21 April 2010

Steve Schneider Responds

Steve Schneider responds to my book review in Nature (PDF) last month with a letter in today's issue. Here it is:

In his review of my book Science as a Contact Sport — a personal retrospective account of the development of climate science and policy covering 40 years — Roger Pielke Jr misrepresents my position on advocacy (Nature 464, 352–353; 2010).

Pielke fairly represents my decades-old argument that scientists should avoid policy prescriptions. But he omits my frequently stated context: policy advocacy by scientists is inappropriate in formal assessments, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or of the US National Academy of Sciences.

As citizens, scientists may have personal-value positions on policy. But when involved in public advocacy, they must clearly lay out their world views and separate the more objective scientific issue of risk assessment from the value-laden risk-management part. Contrary to Pielke's implication, I am aware of this 'paradox'.

Understanding science does not in itself lead to effective policy. In fact, my book demonstrates that special interest or ideological chicanery is more responsible than scientific ignorance for blocking policy. However, as Pielke notes, I did say that if people better understood what is at stake, they'd be likely to make better risk-management decisions.

That last paragraph seems contradictory to me, as the first and last sentence say pretty much the opposite things.

I don't recall Schneider discussing advocacy by the IPCC or NAS. I wonder what he makes of the advocacy letters of the US NAS on climate change and the various advocacy efforts of Rajendra Pachauri. I'd guess that he'd say that there is a bright line between science and advocacy and individuals can choose what side of that line to be on in different contexts. Obviously, I don't see science and politics being nearly so distinguishable, for individuals and institutions.

These are the relevant paragraphs in the review that Schneider is responding to (it also refers to Jim Hansen's latest book):

Hansen and Schneider each provide a troubling inside view of the political battle over climate change in their respective books, Storms of My Grandchildren and Science as a Contact Sport. Hansen invokes religious terms, characterizing himself and Schneider as witness and preacher, respectively. Both are evangelists who hold science as an ascendant authority.

The tension between the role of scientists as political advocates and as expert advisers is an undercurrent in both books. Schneider explains that “as scientists, we never recommend which policies should be chosen”; Hansen similarly sees himself as an “objective scientist”. Yet both books largely comprise strong ideological and political commentary based on an unstated assumption that science compels action on climate change. Neither author accepts the label of advocate, claiming to be speaking for science; nor do they see the paradox in their position.

Both scientists express a desire to influence political outcomes. Hansen describes how he hoped to sway the US presidential election in 2004 through his public endorsement of Senator John Kerry over George W. Bush in a speech made in the swing state of Iowa. Schneider relates how, at an IPCC meeting, he may have aided the viability of the Kyoto Protocol after explaining climate science to an African national delegate who later changed his position.


  1. von Neumann and Morgenstern's game theory (1947) showed it is impossible to simultaneously maximize two or more variables. So if scientists are also advocates - we are left to wonder which is being maximized. This open question destroys trust necessary for cooperation. Without cooperation there is only force.

  2. "That last paragraph seems contradictory to me, as the first and last sentence say pretty much the opposite things."

    I don't agree. I don't see that they say "opposite things" at all:

    "Understanding science does not in itself lead to effective policy."

    "However, as Pielke notes, I did say that if people better understood what is at stake, they'd be likely to make better risk-management decisions."

    Suppose a person smokes. Knowing the science alone--that smoking causes cancer--does not in itself lead to effective policy (stopping smoking). But one is *more likely* to stop smoking if one knows that smoking causes cancer than if one is completely unaware of that link.

  3. -2-Mark

    If you add Schneider's words around you can interpret the text in any of a number of ways ;-)

    He did not say "more likely" -- you did.

  4. It's comforting for them to conflate "scientist" with "expert". Instead of studying nature and trying to make sense of it as scientists traditionally did, we have a new breed who study a small portion and pretend that can be wildly extrapolated. In a world where intentions seem more important than deeds, all number of prestigious prizes await the failed catastrophists but only derision is allowed for the realists who have been far more correct.

  5. I haven't bought "Honest Broker" yet Roger but using the terms of this review I would say that Schneider and Hansen see AGW as "volcanic" and you see it as "abortion". Schneider didn't say there was "a bright line between science and advocacy" or that it was easy to switch hats. We don't know what he thinks about that, he might think it is a fuzzy line. But given that he thinks the issue is "volcanic" then he's obliged to cross back and forward over that line according to his own values (I surmise). So, that makes you right if the issue is not "volcanic" but "abortion", where values become far more important to policy decisions. But then deciding whether it's "volcanic" or "abortion" comes back to evaluating the science. So I see the real problem is the failure of some scientists to discuss the science in a non adversarial manner and the attempt to stitch up a "consensus" by IPCC rather than the Schneiders or Hansens crossing over that bright or fuzzy line. Hence the efforts by Pielke snr to pursue informed, calm and reasoned dialogue about the science are most welcome.

  6. At least prophets in the Bible admitted they were prophets.
    AGW promoters like Schneider and Hansen do not bother with this. They simply claim it is their way or else.
    I would really like some journalist (if any are left) to get Hansen to explain his position on the flooding of Manhattan he has predicted, his support of criminal and terroristic acts to further his policy demands, and how he can continue to claim we are undergoing a climate catastrophe in the face of no catastrophe during the entire time he has been calling for one.

  7. 2-Roger

    "If you add Schneider's words around you can interpret the text in any of a number of ways ;-)

    He did not say "more likely" -- you did."

    Here's what he said, "However, as Pielke notes, I did say that if people better understood what is at stake, they'd be likely to make better risk-management decisions."

    Are you saying you'd agree with him if he'd said, "...more likely to make better risk-management decisions", but you disagree with him because he said, "...likely to make better risk-management decisions"?

    Suppose he had said, "However, as Pielke notes, I did say that if people better understood what is at stake, they'd probably make better risk-management decisions."

    Would you agree with him then (i.e., if he'd substituted "probably" for "be likely to")?

  8. -8-Mark

    The answers to your questions are that it depends on the context. In the context of Schneider's book these semantic issues don't change a thing.

    On the Gilligan post I link to a review from SciDev.net that discusses the "deficit model" of science. That seems directly relevant here as well.

  9. I got in touch with Dr Betz by email whose letter appears in the same issue of Nature. To me, his letter sounded insightful yet a bit ambiguous. In summary, I asked:

    "You state that people hold a range of normative perspectives and therefore those who hold values opposed to what the scientists seem to espouse will adopt opposition to the scientific position for reasons outside of the actual science. ...

    "... you [are] saying that scientists must simply understand that there are people with different normative outlooks on climate change impacts. They must therefore phrase their recommendations using a different language to speak to different types of people so that the absurd situation of non-scientists opposing and challenging climate scientists does not result."

    Dr Betz replied back that he does agree with the proposition above.

    Betz seems to be saying, in essence, that if adaption/mitigation actions flow logically from scientific knowledge, there is nothing undemocratic about scientists making policy recommendations - as you 'misguidedly' suggested in your review.

    This implies as well, that the bulk of opposition to the theory of anthropogenic global warming comes from normative dissent, not from scientific standpoints.

    With permission, here is the link to the full text of his mail to Nature, which he passed on:


  10. -10-nigguraths

    Many thanks for this. I agree with Betz on the normative aspects of the debate, indeed that is whay I have characterized the climate debate as a matter of "abortion politics" (to use the terminology in THB). My objection is to when it is characterized as "tornado politics" -- Betz would seem to agree, so hard to see why his thinks we disagree. Anyway, this is probably worth a post, for next week.


  11. I have discussed part of the letter Dr Betz sent to Nature. It is at: