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.


  1. Hi Philip, may be more up your alley than the slow moving troglodytes on RC. :-)

    "Why should scientists not employ their well-informed views to public debate?" key reasons would be a) most are too scared to do so, b) most are not that good at it c) the ones in groups a & b get jealous of those that do it well and who receive positive attention and kudos so they then complain about them not being "good scientists", and well, round and round and round it goes. it's all bullshit basically.

    The day Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Mobile Oil, GM, Ford, Delta Airlines, Fox news & Murdoch stop advocating in the public space and in closed door rooms for the things that benefit themselves and their shareholders is the day that scientists shouldn't be advocating for the facts about *their own* scientific knowledge and the clear and present implications of those facts regarding government policy and global leadership.

    Lazy irresponsible people sit on their hands and say and do nothing whilst telling others what they should also do, which is "do nothing and say as little as possible, and whatever you do, do be nice to people even if they are criminals or clinically insane or a radical fundamentalist religious bigot too".

    Michael Mann (as good as he is at times) speaks out of both sides of his mouth in his NYTs article and this radio interview.

    His crouch must hurt sitting on that fence so long.

    Each to their own, it's a free world (or so they claim it is).

    Try this on for size


  2. I much prefer Professor Kevin Anderson's point of view and his general behavior and rational logical approach:- "So what would you say to a scientist who sits in their laboratory, crunching the data and producing research who said to you "well, you're no longer a scientist, you're a policy advocate. And you're using your scientific credentials standing to advocate for what the shell blogger called 'political ideology'." What would you say to someone who accused you of that? The answer:
    On Scientific analysis Vs Political judgment: “… but that’s not a political judgment, that’s a judgment on the analysis. Because it has political repercussions does not make it a political judgment.” – “… the science analysis it might start to favour one set of polices over another set of policies for reasons that can be scientifically justified [...] that’s not being political (sic).”
    On the Most Dangerous: “those of us (scientists & academics) who are throwing ‘political mud’ at the scientists by saying you are no longer a scientist, you’re now engaged in politics, actually I think they are the MOST Political and the MOST Dangerous of the Scientists that are engaged in these issues.”

    Much to learn from this 25 minute interview about real credibility and scientific integrity in the public sphere DemocracyNow:

    Psychological Denial and what to do about it.
    @ 13:10 to 16:00 mins The people who ought to know better, in fact often do know better, but choose to suppress or repress that knowledge, what do we do?

    Kevin Anderson responds:
    “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fit into that category, myself included. I think we all fit at different levels into that category. [...] we all need to support each other, to be candid to ourselves. [...] At least if we know that other people are reflecting on their own positions, that gives us some power, some energy, some scope to do that for ourselves.”

    “As a climate change community there’s a lot that we need to do to reflect on our own work and how we’re TRANSLATING that work to Policy Makers (Politicians). We are doing that in a particular way that actually does have this element of psychological denial, cognitive dissonance [...] as academics who work on climate change we are awash with those people, all of us to some extent within the climate change community. So I don’t think it is too surprising to find that outside our own community as well.”

    “Probably one of the few communities that I think has gone beyond that, but I don’t know quite where they go with it, are some of the grass root communities. Where I think they have managed to grapple with this difficult situation. Maybe it is how they *view the world* anyway that enables them to do that more easily than others of us.”

    “But outside of that particular community (and only some in that community) most of us, the rest of us are still struggling to reconcile our day jobs, our research that we do day in and day out. And the understanding that has given us repeatedly and clearly for many years, with the fact that that means significant changes to many areas of our lives, and the structures of our lives. And it’s very difficult to bring those two things together.”

    (God clearly plays dice) [...] “our research tells us repeatedly one thing and that is counter to the way that we are living our own lives and I think that is a dilemma to us all. [...] we probably have to be honest to ourselves first, and then try and drive that candid approach, that degree of honesty, that ability to reflect beyond that to the rest of society as much as we can.”


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