­tence is less accurate (as dan­gerous cli­mate change is undefined), but does pass judgement.

  • Thanks Richard. I appre­ciate the dis­tinc­tion you draw but I wonder whether most of the gen­eral public would, I’m also not con­vinced that the fact that some politi­cians think 2 degrees is when dan­gerous cli­mate change hap­pens makes the state­ment any more or less norm­at­ively defensible…my gen­eral point being that its both impossible and undesir­able to keep norm­ative state­ments out of sci­ence, because there is a com­plex and tightly inter­twined rela­tion­ship between ‘what sci­ence tells us’ and ‘why we even asked those ques­tions in the first place’ and ‘what shall we do about it’. I am not sug­gesting for a second that sci­ence should decide what we should do about it, but we can’t pre­tend there are no implic­a­tions to the work we do.

    If the next COP moved the goal to 1 degree, would you feel com­fort­able using that as a norm­ative guide to the state­ments sci­ent­ists could make?

  • Not at all.

    You should not pass judge­ment on the desirab­ility of any target, or indeed whether a target is desirable.

    (There is a peer-reviewed lit­er­ature that argues that tar­gets are counterproductive.)

    However, given that there is a target, you can object­ively say that cur­rent policy is unlikely to get us there.

  • Can’t see how that is ten­able, or desir­able — taken to logical con­clu­sion sci­ent­ists should have no polit­ical beliefs what­so­ever, as even voting for Lab vs Conservative implies endorse­ment of cli­mate policies of some kind.

    Also, we end up tying ourselves in knots. How can there be a peer-reviewed lit­er­ature arguing that tar­gets are coun­ter­pro­ductive unless those authors have made pre­cisely the norm­ative leap you oppose? Targets are coun­ter­pro­ductive to what? That ‘what’ must be some­thing normative…its a maze we can never escape, so best bet is to upfront and clear about norm­ative assump­tions. ‘This is my per­sonal view’ etc etc

  • best bet is to upfront and clear about norm­ative assump­tions. ‘This is my per­sonal view’ etc etc”

    Adam, this is exactly what I said in the com­ment you deleted.

    Your post is entitled
    “Scientists Sceptics and Advocates.”

    Well here I am, a well read sceptic with an award win­ning sci­ence blog advoc­ating a par­tic­ular policy approach based on the science.

    Yet my view won’t be heard on a pub­licly funded web­site I’m helping to pay the upkeep for?

    Please, tell me you’ll let me have my say.

  • Roger. Let’s not waste each other’s time. Your last post was about the rela­tion­ship between solar activity and CO2 levels vs human activity, with a token line linking to the argu­ment at the top, and your view about why you think we should wait and see not act now. The post is about when and under what cir­cus­mtances aca­demics might com­ment on policy. Say some­thing rel­evant to the post and I’ll pub­lish it. Here is what you ori­gin­ally posted, I won’t pub­lish any­thing else debating causes of CC:

    RogTallbloke:
    “But is it advocacy for an aca­demic to say they are very wor­ried that the world is not decar­bon­ising fast enough to avoid dan­gerous cli­mate change?”

    Not if they make it clear that it’s their per­sonal belief.

    Pretty much everyone should by now be aware that the error range on meas­ure­ments of cli­mate met­rics are not well enough con­strained to be able to state with suf­fi­cient cer­tainty whether any human con­tri­bu­tion to cli­mate change is large enough to war­rant the imple­ment­a­tion of eco­nom­ic­ally onerous policy which will put mil­lions into fuel poverty at this stage.

    On the bright side, nature is at long last per­forming the cru­cial exper­i­ment for us which will decide the issue within the next decade or so.

    C20th: CO2 rising, Sun well above long term average from 1935–2003, Surface air temp increasing.

    C21st: CO2 still rising, Sun gone to sleep after 2005, Surface air tem­per­ature flatlined.

    These are the salient facts. Changes in deep ocean tem­per­ature are an ad-hoc change to theory and meas­ure­ments are too sparse and too poorly con­strained (we’re talking thou­sandths of a degree here) to swing the argu­ment. We’ll have to wait and see. This is not a ‘delaying tactic’, it’s just the way it is.

  • There is no incon­sist­ency between saying that cli­mate “scep­tics” can not be con­vinced by sci­entific argu­ments and writing replies to “sceptic” posts.

    You write such posts for the gen­eral public, who may come across a “sceptic” post and may not imme­di­ately see what is wrong with it.

    For the same reason, I do not find it as important as Tamsin Edwards that “scep­tics” see me as a friendly person. It is important that third parties see me as a reli­able, reas­on­able person.

  • I do agree that in most cases, debunking cli­mate myths isn’t going to change a sig­ni­ficant number of peoples’ minds on AGW (though I think the con­sensus is an excep­tion, which is one reason we embarked on our study of that subject).

    But I also think it’s important to have the cor­rect inform­a­tion avail­able for those who seek it. That way at least people can be accur­ately informed if they try to be. More inform­a­tion may not change many minds, but only having mis­in­form­a­tion avail­able can’t be good either.

  • From being a true respecter of sci­ent­ists I have rap­idly become dis­ap­pointed and would no longer appre­ciate being likened to one. You guys deal with theory too much and don’t put enough store in real world data. And no, that isn’t a com­ment about cli­mate science.

    Dr Edwards is help­fully trying to point out that the public view sci­ent­ists who engage in advocacy as not neces­sarily more con­vin­cing. In fact that sort of pas­sion can cast doubt on the quality of their work since they might be tempted to exag­gerate, fab­ricate or ignore cer­tain things. But hey, who cares what the public thinks.

    The one thing that you seem incap­able of doing is talking to those people you know you need to con­vince. Talking at, yes, talking to, no. You admit that scep­tics “do express many of the broader con­cerns that the gen­eral public more broadly share … and its here that debates about cli­mate change are more likely to be won and lost” but wouldn’t dream of asking us what we think and why. If we do tell you, you don’t believe us and try to dig for deeper meaning. Or worse, you cut us out alto­gether and try to pre­tend we’re just aber­rant idiots. How’s that working for you? CO2 plunging yet?

    I don’t know why you try to rewrite our pos­i­tion. I wonder if it’s because we are truly dif­ferent spe­cies and we have very little common ground. Your views of how politics might influ­ence public opinion on AGW cer­tainly don’t sound like you’re talking about my side of the human race. I get the feeling you haven’t a clue what a cata­clysmic change cut­ting CO2 would involve and think that it can be treated like any other social problem. But then I’m talking about my spe­cies, per­haps you side just needs scep­tics to shut up.

    PS, yes, we are cross and for good reason but per­haps I should wait for you to tell me why rather than having my own opinion about it.

  • @Adam
    Sorry for being unclear: Setting a target may be coun­ter­pro­ductive to achieving that target.

    I deduce from your ques­tion that you are unfa­miliar with the lit­er­ature that shows this.

    So, by pub­licly endorsing a target, you do not only take a polit­ical pos­i­tion, but you also demon­strate your lack of expertise.

    I would think that everyone is better off if you would keep quiet on sub­jects you haven’t studied.

  • Thanks for the advice. Its dif­fi­cult to deduce from your ref­er­ences to ‘a lit­er­ature’ exactly what you mean, or how on earth you know what I have and haven’t studied (or why I ought not write about some­thing without having read the mys­ter­ious lit­er­ature that you refer to) but I can see this exchange is going nowhere fast and its friday after­noon so let’s leave it there

  • Climate policy: how much is about sci­ence and how much is about the way we want to live our lives?
    I would like to start by providing a slightly tongue-in-cheek descrip­tion of the clichéd char­ac­ters of both sides of the cli­mate argument.

    Sceptics are gen­er­ally happy with how the world is pro­gressing and want to con­tinue along this path. Sceptics believe that the world is improving, that the advent of low cost energy has been the cata­lyst for rad­ical improve­ment in global living stand­ards and redu­cing hunger in the world’s most vul­ner­able com­munities. Climate scep­tics are optim­istic that humans can live in har­mony with the envir­on­ment. Resources will come into bal­ance with humanity as pop­u­la­tion gradu­ally declines to the UN’s lower figure of 6bn people by 2050 enabled by increased prosperity and effi­ciency . Climate scep­tics see cli­mate policy as a ser­ious threat to the pro­gress of humanity and the global eco­logy. Climate policy and the need to cut emis­sions is assumed by scep­tics to drive up costs so that glob­al­isa­tion is reversed and pro­gress stopped. Radical cli­mate mit­ig­a­tion means enforce­ment of carbon rules sac­ri­fi­cing liberty and encour­aging author­it­arian gov­ernance. Greater polit­ical con­trol will encourage less debate, less trans­par­ency, increased risk of cor­rup­tion and poorer decision making. Climate scep­tics are con­cerned that the risks of global warming have been poorly artic­u­lated and are uncer­tain whilst the risks of dam­aging humanity through rad­ical cli­mate policy and a new world order is more certain.

    Warmists are gen­er­ally unhappy with how the world is pro­gressing and want to rad­ic­ally change the way the world is run. Warmists believe that the world is dom­in­ated by an elite few who con­trol the flow of the worlds cap­ital leading to increasing inequality and uncaring selfish­ness. The root of this problem can be found grounded in our reli­ance on fossil fuel and big cor­por­a­tions. Those transna­tional cor­por­a­tions and ‘big oil’ are dic­tating terms for the rest of us. Global warming action has only upside. Climate policy will either price carbon out of our lives and save the planet from cli­mate destruc­tion or des­troy the strangle hold of TNCs. So it doesn’t really matter if the sci­ence is uncer­tain or wrong as the polit­ical out­come is also important. Warmists are pess­im­istic that humans can live in har­mony with the envir­on­ment and believe that it is inev­it­able that pop­u­la­tion will expand to meet the UNs upper figure of 9bn people by 2050. The envir­on­ment and our nat­ural cap­ital will be exhausted in a relent­less search for resources to meet the insa­ti­able hunger of 9bn who want instant grat­i­fic­a­tion and 3 cars in the drive. Climate warm­ists see cli­mate policy as neces­sary to reduce the human foot­print by returning to loc­al­isa­tion and a sus­tain­able, rural idyll. Climate policy will cut emis­sions by shut­ting down dirty indus­tries and by handing power to eth­ic­ally reli­able, sus­tain­able green TNC’s. There will be no need for cap­it­alism and the ruinous search for never ending eco­nomic growth can be aban­doned. We will all live in har­mony in com­munes, growing our own food, telling each other stories around the camp­fire and not missing plastic at all. Warmists accept that we will have to sac­ri­fice a bit of liberty but that is ok because the new gov­ern­ment will have cli­mate policy at the very top of the most important things to do. This dis­cip­line will mean that there will be no slackers in the fight to ensure cli­mate is thor­oughly mitigated.

    Advocacy and cli­mate science.

    Most people respect sci­ent­ists and the work that they do, scep­tics are no dif­ferent. Sceptical con­cerns are very seldom about the purity of the sci­ence being con­ducted. The majority of scep­tics are scep­tics because they are con­cerned that the sci­ence is being hijacked to serve polit­ical agendas. It is highly frus­trating for ordinary, highly intel­li­gent people to be simplist­ic­ally labelled ‘con­trarian’, ‘denier’ and in the ‘pay of big oil’ as if there are no intel­li­gent argu­ments that con­tra­dict the offi­cial cli­mate mantra. It is also annoying when warm­ists argue that only ‘cli­mate experts’ have cred­ible opin­ions on chaotic cli­mate sys­tems. What is a cli­mate sci­ence expert – should only adher­ents to the main­stream view apply? Climate sci­ence covers a mul­ti­tude of dis­cip­lines from the deep ocean floor to the solar system and everything in between. No indi­vidual is a cli­mate expert cap­able of under­standing every cli­mate vari­able – there is an intrinsic reli­ance on others. Before any pro­gress can be made it is neces­sary for cli­mate sci­ence to have an agreed/settled pos­i­tion so each sci­entist can then plan their work to answer dif­ferent parts of the AGW jigsaw. The IPCC decided that man was causing stat­ist­ic­ally sig­ni­ficant cli­mate warming before all of the rel­evant evid­ence was col­lected. So we started the sci­entific journey to find the answer to a pre-conceived concept. For most scep­tics a better start would been to try to estab­lish what the nat­ural vari­ab­ility baseline was first.

    However, it is very reas­on­able to have sci­ent­ists studying cli­mate, sharing their res­ults, encour­aging chal­lenge and having an open debate. Unfortunately cli­mate sci­ence seems to have gotten off to a bad start because all of the good things about the sci­entific pro­cess seem to have been dropped in favour of urgent action. I don’t blame the sci­ent­ists or the insti­tu­tions for this, but it does seem that a few oppor­tun­ists were able to exploit the way the UN had struc­tured the IPCC and all the sub­sequent ant­ag­onism is a result of the ini­tial abuse of that policy framework.

    When dis­cussing cli­mate sci­ence a stat­ist­i­cian or a mining engineer who can examine and determine trends in ancient proxies has as much to add to the dis­cus­sion as a met­eor­o­lo­gist. We all belong to the dis­cus­sion because the decisions that are made have poten­tially great con­sequences irre­spective of what side of the argu­ment you are on.

    The sceptic wishes to see the debate opened up but the alarmist wants to see the debate closed down. I have sat frus­trated for 20 years waiting on the debate get­ting into the main­stream – no wonder there is frus­tra­tion by sci­ent­ists and others, who are forced to use blogs like Bishop Hill to be heard. The debate should have been open from the start. The uncer­tainty and over con­fid­ence in mod­el­ling should have been prop­erly dis­cussed not down­played in IPCC exec­utive sum­maries for poli­cy­makers. The con­stant ava­lanche of cli­mate pro­pa­ganda often on the basis of peer reviewed papers has been some­thing to behold. The press release has become more important than the con­tent. Threats and scares are over­played and greedily gobbled up by news out­lets. We see the BBC get­ting involved when it is obliged to be neutral.

    That sort of beha­viour might be ok if the scep­tics really are con­trarians whose only desire is to hold everyone up from spite and self-interest – but that really isn’t the truth. The reason scep­tics are res­isting going down this path is because we believe cer­tainty has been over­sold and there are massive risks for society. It would help if sup­porters of CAGW could adequately describe what the con­sequences of global warming are rather than just offer up end­less pseudo reli­gious images of hellish infernos, great storms and floods. We need to be sure that the models are cap­able of reli­able pre­dic­tion and the con­sequences are better under­stood. The sensiivity of the cli­mate to CO2 is cer­tainly up for debate and although cli­mate change might be hap­pening it is def­in­itely not cer­tain that cata­strophe is likely. This is important to under­stand before policy decisions are taken. We want the sci­entific approach to be meas­ured and careful as should always be, we should resist jumping to pre­ma­ture con­clu­sions. And please stay away from the emo­tional black­mail, the argu­ments about pro­tecting the future or our grand­chil­dren play both ways.

    In sum­mary, the problem is nothing to do with the sci­ence or sci­ent­ists the problem has always been about the politics starting with the poorly con­structed and mis­man­aged IPCC. The enrol­ment of insti­tu­tions via lavish cli­mate funding was always going to be inev­it­able once the IPCC output had been dis­torted to influ­ence politi­cians and poli­cy­makers. The cli­mate sci­ence estab­lish­ment have been on the back foot ever since these ini­tial errors, trying to defend shaky pos­i­tions and down­right bad prac­tices. It is quite easy to make scep­tics go away – just resume proper sci­entific pro­cesses. Let’s see a return to humility, respectful dis­cus­sion, trans­par­ency and a desire to seek out the truth rather than rely on ‘better com­mu­nic­a­tions’ and fab­ric­ated polls. At least Tamsin gets that.

    Chairman Al (Climate Chimp)

  • Adam — “There is now a huge body of empir­ical social sci­ence that provides an answer to this ques­tion. It tells us that things like values, ideo­logy, social norms, ‘biased’ risk per­cep­tions and to a small extent, know­ledge about cli­mate change, determine beliefs about cli­mate change (sci­ence and policy). Communicating cli­mate sci­ence more effect­ively means finding ways of making the ‘facts’ of cli­mate change res­onate with the range of dif­ferent values and social views that people hold.”

    Does this research also inter­rogate cli­mate sci­ent­ists ‘values, ideo­logy, social norms, ‘biased’ risk per­cep­tions’ and ‘know­ledge about cli­mate change’. Or are the public the only sub­jects of this ‘huge body of empir­ical social sci­ence’? Are sci­ent­ists better equipped to over­come these things? Are only the public vul­ner­able to ideo­logy? Might some sci­ent­ists have been driven to make cer­tain state­ments, not so much by the sci­ence they have pro­duced as the things that you seem to agree drive most people.

    It seems you may have let the cat out of the bag.

  • Just exactly what is the cor­rect inform­a­tion regarding AGW and just what exactly is the consensus?

    First there is the sci­ence: “The most likely value of equi­lib­rium cli­mate sens­it­ivity based on the energy budget of the most recent decade is 2.0 °C, with a 5–95% con­fid­ence interval of 1.2–3.9 °C” — Otto et al 2013. I put myself within this con­sensus and sup­port informing the public of the latest res­ults objectively.

    Second there is cli­mate change policy. The 2008 cli­mate change act has com­mitted UK to uni­lat­er­ally cut emis­sions by 80% in 2050. Unless the rest of the world fol­lows suite this effort is essen­tially futile. It is even more futile to ima­gine these tar­gets could pos­sibly be met by “renew­able” energy either in the UK or world­wide. This is where sci­ence must also respond clearly. Like it or not, Nuclear power is the only long term solu­tion. The sun is a fusion reactor and geo­thermal energy is fis­sion decay. There are no other energy sources on Earth. I am there­fore out­side the “green con­sensus” because such “chasing rain­bows” is causing immense damage both to our envir­on­ment and to our standard or living.

  • Should sci­ent­ists ever be advoc­ates? gen­er­ally no, cli­mate sci­ent­ists — never.

    Climate sci­ence is still emer­ging from its birth place. The founders of cli­mate sci­ence, in gen­eral are politi­cised, because the IPCC was set up as a polit­ical organ­isa­tion to solve a pre­de­ter­mined ‘set of facts’ (man­made co2 = warming).

    When this batch of sci­ent­ists retire and new ones take their place, hope­fully informed about the wrong doings and bad sci­ence of there fore­bears (why should I give my data to you to rub­bish it!) then genu­inely unbiased papers will start to be pro­duced moving cli­mate sci­ence for­wards at the speed of dis­covery it should have had from the beginning.

    All scep­tics want is open sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion: tell us your the­ories, show us the data, and other sci­ent­ists will rep­licate your findings.

    What could pos­sibly be wrong with that?

  • I’m sorry but you really don’t get it do you? Ever since Teddy Roosevelt good gov­ern­ment types have been focused on removing con­flicts of interest from public life. That’s a good think I think.

    It is broadly true that polit­ical advocacy for example in medi­cine detracts from cred­ib­ility and not just with the gen­eral public. There is a broad recog­ni­tion of the con­flict of interest problem in medi­cine ran­ging all the way from polit­ical beliefs, to mon­etary con­flicts, to pre­con­ceived ideas about sci­ence. Positive res­ults bias and the placebo effect are studied widely and acknow­ledged. If you men­tion these things in cli­mate sci­ence, Dana and his arbiters of truth are there to quote chapter and verse from the lit­er­ature, i.e, the “Scripture” of the annointed. My brother is dir­ector of medi­cine for an HMO and he does dis­count points of view and journal art­icles from people with polit­ical or policy agendas. He is broadly a good gov­ern­ment type.

    Since most of the “com­mu­nic­ators” in this field would seem to be aligned with pro­gressive points of view, it mys­ti­fies me why they don’t worry about this issue. It strikes me that arguing with Tamsin’s point is only pos­sible in a field so badly politi­cized that it attracts so many theo­lo­gical types who can’t seem to ques­tion any­thing in the lit­er­ature unless it is written by a skeptic. The whole use of the denier smear is a symptom of this problem.

  • @Adam
    That is exactly my point. You feel qual­i­fied to com­ment on the desirab­ility of spe­cific tar­gets, but the first need­ling with the rel­evant aca­demic lit­er­ature draws a blank.

    There are plenty of examples in the beha­vi­oral lit­er­ature, both for indi­viduals and organ­iz­a­tions, where set­ting a target demo­tiv­ates, induces pro­cras­tin­a­tion, or is used as a sub­sti­tute for action.

    In game theory, as a binding target cre­ates an irre­vers­ib­ility, agents with imper­fect know­ledge of the future would under­state their true con­cern about cli­mate change so as to nego­tiate a lenient target.

    With dif­fer­en­tial enforce­ment, a target cre­ates rents for the lax; and incent­ives to relax enforcement.

  • As we argued in our recent report on enga­ging centre-right cit­izens more effect­ively on cli­mate change, scep­ti­cism is typ­ic­ally attrib­ut­able to the ‘facts’ of cli­mate change failing to res­onate with the values of a par­tic­ular audience.”

    It’s typ­ic­ally attrib­ut­able to a selective scep­ti­cism, depending on prior beliefs. If new inform­a­tion con­forms to existing belief, one asks “Can I believe this?” If it does not, one asks “Must I believe this?” The extent to which the inform­a­tion is checked, the effort applied to search for flaws and counter-arguments dif­fers. And the evid­en­tial threshold to be met dif­fers for the Can/Must cases too. The sides are sym­met­rical in this regard.

    However, I thought Warren was over-generous in his char­ac­ter­isa­tion of some sceptic com­munities, espe­cially the Bishop Hill blog, which fre­quently and pre­dict­ably des­cends into angry, aggressive denounce­ments of indi­vidual scientists.”

    First, are you talking about the host or the com­menters? Would you like your own pos­i­tion to be judged by the people who com­ment at your blog?

    Second, do we not get angry, aggressive denounce­ments of indi­vidual scep­tics from cer­tain cli­mate sci­ent­ists? What does this say about cli­mate science?

    But is it advocacy for an aca­demic to say they are very wor­ried that the world is not decar­bon­ising fast enough to avoid dan­gerous cli­mate change?”

    Yes.

    You’re making judge­ments on what is ‘dan­gerous’, that cli­mate sens­it­ivity is high enough for the decar­bon­isa­tion rate to put us there, and that the eco­nomic and polit­ical cost-benefit decision makes mit­ig­a­tion a better deal than adaptation.

    What you can do is to set out what you know about the con­sequences of dif­ferent policies. It’s then up to some­body else to work out the cost-benefit, and if they decide that given the models and their uncer­tain­ties that adapt­a­tion is prefer­able to mit­ig­a­tion, then sci­ent­ists need to respect their expertise as they respect that of science.

    It is not being an ‘honest broker’ to claim no opinion, effect­ively handing the citizen’s voice that every sci­entist is entitled to, to whichever groups in society are shouting the loudest on the issue.”

    Scientists can shout, but they shout as cit­izens, not sci­ent­ists. Tamsin her­self has made no secret of her per­sonal opinion on the matter. It’s not a problem.

    It would be fair to point out that there are a number of openly scep­tical sci­ent­ists, too.

    I per­son­ally don’t think it’s that much of a problem for sci­ent­ists to be advoc­ates, if it is well-enough advert­ised. The problem is not sci­ent­ists being advoc­ates per se, but that they are apt to pre­tend that being sci­ent­ists they are not. But it is a tricky issue, for both sides.

  • Right, so you’re talking about tar­gets in game theory. And your argu­ment is that if I’ve not read those papers I shouldn’t be writing about the cir­cum­stances under which sci­ent­ists should or shouldn’t talk about policy?

    My ques­tion is about if and when its appro­priate for sci­ent­ists to make norm­ative state­ments. This need not have any­thing to do with ‘tar­gets’, a point which I’m sure you appre­ciate, but which seems to have eluded your com­mentary so far.

  • My ques­tion is about if and when its appro­priate for sci­ent­ists to make norm­ative statements.”

    Richard’s point was that making norm­ative state­ments without under­standing their effect can be counter-productive, so assuming you’re speaking norm­at­ively in the hopes of influ­en­cing policy, it makes sense to find out how the polit­ical arena works first.

    If you don’t care that what you say might sab­otage your own inten­tions, then go right ahead and say what you want.

    The same applies gen­er­ally to sci­ent­ists making norm­ative state­ments — the con­sequence will be that you’ll be seen as par­tisan advoc­ates and not impar­tial sci­ent­ists, and as a result, both your advocacy *and* your sci­ence will be dis­counted accordingly.

    If you think that’s worth the price to have your say as a cit­izen, then fine. But it deprives the public of your sci­entific input into their decisionmaking.

    Science is about con­sequences, it doesn’t tell you what to do. The sci­ence of sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion is no dif­ferent. Science says ‘If you say this in this way, then that will be the result.’ It’s then up to you to make the norm­ative decision about whether and when you should speak normatively.

  • @Adam
    Please do not twist my words. I selected this par­tic­ular example because you raised it. My objec­tions do not rely solely on game theory.

    Experts should talk about their area of expertise, and should do so as object­ively as they can.

  • Adam, I think you are a bit unfair on Warren, Tamsin and even Dana (final para­graph). They are writing within a tight word limit on one par­tic­ular aspect of the problem that interests them, so can’t really be cri­ti­cised for omit­ting the aspect that par­tic­u­larly interests you.

    Ben, no, ideo­logy and prior belief influ­ences the opin­ions of cli­mate scep­tics, right-wingers and liber­tarians. Climate sci­ent­ists, soci­olo­gists and psy­cho­lo­gists are com­pletely immune to this effect.

  • Hi Adam,

    Thanks for this post and your com­ment on the ori­ginal article.

    Just to cla­rify, I did *not* argue that “cli­mate scep­tics, not cli­mate sci­ent­ists…were the ‘real cham­pions’ of the sci­entific method” as you say above. I merely asked the ques­tion (mis­chiev­ously I admit), as scep­tics such as Montford would argue that their interest is in sci­ence and upholding good stand­ards. It is part of their argu­ment­ative resources, whether or not one agrees with them. I think we agree that the ‘real sci­ence’ cat­egory which some scep­tics and sci­ent­ists argue over is a bit of a red her­ring, to put it mildly (cor­rect me if I’ve put words in your mouth).

    You make a point about blog com­menters, how­ever I wouldn’t wish to con­flate blog­gers with their audi­ences. In my Guardian post, I linked to a Bishop Hill post where com­menters talked about ‘real’ or ‘proper’ sci­ence. Of course, other threads are more ‘angry’ as you describe them which has occa­sion­ally led to them being more tightly mod­er­ated. Such as here: http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2013/3/18/reacting-to-rose.html Of course, one may argue over how active mod­er­a­tion should be, a per­en­nial blog­ging topic, but that’s prob­ably for another time…

  • Paul Matthews makes this comment:

    Ben, no, ideo­logy and prior belief influ­ences the opin­ions of cli­mate scep­tics, right-wingers and liber­tarians. Climate sci­ent­ists, soci­olo­gists and psy­cho­lo­gists are com­pletely immune to this effect.”

    But what of the motiv­a­tions and ideo­logy and psy­cho­logy of the cli­mate act­iv­ists and cli­mate con­cerned blog­gers, and I would include Dana Nuccitelli (also a Guardian blogger) descrip­tion, he says him­self he is no cli­mate scientists.

    We need think to look at both side of the debate to com­pletely under­stand motivations.

    so what of:

    Has any­body asked John Cook why he keeps pho­toshopped pic­tures of him­self and Dana Nuccitelli as Nazi’s on his Skeptical Science forum. SkSforum.org

    There private forum image folder was pub­lic­ally view­able due to sloppy web admin (not first time that has happened)

    The pic­tures are beyond puzz­ling, why would Cook have a pho­toshopped pic­ture of him­self as Himmler, with the cap badge, the label badges, and even button badge changed to the Skeptical Science logo. And the Cap insignia changed to the Skeptical Science two pen­guins looking at a flower logo!!

    Plus, the 1936 SS Nuremburg rally photo changed to swap the Nazi logos for Skeptical Science ones and they even named the jpg – skstroopers! !

    Also a number of photo shopped pic­tures of Dana Nuccitteli aswell as a german sol­dier herrtankboy.jpg and herrscooterboy.jpg and three of Dana as Dr Who.


    Perhaps their is a research grant required for this side of the cli­mate blogosphere?

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