07 December 2009

Should Scientists Participate in Political Debates?

The answer is unequivocally "yes."

There appears to be some misunderstanding of my views on this topic, amplified by discussions over at Real Climate by practicing scientists. Jim Bouldin, a sometimes contributor at Real Climate and research scientist at UC-Davis, (mis)characterizes my views as follows:
Just do science, don’t speak up about it. Remember, political scientists can expound on climate science (without even getting the facts right!), but climate scientists should never “pathologize” science by “politicizing” (i.e. talking about) it.
Gavin Schmidt (mis)characterizes my views as follows, with the discussion of "taxonomy" referring to my analysis in The Honest Broker, which Gavin obviously has not read:
I don't necessarily take issue with his taxonomy - though 'advocacy' is ambiguous since it is implicit that anyone speaking in public is advocating for something, but what that might be is not defined anywhere. I've stated that I advocate for the proper appreciation of climate science and against it's abuse in political arguments, but RPJr has decided arbitrarily that this is somehow impossible and that I'm advocating for something else (also undefined). Maybe I'm naive, but I feel that education outside of classroom is still worthwhile. However, the objections to RP actions has bog all to do with issues, but his use of misrepresentation and insults to try and secure an exclusive spot in the public discourse i.e. "Those bad scientists can't be trusted to deal with policy ramifications - listen to me instead". This explains his exclusive focus on percieved errors by mainstream climate scientists, rather than the blatant lies put out by Morano, Drudge, Beck etc. - people who are significantly more influential than any of us.
In The Honest Broker I define "advocacy" quite explicitly as an effort to limit the scope of political choice, usually, but not always to some preferred single course of action. For example, in the 2008 presidential campaign one could have advocated for a particular candidate or for a political party (regardless of candidate). Both are forms of advocacy. Advocacy is a good thing, as I explain in the book, because it is absolutely fundamental to democratic politics. As I say on many occasions, I am a strong advocate for certain policies in the climate debate, because I think the policies that I advocate are better than the alternatives. This is a case I am happy to make openly.

What Gavin and Jim both fail to understand, apparently, is what I call "stealth issue advocacy, " defined on p. 7 of THB as follows:
So when a scientist claims to focus "only on the science" in many cases the scientist risks serving instead as a Stealth Issue Advocate. For some scientists stealth issue advocacy is politically desirable because it allows for a simultaneous claim of being above the fray, invoking the historical authority of science, while working to restrict the scope of choice.
I have long pointed to Real Climate as a canonical example of stealth issue advocacy. They claim on their site to be disinterested:
The discussion here is restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.
The reality is that they are far from disinterested. The fact that they have a political agenda is not problematic in the slightest. The problem is that they are seeking to hide their politics behind science. This has the net effect of pathologically politicizing the science because most of the issues that they raise, which they say are scientific in nature, are really about politics. It is not a big leap for observers to conclude that these guys are really about politics rather than science, regardless of the reality. People are not dumb and can see through this sort of misdirection with relative ease. Perhaps the most significant and lasting consequence of the CRU email hack/leak/whatever will be to strip away any possibility of a facade of disinterestedness among these activist scientists. In the long run that is probably a very good thing. In the near term it probably means an even more politicized climate debate.

In The Honest Broker I describe three effective roles that scientists can play in policy debates (the Pure Scientist does not play any direct role):
  • The Science Arbiter who responds to questions put forward by decision makers.
  • The Issue Advocate who seeks to reduce the scope of political choice.
  • The Honest Broker who seeks to expand, or at least clarify, the scope of choice.
The Stealth Issue Advocate claims to be a Pure Scientist or a Science Arbiter, but really is working to reduce the scope of choice using science. A problem is that science is particularly ill-suited for political battles because decisions that take place in the context of uncertainty or a conflict in values always involve much more than science. One message of The Honest Broker is that, even though these categories are very much ideal types, scientists do face a choice about what role to play in the political process. And among the more damaging roles to the institutions of science is the Stealth Issue Advocate.

So to avoid any further misconceptions of my views, should scientists talk about the policy implications of their work? Absolutely. Should they come clean on their political agendas? Yes. That is good for science and good for democratic politics.

Should any scientists, including the guys at Real Climate, wish to explain where they fit in The Honest Broker taxonomy, or where the taxonomy is flawed, I am happy to give them a forum here.