Friday, January 24, 2014

Science and Advocacy

Science and values

Two recent articles at RealClimate by Gavin Schmidt and Mike Mann discuss the issue of scientific advocacy.

Back in apartheid South Africa, academic advocacy was controversial. There were those who argued science was value-free and hence above political concerns. Others argued that science may be value-free but scientists aren’t – you can choose the problem you work on, and can avoid those that may do harm.

We had another instance of this in the tobacco and HIV wars. The denial camp used every trick in the book to confuse the public, and scientists who weighed in were often accused of venturing into politics, as if the other side had not. And in any case, why should scientist not employ their well-informed views to public debate? Does anyone object if a lawyer uses their legal knowledge to articulate a policy position, or an accountant, or any other professional? Must a political scientist confine their critique to theoretical or historical political systems, rather than the world today?

Why do scientists need to be apologetic about informed advocacy, when advocacy is a core value of those opposing the mainstream – to the extent that their advocacy will embrace any argument even when they contradict themselves?
Somehow, being an advocate when you are almost certainly right is unacceptable whereas being an advocate when you are almost certainly wrong is just fine.
People like Richard Lindzen (MIT, climate science contrarian) are no strangers to the op-ed pages, and the people who took Mike Mann on in the faux hockey stick controversy did not restrict their commentary to scientific publication – subjecting someone to multiple levels of inquisition including a congressional investigation went way beyond standard scientific etiquette.

Who let the dogs out?

The gloves have been off for a long time, and the people who threw the Queensberry rules out of the window are on the anti-science side.
It’s time we started saying this loud and clear, and stopped letting them get away with the myth that the mainstream has somehow perverted science to a political and rather doubtfully-constructed economic agenda, when it is clearly the case that the denial camp is guilty of all the above (except the economic case for denial is crystal clear).

Finally, there is the question of fake balance – the notion many news media have that you have to give equal time to both points of view. This is not consistently applied – the “balance” usually happens if both sides have similar clout, or the one that is left out complains loudly enough. When, for example, is the TV news market report followed by a Trotskyist rebuttal? You may argue that Trotskyism is not a valid economic model, but then you are making a judgment about the “other side”. If the “other side” has no plausibility, why give them equal time?

Or as Isaac Asimov succinctly put it, the denial argument is “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”. So why do arguments with scant evidence such as tobacco isn’t that harmful, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS and climate change isn’t happening rate “equal time”?

Usually this happens when the people pushing the denial agenda have significant clout – political or economic. In the case of AIDS denial, a case that was largely being ignored because it had no serious evidence to back it was pushed to the forefront when former South African president Thabo Mbkei embraced the denial argument because it suited his politics, which denied that African people could have any special susceptibility to disease other than colonially-imposed social causes. With tobacco and climate change, economically powerful businesses are threatened by the science, so they defend themselves with obfuscation, aiming to delay policy changes negative to their continued profitability, and damn the consequences. With tobacco, this eventually caught up with them when they lost major lawsuits and were forced to publish documents revealing the extent to which they supported scientific fraud and in general a campaign of confusion. It should be no surprise to anyone who has witnessed the pro-tobaccco and anti-climate science campaigns that they are not only similar in style but have common roots.

What to do?

So what are scientists to do in the face of a concerted denial campaign? Withdraw to the lab and allow something harmful to continue? Aside from the obvious ethical issue with doing so, I can guarantee that once the evidence of harm becomes impossible to ignore, scientists who were in the know will be blamed.

So no, keeping quiet is not an option. So what is?

I had the now sadly not to be repeated pleasure of watching late Stanford professor Stephen Schneider talking to a skeptical audience in Australia. He did not get emotional. He did not insult them. He patiently explained why each point they were making did not fit the evidence.

This is a model for how scientists can operate. It does not mean we cannot go into politics, or orgue for particular policy settings. But it does require discipline in talking about the science.