15 March 2010

Stealth Issue Advocacy

In my book, The Honest Broker, I argue that "stealth issue advocacy" occurs when scientists claim to be focusing on science but are really seeking to advance a political agenda. When such claims are made, the authority of science is used to hide a political agenda, under an assumption that science commands that which politics does not. However, when stealth issue advocacy takes place, it threatens the legitimacy of scientific advice, as people will see it simply as politics, and lose sight of the value that science does offer policy making .

Here is an example of stealth issue advocacy that I came across today: From an AP article, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco explains a need for better communication related to climate change (emphasis added):

"We are no longer constrained by talking about some possible future. Climate change is happening now and it's happening in people's back yards," Jane Lubchenco told reporters at a briefing.

"Scientists have seriously underestimated the importance of explaining what we know about climate in a way people can understand," she said.

The effects of climate change are being felt from melting Arctic sea ice to threats to birds and forests and the spread of disease. Worldwide, 2000-2009 was the warmest decade on record.

Recent criticism of errors in the U.N. climate panel report on global warming and revelation of stolen e-mails from climate scientists have raised questions about climate change.

It's not surprising there could be a few errors in a 3,000-page document, Lubchenco said, though she stressed that the goal is always to have no errors.

"There is a well-orchestrated and fairly successful effort under way to confuse and sometimes cherry-pick information," Lubchenco said.

The best response, she said, is to provide information from trusted sources such as NOAA, which operates the National Weather Service and collects and distributes data on weather and climate.

"I don't view our role as trying to convince people of something," she said. "Our role is to inform people."

Now someone will have to explain that last sentence to me, because it makes no sense. Of course Lubchenco wants to convince people of something. In the first highlighted passage she is referring to an "effort underway to confuse." She doesn't specify who that is doing the confusing, but I have a good idea who she is referring to (and I am sure, so do you).

Lubchenco wants to counter an unnamed well-orchestrated campaign, but she doesn't want to convince people of something? Right.

Waging a political battle through science is a losing proposition for advocates to begin with -- not admitting that is your strategy, when it obviously is, makes things even worse. Why not just admit the obvious?