04 December 2009

Your Politics Are Showing

In early 2005, almost five years ago, I began criticizing the scientists at RealClimate, including Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann, for hiding a political agenda in the cloth of science. In The Honest Broker I call this behavior "stealth issue advocacy" and it is among the most insidious and certain ways for science to become pathologically politicized . To be clear, I have no problem with scientists being open advocates, with NASA's Jim Hansen as perhaps the most visible example -- through such advocacy is how democracies work. But when scientists claim to be representing the scientific establishment while at the same time are pursuing a political agenda, it hurts the credibility and trust given to scientists.

At the time I wrote:
. . . opponents to action on climate change have already taken a big step toward winning the political debate when advocates of action take the bait on uncertainty. By raising uncertainty as a red herring advocates for action spend considerable time and effort trying to disprove allegations of uncertainty as the centerpiece of their efforts, but no matter how this sideshow winds up, it will do little to change the underlying political outcome, as the opponents can just switch their justification to something else while maintaining their political commitment to opposition. This is an exceedingly difficult line of argument for environmentalists and scientists to accept because the former have hitched their agenda to science and the latter’s claims to authority lie in science.

The experiences of a new weblog run by a group of climate scientists, RealClimate, provide a great example of this dynamic. The site claims to be

“restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science.”
This is a noble but futile ambition. The site’s focus has been exclusively on attacking those who invoke science as the basis for their opposition to action on climate change, folks such as George Will, Senator James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, McIntyre and McKitrick, Fox News, and Myron Ebell. Whether intended or not, the site has clearly aligned itself squarely with one political position on climate change. And by trumpeting certainty and consensus, and attacking claims to the contrary, it has fallen squarely into the uncertainty trap.

So if opponents to action on climate change want to distract the attention of some prominent climate scientists, they need simply write the occasional opinion article or give a speech in which they invoke uncertainty about climate change. Meantime, business as usual pretty much gets a free pass.

It would be wonderful if opponents to action on climate change would stop hiding behind science. But the efforts of those scientists who take them on the basis of science are what allow then to hide in plain sight. The way out of this situation is not to engage in endless debate about climate science, but to question whether science is in fact the right battleground for this political conflict.

RealClimate's Gavin Schmidt responded to these comments and he strongly eschewed that they were pursuing any sort of political agenda:

Let me make one more thing clear: we are not taking a political stand on this. That someone else decides to support their political point by using bogus science is not our fault. If we correct their errors it is because we don’t want to see bogus science used at all. It does not necessarily imply that we are taking a stand against their political premise.

Of course the science is not the right battleground for political issues. Those who want to push forward the policies would be well advised to say this as often as they can.
Thus, it was with some interest that I received an email today announcing a press conference by Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann, organized with the Center for American Progress. Here is the announcement for the call (emphasis at the end is added):
PRESS CALL TOMORROW: Climate Science - Setting the Record Straight

*Michael Mann*, A Leading Climate Scientist and Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University Whose Hacked Personal Emails Have Recently Become the Source of Media Attention Will Be Joined By NASA Climate Scientist *Dr. Gavin Schmidt*, Princeton's *Dr. Michael Oppenheimer*, and CAP Senior Fellow *Dr. Joseph Romm* to Discuss the Overwhelming Scientific Understanding of the Danger Posed by Unmitigated Global Warming Pollution, and That the Stolen Emails Reveal Nothing That Changes Our Extensive Understanding of Climate Science, Tomorrow, *Friday December 4 at 11:00 AM EST.*

Leaders from 190 nations are meeting in Copenhagen next week because they understand the science behind climate change is real, and that the evidence is growing stronger that each day we delay to address the problem increases the danger to our planet and our economy. Against this backdrop, opponents of action --who have been ignoring the unequivocal scientific evidence and misrepresenting the facts for decades-- are now exaggerating and distorting a batch of stolen emails from prominent climate scientists in a further effort to block action. Opponents of cleaner energy have, since the 1970s, systematically attacked and politicized sound science in an attempt to widen the partisan divide and mislead the public. The global consensus on climate change science has been reached by through decades of work by thousands of independent scientists from different institutions in nations around the world. Now more than ever it is critical for Americans to understand that the scientific evidence that climate change poses a very real threat to our health, economy, and planet has never been clearer. Tomorrow Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist and author of part of the IPCC third assessment report, along with IPCC participant Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, and Dr. Gavin Schmidt of NASA, will discuss the mounting scientific evidence since the IPCC’s 2007 assessment report, and why it is in fact more clear now than ever before that we must take action to solve the global climate crisis.
I think we can get past the lie -- and it was a lie -- that these activist scientists, in the words of Gavin Schmidt, "are not taking a political stand." They are indeed taking a political stand and they are doing so in stealth fashion using the authority and institutions of science as cover to do so. As the leaked CRU emails show, this group of activist scientists are firmly entrenched in the major institutions of climate science, such as the IPCC.

The upshot of this stealth issue advocacy is to rot these institutions of science from the inside. Consider that in a Rassmussen poll released yesterday, 59% of respondents thought it somewhat or very likely that scientists have falsified their research data in support of their views on global warming. This is a very strong sign that the climate science community has lost a lot of credibility. Today's press conference will only reinforce the perception that these scientists are using science as cover for their political views. The American public may not understand the details of climate science, but they know politics when they see it.

Judy Curry was speaking of the IPCC, but I think that her comments go for any major institution of climate science:
These guys should pick people who don't want to be advocates and will shut their mouths about advocating for policies. Otherwise, we don't look credible.
For individual scientists, being an advocate is fine so long as that advocacy is open and not hidden behind science. But climate science is chock full of advocates. What it needs are more honest brokers and fewer stealth issue advocates.