Should Scientists Participate in Political Debates?

This Pielke piece is really excellent — it gets right to the essence of the distinction between “stealth issue advocacy” and “honest brokering”

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 cope 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.

2 thoughts on “Should Scientists Participate in Political Debates?

  1. I’ve put some of the comments I’ve made to you, with some modification and expansion, on to Roger Pielke Jr.’s blog under the “Should Scientists Participate in Political Debates?” thread. I think silence is no longer an option for climate scientists.

  2. Siiiiigh.

    It also says, on the RealClimate About Us page:

    The contributors to this site do so in a personal capacity during their spare time and their posts do not represent the views of the organizations for which they work, nor the agencies which fund them. The contributors are solely responsible for the content of the site and receive no remuneration for their contributions.

    What’s the big deal: most bloggers are unpaid, right? Right…but most of them also have the “tip jar” out (and/or regular “fund-raising drives”). RealClimate does not. That doesn’t make their views correct, nor the contributors more virtuous than the majority of bloggers who endeavor anywhere from somewhat to greatly to get paid for their work. But it does mean, as the “about us” page says, that the site – a very thorough and comprehensive site – is run and all content provided by – people who choose to take some of their spare time off from work, to write uncompensated pieces about…the same subject they spend all day working on.

    Who does that: spends all day working in a particular field as a salaried employee, and then spends some of their precious off-hours doing the exact same kind of work – or explaining their work to laypeople – for free? Are there people in other professions who do so? Certainly. But, almost to a person, their chief motivation is the spirit of volunteerism, sometimes coupled with an undeniable (and all-too-rare) genuine love of their field, the kind of love that allows a person to say “I would do this even if I were not being paid.” There aren’t too many baristas, hair-stylists, or auto mechanics who spend their own money to set up websites where they write uncompensated articles and other pieces on the field in which they earn their living. A few, probably…but not many.

    The people who do such things do it out of a belief that there is a genuine need for a wider public explanation of their field (medicine, environmental science, etc.) which their job does not allow them to pursue directly. A doctor, for example, who works with teenagers at risk of HIV exposure might choose to write an uncompensate blog in order to reach a larger audience than his or her practice allows him or her to reach on a daily basis. Similarly, the scientists at RealClimate believe there is a genuine need for laypeople to have access to current, “hard” data and theories and conclusions about the field of climate science. Why? Because it’s a complicated field that the media is ill-equipped to explain properly, often – since the understanding necessary to present it comprehensively is not often budgeted for by the 24-hour news channels, leading to confusion and errors. But even more importantly, because there is an active and mendacious skeptic/denier community which, for its own personal and political reasons, is intent upon fostering as much confusion and misinformation regarding climate science as possible.

    Look no further than the endlessly-hyped (and criminally-obtained) CRU email which contained the sentence that had the word “trick” in it. This has been hyperbolically trumpeted as proof positive that climate science is hooey – or worse – by the usual suspects in the denier/right-wing community, despite being based upon a clearly willful misinterpretation of the contextual connotation of the word “trick.” Without going full metal dictionary on you, even a quick trot over to for a glance at the entry for “trick” reveals two separate definitions, #s 5 and 6, which detail the actual – and pretty clear – intention of the author: “a clever or ingenious device or expedient; adroit technique: the tricks of the trade,” and the art or knack of doing something skillfully.”

    It’s also worth re-mentioning the manner in which the CRU emails were obtained: someone with enough knowledge of where to look, and enough skill to pull the job off, committed a felony by hacking into CRUs servers at East Anglia. I can remember when such a thing as hacking someone’s private files elicited howls of outrage from law-‘n’-order conservatives. Those days are apparently over, though. Regardless of the hypocrisy involved in that (catching Sean Hannity in the act of hypocrisy, after all, being falling-off-log easy), the larger point which is made by highlighting the abject disingenuousness employed by climate change deniers to make the case for willful deception on the part of CRU scientists is that if people who genuinely do believe in the unfettered examination and exploration of science – and in the imperatives for changes in humanity’s behavior that some of its conclusions suggest – are to be allowed to have their work continue, they must proactively and consistently defend against and rebut all the conscious distortions – as well as simple misunderstandings – out there in the public sphere where policy is made.

    Is this explicitly political? Sure it is. But I don’t think the RealClimate guys would deny that. They are, unlike virtually all other scientists in other fields, operating in a branch of science which is simultaneously more significant to the future of the planet than most other scientific disciplines, and which has become – not by them, but by their deniers/skeptics – explicitly politicized. My friend the particle physicist doesn’t have a spare-time blog in which he goes to great lengths to dispel public misconceptions about his field…because much of the public may not even know that particle physics exists, and an even greater number don’t particularly care what the ongoing developments in particle physics are. They don’t see those developments are directly relevant to their own lives.

    I think the scientists who volunteer their time at RealClimate would agree with the idea that “people aren’t dumb.” But I think it’s quite obvious to any but those who’ve been living under a rock for several years, that the field of climate science has already become politicized, by definition. The RealClimate guys aren’t trying any sort of “double-super-secret stealth issue-acvocacy,” they assume the public already knows that the reason they spend their spare time talking to laypeople about the same field they get paid to work in – and the botanists, astrophysicists and nuclear pharmacists don’t is because the implications of the data in this field are so critical for the world, right now, and because the entire debate has been dragged into the spotlight already.

    In (not so) short, the bottom line is that there is no incompatibility between being an “honest broker” – i.e., doing exactly what you point out the RealClimate guys say they do (restricting the discussion “to scientific topics” and “not get[ting] involved in any political or economic implications of the science“) and doing so in a field that has become explicitly politicized. They’re not denying that the issue is a political hot-potato, in fact, they’re explicitly acknowledging it by the very sentence you chose to excerpt. Instead, what the RealClimate guys are saying is that their chosen field is – and has been for some time – under attack by politically-motivated skeptics an deniers, and they want to act as a public outlet to affirm the few factually true criticisms which may make their way into the public discourse, and use layperson’s language to rebut and refute the vast majority of politically-motivated, false claims about their work in particular, or their field in general, because the stakes are too high for the public and political discourse to be led or even colored by incorrect assumptions and false data. An explicitly political act? Sure…but one which does not seek to deceive anyone about that fact; one which in fact actually assumes it as one of its reasons for being. An otherwise non-political act which is prima facie political in this particular field because of the previous politicization of the entire field. But an act which does not attempt to actively engage in discussion outside of the actors own field of expertise (into the realm of politics or economics), not even to offer opinion on what those actors, ehose scientists believe might be the best political course of action. An act which seeks merely to set the record as straight as possible on the facts of the science itself as honestly as possible, so that the best-informed debate can proceed at both a national and a global level towards coming to grips with the problems of climate change.

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