07 December 2009

Will Howard on Science and Politics

From the comments are these thoughtful views from Will Howard, project leader in the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, in Hobart, Australia.
I am a working scientist, doing research on paleoclimate and biogeochemical cycles. I mostly work on timescales longer than the millennial-scale reconstructions mainly under discussion in the context of the UEA e-mail files, but the principles are similar. I have a lot of experience in developing, calibrating, and applying paleoclimate proxies based on geochemical and biotic tracers. I have done work on developing composite time-series using multiple proxies and multivariate techniques such as principle-components and factor analysis, so I do understand many of the technical issues under discussion.

I also have been doing some work on the impacts of ocean acidification on marine organisms and ecosystems, and this work has had some media attention recently which has seen me being asked questions about policy by the media.

In answer to the title of the post, I don't think scientists working in this arena can completely avoid the political implications of our work. The political debate comes to us. My own experience is that I haven't needed to seek out "political debate." The question is how to deal with it? I would place myself, imperfectly, somewhere between "science arbiter" and "honest broker" in Roger's taxonomy, but closer to "science arbiter."

As one example, I've been asked by the media (here in Australia) for my comments on the upcoming Copenhagen conference and the relatively small proposed cuts in emissions. I answered that the science I've been involved in suggests long time lags in the ocean's ability to buffer the anthropogenic CO2 invasion, so action, if any, to cut emissions should be sooner than later for maximum efficacy. In other words, *IF* you are going to do something, do it now. (Dave Archer, whose comments you can see at RealClimate, has done the best work on this question of anthropogenic CO2 lifetimes of anyone in science and I strongly recommend reading his comments whatever your views of RC). Does that make me an "issue advocate?" I don't know, but I prefer to avoid it.

The role of us scientists should be to identify, and if possible quantify, possible risks associated with human impacts on the earth's climate and biogeochemical systems. Like Roger Pielke Sr. I think there's a broader perspective on human impacts beyond just the modification of the infrared budget by CO2, that needs to be discussed more. It is NOT our role to dictate policy.

We have, in my opinion, not done as good job as we might of distinguishing between scientific and non-scientific questions for policymakers and for the media and public. The issue of whether global warming is occurring, and if so, is attributable to human action, is a scientific question.

What actions, if any, to take in response to the problem, if any, come down to political, economic, ethical, even spiritual considerations. A perfectly valid policy response by society may be to just continue emitting greenhouse gases as we've been, and deal with the consequences later. *Personally*, as a citizen/human being/parent, I think that would be a grossly misguided policy. My job as a scientist, as I see it, is to point out the risks.

As long as I'm commenting, there are a few important issues brought up by the UEA email files (however they got into the public domain).

One is the public perception of the process of science, which I think has been damaged by the indications in some of the communications (if true) that there were attempts to subvert the peer-review process.

I have argued - publicly and strongly - that the robustness of the AGW hyopthesis derives, in part, from the adversial nature of scientific discourse. That is, the validity of any scientific hypothesis is contingent upon its standing up to scrutiny and (attempted) refutation. In plain English, it's right until it's wrong. A great example is Darwinian evolutionary theory, which has (so far!) stood up to everything that's been thrown at it, including tests Darwin and his contemporaries could not have conceived of in the late 19th Century.

So I have said in public lectures to often-skeptical audiences, that science is always trying to knock down theories like AGW, and the fact that it's stood up so far argues for its validity if not ultimate confirmation (key distinction there!).

The apparent collusion to manipulate this adversial system evidenced by the emails, if true, would tend to compromise the credibility of this system. If true, it tends to make scientists like me look like fools or liars for stressing the strength of our adversial system.

So for example, Gavin Schmidt was quoted last week on NPR (discussed on this blog under "Redefining Peer Review"):
"'In any other field (a bad paper) would just be ignored,' says Gavin Schmidt at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. 'The problem is in the climate field has become extremely politicized, and every time some nonsense paper gets into a proper journal, it gets blown out of all proportion.'

Most of the papers Schmidt and his colleagues object to challenge the mainstream view of climate science. Schmidt says they may be wrong or even deceptive, but they are still picked up by politicians, pundits and businesses who are skeptical of climate change."
This raises the question: what is a "bad" or "nonsense" paper? A paper Gavin, Mike Mann, and Phil Jones disagree with? The quote comes across as an attempt to arrogate to himself and a few others the judgment of what is or is not a "bad" paper. Do the rest of us get any say in this? (sorry Gavin if you're reading this, but with all due respect that's how it reads, and I'm sure you didn't mean it to come across that way)

The other problem is the attempt to second-guess the political implications of scientific papers. That is not science's place. Opponents of, say, carbon emissions limitation bills, would argue that papers like the "Hockey Stick" publications have been "blown out of all proportion" to justify large-scale and expensive global mitigation initiatives. And Gavin's comment that "in any other field a bad paper would be ignored" is just plain wrong. Climate science is not the only field of science in which the political and social implications of scientific publications get a very public airing. Think of biomedical research and all the controversies there (remember the fraudulent human cloning result?)

One more point (as long as I'm at it!) about the discussion of "gatekeeping": for many of the climate-related questions in discussion now we need data - badly. I would be concerned that in the process of keeping papers out of the literature whose *interpretations* some may disagree with, valuable *data sets* might also be excluded from publication. This is in my opinion a key issue I haven't seen discussed. So good examples are tree-ring data. These are valuable data for fields such paleoecology, archeology, and geochronology, not only for climate research. Their interpretation in terms of paleotemperature may change, as new insights are gained into the sensitivity of tree growth to the multiple drivers of temperature, precipitation, etc. But the data themselves need to be out there to be used, and indeed re-interpreted.

I've been late coming to this discussion, and I think more of us need to weigh in, because the public perception of the credibility of our science is at stake. I commend Judith Curry for the intellectual clarity and integrity of her commentary on this issue, and hope some of my comments here expand upon some of the excellent points she made.