Stewart Brand's Four Camps

This is a great post by Roger Pielke Jr. because it reminds us all of Pielke’s 2005 taxonomy of the climate debate.

In the NYT today Stewart Brand explains that the climate debate really has four — not two — different poles. He confuses me and my father as an example of a “skeptic” (he refers to my father, a climate scientist, but then cites my research on IPCC scenarios). While it is nice to see a little nuance creep into the debate, the fatal flaw in Brand’s taxonomy is that it defines its ordering with respect to views on science. The climate debate has much more nuance among people who share the same views on the science, so I find Brand’s taxonomy a bit simplistic.

In 2005, I blogged my own taxonomy of the debate.

Here you’ll want to read the original taxonomy…

Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science

Arizona State prof. Daniel Sarewitz has long been a Seekerblog reliable source on issues of science and technology policy. Here is Sarewitz with Samuel Thernstrom in an LA Times op-ed:

The East Anglia controversy serves as a reminder that when the politics are divisive and the science is sufficiently complex, the boundary between the two may become indiscernible.

(…) We do not believe the East Anglia e-mails expose a conspiracy that invalidates the larger body of evidence demonstrating anthropogenic warming; nevertheless, the damage to public confidence in climate science, particularly among Republicans and independents, may be enormous. The terrible danger — one that has been brewing for years — is that the invaluable role science should play in informing policy and politics will be irrevocably undermined, as citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes.

(…) Moreover, problems such as climate change are much more scientifically complex than determining the charge on an electron or even the structure of DNA. The research deals not with building blocks of nature but with dynamic systems that are inherently uncertain, unpredictable and complex. Such science is often not subject to replicable experiments or verification; rather, knowledge and insight emerge from the weight of theory, data and evidence, usually freighted with considerable uncertainty, disagreement and internal contradiction.

Thus, we write neither to attack nor to defend the East Anglia scientists, but to make clear that the ideal of pure science as a source of truth that can cut through politics is false. The authority of pure science is a two-edged sword, and it cuts deeply in both directions in the climate debate: For those who favor action, the myth of scientific purity confers unique legitimacy upon the evidence they bring to political debates. And for those who oppose action, the myth provides a powerful foundation for counterattack whenever deviations from the unattainable ideal come to light.

(…) The real scandal illustrated by the e-mails is not that scientists tried to undermine peer review, fudge and conceal data, and torpedo competitors, but that scientists and advocates on both sides of the climate debate continue to claim political authority derived from a false ideal of pure science. This charade is a disservice to both science and democracy. To science, because the reality cannot live up to the myth; to democracy, because the difficult political choices created by the genuine but also uncertain threat of climate change are concealed by the scientific debate.

What is the solution? Let politics do its job; indeed, demand it.

We do not believe that climate change is merely a Trojan horse for a Democratic dream of destroying global capitalism. Nor do we believe that Republicans are so bent on maximizing the profits of the fossil fuel industry that they are choosing to consign their grandchildren to a ruined world. Yet these are only slight caricatures of the fantasies that each side cherishes about the other because the true complexity of the climate debate has been camouflaged by the myth of pure, disinterested science.

That myth has allowed politicians to shirk their responsibility to be clear about the values, interests and beliefs that underpin their preferences and choices about science and policy. (…)

Please continue reading…

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.

The Honest Broker

Don Monroe offers up a nice review of Roger Pielke’s The Honest Broker. We highly recommend the book so we agree with Monroe:

In case you hadn’t noticed, discussion of global warming has become somewhat polarized. Amid accusations, on the one hand, that industry-financed non-experts deliberately sow confusion, and on the other that a leftist cabal exaggerates the risks and threatens our economy, Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is something of an anomaly.

A professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Pielke is an expert who endorses the broad consensus that humans are causing dangerous changes. But he also criticizes scientists like those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for stifling legitimate dissent in the service of narrow policy options. In his 2007 book, The Honest Broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics, Pielke touches on climate change only tangentially as he outlines how scientists can more constructively contribute to contentious policy decisions.

(…) But the intervening years, Pielke says, have shown that the whole notion that science provides objective information that is then handed over to inform policy makers, the so-called linear model, is naïve and unrealistic. Only rarely, when people share goals and the relation between causes and effects is simple, can scientists meaningfully contribute by sticking to their fields of expertise as a “Pure Scientist” or by providing focused answers to policy questions as a “Science Arbiter.”

More frequently, people do not share goals and the causal relationships are more complicated. Scientists who wish to contribute to these policy debates are naturally pulled into the role of “Issue Advocate,” marshalling the science in support of a narrowed range of politically-supported options. Although this is a useful role, Pielke warns, scientists often drift into it unwittingly. As they deny any political influence on their scientific judgments, these “stealth issue advocates” can damage the authority of science even as they obscure the true nature of the political decision.

To address this problem, Pielke pleads for more scientists to act as “Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives,” to give his complete description. Such scientists, presumably as part of multi-disciplinary committees like the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, would act to expand the available policy alternatives rather than restrict them. Unlike the science arbiter, Pielke’s honest broker recognizes an inseparability of policy issues from the corresponding scientific issues, but nonetheless provides a palette of options that are grounded in evidence.

(…) Nonetheless, Pielke’s short, readable book provides a helpful guide for what we can hope for in policy debates involving science, and how scientists can most productively contribute. What we can’t hope for is a single, science-endorsed answer to complex issues that trade off competing interests and conflicting values. For that, we have politics.

Please continue reading…

Top 10 Things I liked about Prometheus

Roger Pielke’s Prometheus blog has been an important resource and a great pleasure. Sharon Friedman explains why.

A Guest Post by Sharon Friedman

1. We could keep up with the latest in the “big” climate science (as in GCM, IPCC) world in minutes a day. This comes in handy at work “hasn’t the A2 emissions scenario been proven to be way underestimating current conditions?”. Cocktail parties- not so much.

2. We could have discussions only other science policy wonks are interested in.. My model estimates the density of science policy wonks in the US is about 1 per 100 square miles. So without a virtual meeting place, we are likely to never interact except in hubs such as D.C. Those of us who spent time in D.C. can fondly remember our time worshipping at the Temple of Science (the NAS building) through virtual wonkhood.

3. We could interact between science policy practitioners in the real world and academics. What if medical researchers never spoke to actual doctors or got feedback on their research and how it applies in the real world? Whoops, forgot, most sciences do operate that way. This is actually pretty rare, and immensely mutually beneficial.

4. People were civil and respectful and dialogue led to deeper understanding. People would call each other on questionable claims and assumptions without the called upon leaving in a huff. I have tried to comment on some natural resource issues in online newspapers and magazines; the dialogue there seldom has to do with the exchange of ideas but rather clobbering people with accusations about their motives. Our level of civility is darn rare, in my experience.


Please continue reading Sharon… and note that the Prometheus tradition is carried forward at Roger’s new blog.

Science and Politics – Accepting a Dysfunctional Union

Roger Pielke, Jr. has a new article out in the Harvard International Review Summer 2008 — an excellent review of the real world of science policy forumulation, which concludes:

…We have choices in how experts relate to decisionmakers. Whether we are taking our children to the doctor or using science to inform policies, better decisions will be made more often if we pay attention to the role of expertise in decision-making and the different forms that it can take.

Striving for better decisions, rather than trying to separate science and politics, is the best method for dealing with the challenges of the politicization of science.

Asteroid strike risk?

Something else to worry about

…Donald K. Yeomans, who manages the jet propulsion lab’s Near-Earth Object Program, said the Earth’s atmosphere is continually streaked by space stuff, ranging from the basketball-size (several a day) to the Volkswagen-size (twice a year). Almost everything burns up, though some may explode in the air, a phenomenon known as an airburst, with the potential of causing damage below. And then there are objects, like the meteorite that dug a 60-foot-wide crater in Peru last September. Perhaps no bigger than a basketball, the meteorite was a reminder of the destructive power of what is lurking out there.

“In fact, there was a daylight fireball event widely observed near Los Angeles two days ago,” Dr. Yeomans said in an e-mail message last Thursday. “I take these events as Mother Nature’s little reminders that we need to pay attention, find and track the large ones and then deflect the very few that threaten us. Tunguska was another reminder. Until recently, we humans did not pay heed to these shots across the bow but now, I think, there is more of a recognition of this low probability — but high consequence — type of event.”

For deflecting an incoming object, I like the “gravity tractor” concept promoted by Rusty Schweickart’s B612 Foundation [I’m not certain that B612 still considers the gravity tractor to be the best design].

How to Think About the World's Problems

On May 30, the Copenhagen Consensus panel will produce a prioritized list showing the best and worst investments the world could make to tackle major challenges.

Bjorn Lomborg is doing a bit of PR for the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus — results due out May 30th. If you are not familiar with the Copenhagen Consensus, here’s a series of my earlier posts. Here’s Bjorn on the food crisis:

The pain caused by the global food crisis has led many people to belatedly realize that we have prioritized growing crops to feed cars instead of people. That is only a small part of the real problem.

This crisis demonstrates what happens when we focus doggedly on one specific – and inefficient – solution to one particular global challenge. A reduction in carbon emissions has become an end in itself. The fortune spent on this exercise could achieve an astounding amount of good in areas that we hear a lot less about.

Research for the Copenhagen Consensus, in which Nobel laureate economists analyze new research about the costs and benefits of different solutions to world problems, shows that just $60 million spent on providing Vitamin A capsules and therapeutic Zinc supplements for under-2-year-olds would reach 80% of the infants in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, with annual economic benefits (from lower mortality and improved health) of more than $1 billion. That means doing $17 worth of good for each dollar spent. Spending $1 billion on tuberculosis would avert an astonishing one million deaths, with annual benefits adding up to $30 billion. This gives $30 back on the dollar.

…Next week, some of the world’s top economists, including five Nobel laureates, will consider new research outlining the costs and benefits of nearly 50 solutions to world problems – from building dams in Africa to providing micronutrient supplements to combating climate change. On May 30, the Copenhagen Consensus panel will produce a prioritized list showing the best and worst investments the world could make to tackle major challenges.

The research and the list will encourage greater transparency and a more informed debate.

Acknowledging that some investments shouldn’t be our top priority isn’t the same as saying that the challenges don’t exist. It simply means working out how to do the most good with our limited resources. It will send a signal, too, to research communities about areas that need more study.

The global food crisis has sadly underlined the danger of continuing on our current path of fixating on poor solutions to high-profile problems instead of focusing on the best investments we could make to help the planet.

There are some good comments in the WSJ Forums, such as the first one from Robert Bennett, Lavaux, Switzerland:

Posted: Thu May 22, 2008 3:42 am Post subject: Re: How to Think About the World’s Problems
If the tag-team wrestling match to set global policy is Al Gore & Hollywood v. Egghead Economist (any will do) & the Copenhagen Consensus, I’ll put my money on Gore & Hollywood every time. The reason is simple: Politics.

Politicians don’t get credit for solving problems; politicians get credit for talking up unrealistic solutions to problems and blaming opponents for their failures. Their payday is earned by expending tons of hot air, not by actually reducing tons of carbon emissions. Change and Hope win votes, and neither of these divine agencies are limited in the slightest by opportunity costs. This isn’t cynicism; it’s an accurate description of how politics works.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Lomborg, and he’d get my vote every day of the week, 52 weeks of the year. But we’ll never overcome Change and Hope by pointing out that there’s more good to be done than there’s money in the world, and to keep the ball rolling we need to do good that earns a high rate of return. This is not what voters want to hear, particularly when most voters believe that someone else will always foot the bills.

Review: The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics

Roger A. Pielke Jr. new book gets a favorable review from biologist Robert T. Lackey:

The Honest Broker is a must-read for any scientist with even a modest interest in environmental policy or politics, and I recommend it especially to scientists unfamiliar with the continuing controversy over how scientists misuse science in environmental policy and politics. The book will also be of interest to political scientists and others well versed in the scholarly literature concerning science, scientists, and public policy, but Roger Pielke’s core analysis and message will not be surprising to these readers.

…Pielke makes the case that another, more helpful role for scientists to play is that of the honest broker. He describes how honest brokers of science are essential to a well-functioning democracy and for the overall, long-term health of the scientific enterprise. In short, he recommends that scientists play the role of honest brokers of policy alternatives. A scientist playing this role seeks to expand the scope of policy choices available to decisionmakers and describes as accurately as possible the consequences of each possible choice. This scientist presents the relevant scientific information to the public and policymakers in a very policyneutral manner.

…In summary, The Honest Broker is an important book, and it should be read by everyone. Healthy democracies need science and scientists to provide what only they can provide: relevant, policy-neutral, understandable science—not stealth policy advocacy. Offering policy advocacy masquerading as science hurts, over the long-term, both democracy and the scientific enterprise.