Thursday, August 1, 2013

Okay, I'll bite...should scientists be "neutral"?

Sou | 11:43 PM Go to the first of 19 comments. Add a comment
PS For a related follow up go here.

Young Tamsin Edwards has written an article that's apparently been generating a bit of discussion.  Tamsin is a climate scientist who works at the University of Bristol in the UK.  She lists her area of interest as being uncertainty in earth system models.  Her doctorate was in quite a different field - particle physics (bosons).  As far as I can make out she switched to earth systems modelling because of a personal interest in the broader environment.

I haven't ever paid her much attention.  I follow her on Twitter IIRC, but don't see too many of her tweets, partly because we are in different time zones but also because I follow many (too many?) people so her tweets probably pass me by.  I believe she comments on denier websites like Bishop Hill.  The main denier site that I keep an eye on is WUWT and, rarely, Judith Curry's blog and I almost never bother with other fringe anti-science or half-anti-science blogs (aka "lukewarmers").  This article of Tamsin's appeared on WUWT as well as on Judith Curry's blog, which is how I caught it.

Not knowing much about Tamsin's work won't stop me from voicing some comments on the article in question.  What she seems to be arguing is that climate scientists ought to stop short of suggestions that could be seen as policy responses to science.  After a bit of an intro about people suggesting to her that she speak publicly about her political beliefs (sic) and her disagreeing, she writes:

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.
Even scientists that are experts – such as those studying the interactions between climate, economy, and politics, with “integrated assessment models” – cannot speak for us because political decisions necessarily depend on values. There are many ways to try to minimise climate change (with mitigation or geoengineering) or its impacts (adaptation) and, given a pot of money, we must decide what we most want to protect. How do we weigh up economic growth against ecosystem change? Should we prioritise the lives and lifestyles of people today or in the future? Try to limit changes in temperature or rainfall? These questions cannot be answered with scientific evidence alone. To me, then, it is simple: scientists misuse their authority if they publicise their preferred policy options.
She's wrong of course.  Not that I'm suggesting she should speak out about her political "beliefs".  That's her own personal choice.  And she's pretty young and while it looks to me as if she'll probably travel that path eventually, it's not a bad idea for her to get a feel for the broader world beyond science before sticking her neck out too far.

Where she's wrong is in telling other scientists what they "should" do.  She's mentioning people who are recognised widely and way beyond the scientific world as having expertise in science, but also as leaders.  She mentioned Gavin Schmidt, for example.  He's in a totally different world to Tamsin, who is young and just starting out.  Her bio page lists her as a "research associate".  She's got quite a way to go before policy makers turn to her for advice.

Why is she wrong?

Although it may be true (or not) that she doesn't have the knowledge or experience, it doesn't follow that other scientists don't have it.

People who develop policy don't have answers, they have questions first and foremost.  They weave answers from others into solutions.  Their expertise is rarely at the technical level.  It's in policy formulation itself.  Policy developers and advisers turn to the technical experts for advice.  Those technical experts will work in science, economics, finance, human services and other arenas.  There are no sharp lines dividing technical experts from each other or dividing the technical experts from the policy developers and advisers.  Some scientists will end up in policy development roles.  They won't suddenly jump from working in a laboratory to working in the west wing or a Minister's office or on the executive floor.  They will be drawn into the role gradually.  For example, they may be tapped on the shoulder to sit on a committee or two.  They may be invited to take a short term assignment in a research advisory role or a management role.

In the same way, these people who will help shape the future will not suddenly find their ideas fully formed as they venture into these roles.  It doesn't happen like that - or if it does it's rare and I'd say it's not a good thing when it does, being more likely some ideological driver rather than new skills learnt or a gradual appreciation of the subtleties of policy development and the myriad implications of broad-ranging policy alternatives.

Tamsin's also wrong in her comment about values.  Values arguably influence everything we do.  One cannot balk at taking a position because one is scared of the impact on the lives of others.  Tamsin's choosing to write her blog would, I presume, be influenced by her value set.  And almost certainly her opinion that scientists should be passive and neutral is strongly driven by her values.  And if scientists decided to go along with it, would have huge ramifications for the lives of people.  (Doing nothing often has as big an impact as doing something.)

I see nothing essentially wrong with Tamsin sticking to science and avoiding any comment about her personal opinions on areas beyond what she regards as acceptable boundaries for her.  But she's wrong on another count.  She writes:
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. 
It's not advocacy by climate scientists that has damaged trust in the science.  It's advocacy by the opponents of science that has done what damage has been done.  Too often I come across people willing to cop the blame for wrongs that are not of their making.  Not all people are fools and the people who count are rarely fools.  They can tell the difference between a scientific opinion and a personal opinion. A policy developer who can't tell the difference shouldn't be in the job.  Scientists are human beings.  Some will choose to be activists, some will choose to be communicators.  Some will choose to work quietly on their research and avoid the limelight altogether.  As for worrying about being "open to criticism" - if one lived their life by that tenet one would never get up in the morning.

Tamsin has arguably already chosen to go beyond the science by taking on the added role of science communicator.  She is probably quite good at it too.  It's not a great leap to move from the role of engagement with the public to the role of advising on scientific policy.  And then it's not a great leap to move to a broader role of policy development.  I'll be surprised if Tamsin doesn't develop her career in this way.  Where she stops will be up to her and to some extent limited by the opportunities that come her way and those she chooses to accept.  Even this blog article of hers has taken her into the policy arena, even though she might not recognise that it does.  She is touting a policy for scientists (ie to stay out of policy) and promoting her policy widely in the public arena.  I believe her article was published in The Guardian, which takes her influence way beyond the laboratory and the computer room.

As an aside, Judith Curry is lauding Tamsin's approach and pretending that she herself isn't a policy advocate.  Laughable. Need I say more?  I think my readers are sadly all too familiar with Curry and her policy positions.  Many of us don't agree with her but it's wrong to argue she shouldn't contribute to policy.

Tamsin quotes Roger Pielke Jr - an economist.  He does not hesitate to make his opinion on certain policy actions very clear from time to time.  Again, we might or might not agree with Roger but in fact we need these differing views.  The best policies emerge after a wide spectrum of options have been considered, pulled apart, put back together and the process repeated till the main options and implications are worked through and the wrinkles are ironed out of the final product.

You'll excuse my jumping around I hope.  This isn't the best, most well presented essay.  It's a bit of a ramble.  It's just a blog remember.  And I rarely deviate from it being a snark blog.  But policy development is an area I have experience in.  Not only that, but this experience includes the interface between science and policy, so I'm not just spouting ideas off the top of my head.

What I would like to emphasise is that the best policy development people I've worked with have a knack for it - they can deal with ambiguity, they are mentally strong and mature, and they are prepared to have to make Sophie's choices on occasion.  Most have had at least one mentor along the way.  All have been thrust into unfamiliar territory more than once and have shown they can rise to the occasion.

By now you'll probably be saying that I'm talking about something different to what Tamsin was referring to.  You may be thinking that Tamsin was talking about political activism.  I don't read it that way.  Nor do I think you can distinguish easily between types of influence - whether that influence is in a board room or on the street or in a television studio or at a senate committee hearing or chained to a tree in a forest at risk of logging.  People who have a talent or impetus to help shape the future may find themselves in any or all of those environments.

The point I'm getting to is that sound policy is an art and a science.  It takes maturity and most of all experience.  If one doesn't allow oneself to get that experience one will never gain the maturity required to have a positive influence on the world.

I'll reiterate - some people will find themselves in a role where they influence policy.  Some won't or will choose to avoid it.  Just as not every scientist has the skills or desire to communicate directly with the public, not every scientist will have the attributes or motivation required to influence or develop policy.  However to insist that scientists avoid policy because they are scientists is wrong-headed.  That's not the way the world works and neither should it be.  The world needs brilliant minds in policy just as it needs brilliant minds in science.  And some people can and should do both very well.

One more thought.  If anyone knows about climate and the impact of climate change it's climate scientists.  If climate scientists don't think climate change warrants getting out of their lab coats and telling the world what it means and suggesting ways to deal with it, then why would anyone else be concerned?

Finally - I'm not advocating that any or all scientists should become activists or move into policy roles.  All I'm saying is that it's wrong-headed to suggest that scientists should not do that.  The world would be a much poorer place without the influence of scientists.

Sermon is over, may peace be with you and all that :)

PS For a related follow up go here.


  1. "Young Tamsin" - just a tad patronising?

  2. The last thing the world needs is more "honest brokers". Hoping against hope they would swallow their own medicine and shut up.

    1. Too easy to mistake the opinions expressed by the 13% doubtful and the 8% dismissives as being the norm, especially if one doesn't move beyond the fringe. And flattery can be enticing even when it comes from suspect sources. It shouldn't dictate our behaviour but it's easy to fall into its trap.

    2. @ Martin Vermeer

      + 1!

      And far from the self-serving self-description popularised by RP Jr. they are almost invariably the intolerant middle. The link's not for you - I saw you there in comments ;-)

    3. BBD, you may enjoy this thread then... Honest Dodger and I go back a while :-)

    4. What was that line from Apocalypse Now?

      "They lie, they lie, and we must be patient?" Or thereabouts (ungoogled, as in normal conversation :-) )

    5. The honest brokers, and especially the people claiming to be so themselves, reminds me of Bart Verheggen's (30 July) tweet:

      "Contrasting an extremist with someone who is even more extreme doesn't make him mainstream #FallacyoftheMiddle"

      It would be nice if those honest brokers had a little more humility and would see themselves as any other participant in the debate.

  3. I just went and read the comments on Tamsin's blog. One person referred to the role of public intellectuals and pointed out that Tamsin herself has arguably joined their ranks (similar to the point I made above). She's moved beyond science and is arguing who should or should not play an active role in public debate on crucial matters affecting not just humans but the future of all life on earth.

    It struck me that most of the people who agreed with her that scientists shouldn't comment on public policy were deniers. It suits them. Gives them more room to shift the issue away from the fact of climate change. They can influence policy without fear of contradiction by such messy things as evidence.

    I thought this comment was most telling:

    Even if a climatologist had perfect evidence that the carbon dioxide levels would increase temperatures 2 degrees by 2050, he would be stepping out of his area of expertise to advocate doing anything about it as that becomes a matter of economics beyond his field of expertise.

    That person reckons that (male) scientists not only should stick to science, they shouldn't even mention the implications of their findings. They shouldn't advise cutting CO2 emissions. "A matter of economics" - not one of social well-being, ecology, biology, food science, agriculture, hydrology, oceanography etc etc. Their ideology is in blazing lights, reducing everything to the almighty dollar.

    The Tamsin's of the world are at a cross-roads. To stop sticking their neck out and go back to the lab (or stop writing about stuff that goes beyond their own immediate scientific work). To pretend they aren't getting involved in public debate while doing so (Curry-style). Or to broaden their horizons, keep learning about the world at large and take on a role of public citizen in addition to or building on their day job.

    There's no right or wrong answer at the individual level. That is, each person will have their own reasons for doing what they do.

    At a societal level there is a right and wrong answer. To exclude people from public debate on the grounds of their expertise is worse than idiocy. And IMO it goes beyond that. Society needs to make sure that people from all walks of life take part in public debate and play an active role in shaping policy.

    1. I am reminded of the various climategate reviews, where some denialists also argued for actively excluding professional climatologists as their expertise and the consequent acceptance of mainstream climatology would make them 'biased'...

    2. Economists: someone should remind them that the economy is a subset of the environment.

    3. It is funny that the "sceptics" like the muzzle for scientists that much and at the same time claim that advocacy reduces trust in science. If the latter were the case, they should welcome advocacy.

    4. Agreed VV. Fake sceptics project incessantly. It is *they* who are the politicised, biased advocates guilty of misrepresenting the science. They are the absolute embodiment of everything they accuse everybody else of being. The irony would be comical if the problem was not so serious.

    5. Victor, reducing trust in science is too slow a process. That takes time and ultimately runs into the problem of the large group that is well aware that you can't just dismiss one area of science, especially one that big, and accept other areas (which everyone can see work).

      It's much 'better' to have scientists (self-)muzzled, because then the media can be 'controlled' by spin doctors. The science is interpreted by interpreters of interpretation (i.e. the Delingpole-types) and becomes "just an opinion". Inaction follows, goal achieved. :-(


  4. I think Tamsin is a bit historically short sighted too. Deniers of many colours have been trying to undermine science for decades - evolution is a case in point - so it is hardly all the fault of climate scientists. If she looks more widely she will see anti-vaxxers, AIDS deniers, 911truthers and many others committed to undermine their little corner of science. Is it worth mentioning places like Heartland, committed to undermining the science behind passive smoking?

    1. Tamsin is more than short sighted, in my opinion she is outright naive. Does it really matter to the pseudoskeptics that a climate scientists advocates *specific* policies? Heck, no! It matters that the climate scientists points out that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the earth, having potentially significant adverse effects. It's *that* supposed "environmental activism" that the pseudoskeptics don't like.

      In many cases it doesn't even matter that the climate scientists refer to *adverse* effects, but that the research may be used by others to claim such adverse effects. Just ask the pseudoskeptics which climate scientists they *do* trust, and you will likely find names of people who have been quite loud about policies and/or have signed that silly evangelical petition (that'll be Lindzen and Spencer, respectively, to name but two). Or ask them why they distrust paleoclimatology studies, which by-and-large don't say anything about future impacts: it's because those studies suggest the current rise is not natural and will increase significantly above the climate baseline human civilization has known.


  5. Which self-denying climate scientist will stop advocating policy if Joe Bastardi stops appearing on Fox News?

  6. Reading Tamsin's continued used of the pronoun "we", I am reminded of this exchange between the Lone Range and Tonto

    Lone Ranger: Tonto, we are surrounded by Indians!

    Tonto: What's this "we" business, Paleface?

  7. I suppose if a scientist is well-versed in that science, but not well-versed in policy, she might demur. This applies to everyone about everything, or at least it should. I don't believe that's what she said, however! It's what I say.

    My own view is that economic models need to be developed to determine the impacts of GW on cost basis; my belief is that this will demonstrate the need to reduce CO2. In other words, my policy is to find professional policy. Fast!


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