Scientists, sceptics, and advocates
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.
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