The science-advocacy axis has provoked much fraught discussion over the years. Crudely put, there appear to be scientist, activists, and activist-scientists, and scientists-activists. The consensus appears to be that political advocacy and science should not be confused.

I half agree. But I think the ideal of keeping distance between the two is far more easy spoken about than acheived. My argument has been that scientists in the schema might not recognise the political nature of their work, or the presuppositions their work proceeds from. While it may be that the scientific process is intended to exclude the influence of human subjectivity, to discover things as they are independently of our preconceptions, merely instituting science does not preclude such effects. In fact, where science is an institution, it may become more vulnerable to political effects, for obvious reasons, especially in the following case observed by Andrew Montford:

You can imagine someone explaining that they believed in small government and that they had therefore decided to study the cost of subsidies in the renewables industry. The pathological hatred of such views among most members of the academy hardly needs to be mentioned, so while the dismiss/deconstruct options would still be available for readers of such a study, the chances are that this would result in ostracisation, discrimination and ultimately the end of the particular researcher’s career.

We don’t need to search far and wide to discover this phenomenon at the very top of the UK’s scientific institutions. The Royal Society, given the climate brief (in particular) by Prime Ministers, has abandoned the principle of its motto, to seek a greater role for ‘science’ in society, and in particular in policy-making. Now that scientists are recruited into the business of social organisation, there more at stake than the discovery of the material world. Interlocutors threaten to upset the course to discover the optimal administration of public life… Hence the ire of the Royal Society’s presidents past and present. More on that shortly. The point for now being that the world’s oldest scientific academy took a position in the climate debate, effectively issuing a memo to all scientific institutions that certain views are not to be tolerated.

Andrew Montford’s observation comes in response to an article by Gavin Schmidt, in which he apparently shows more reflection on the problems of science and advocacy than I would have expected, given his robust statements about ‘deniers’, and his refusal to debate with more sceptical climate scientists in the past, and his impatience with his scientific critics, to the delight of climate activists.

Whereas he claimed in 2009 that ‘I don’t advocate for political solutions. If I do advocate for something, my advocacy is focused on having more intelligent discussions’, Schmidt now argues,

Despite this careful distinction between advocacy and facts, the term “advocate” is regularly used pejoratively in scientific circles and is frequently associated with the cherry-picking of science to support a preconceived idea. In order to avoid these connotations, scientists often go to great lengths to deny being advocates for specific policies. However, it is almost always the case that a scientist speaking in public is in fact advocating for something—deeper public understanding of the science, more research funding, a more informed public discourse, awareness, and, yes, sometimes for specific policy action. Each of these examples is a reflection of both a scientific background and a set of values that, for instance, might prize an informed populace or continued research employment. It is most often when addressing a group with a shared set of values that scientists are the least aware that their call for something that “should” happen is still advocacy.

In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.

So what is Gavin advocating for?

My exhortations here are (of course) also advocacy, and I would be remiss in not expounding on my own values and their relevance to this topic. I have a strong belief (or, perhaps, hope) that an informed democracy is more likely to make good decisions than one in which ignorance and tribalism are the dominant factors. I don’t believe that scientists themselves are in any special position when it comes to making decisions, but I do believe that their expertise must be an input into the decision-making process. The ability of climate science to probe and answer questions about the Earth system, the changes it has undergone, and the potential for change in the future has been (in my opinion) very successful in exploring the scope and limits of climate system predictability. There are many complexities and uncertainties, to be sure, but also many fundamental features that are as well established as any textbook science.

At face value, Gavin might as well advocate for Motherhood and Apple Pie. Though there is a question here about whether he advocates ‘informed democracy’ as some kind of qualified democracy, rather than the somewhat more mundane, ‘wouldn’t it be very nice if nobody was ignorant’.

What I would have preferred from Gavin is not this hollow secular piety, equivalent to nothing more than ‘I advocate science’ — everyone says that, and the claim that climate advocates are merely ‘speaking up for science’ is nowt new — but rather an attempt to enumerate and expand on those values.

For example, in the game of musical chairs he played with his climate science counterpart Roy Spencer on the Stossel show, linked to above, Gavin made the following claim:

Schmidt: What we’ve been doing in the last 150 years is we’ve been increasing the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere — over 40% in terms of CO2, we’ve more than doubled the amount of methane, which is another greenhouse gas, and the signatures of those changes are very very clear, all the way through the system.

Stossel: Assuming this is true, why is this necessarily a problem? Warmer might be better. More people die from cold than warm.

Schmidt: We have built a society — an agricultural system and cities and everything we do based on assumptions that basically the climate is not going to change. The fact that we have so much infrastructure right near the shore is because we didn’t expect sea level to rise. The damage that we had from Hurricane Sandy was increased because sea level has increased by 10-12 inches in this area…

The dangers of attributing sea level rise and Hurricane Sandy to global warming to one side, it is these claims much more than his ‘science advocacy’ which reveal Gavin’s values. (And it is a shame that Stossel cut him off at this point, to concentrate on the claims which some environmentalists, but not Gavin, have made).

Gavin’s view, put simply, is that there is some equivalence of climate’s sensitivity to CO2 and society’s sensitivity to climate.

I visited New York in the aftermath of Sandy, and what struck me was that it had put in place a remarkable, and visible recovery from both that storm, and the 9-11 attacks. Mobile generators and pumps were on the scene. And an incredible building has been put in the place of the World Trade Centre. However, talking to New Yorkers, the recovery from Sandy had not yet reached the poorer parts of the city. New York is well and truly capable of recovery — more capable than it was 150 years ago, notwithstanding that the benefits of that wealth do not reach all that need it. The rights and wrongs of that is not a question for science.

It may well be true that New York may have been slightly more vulnerable to inundation because of sea level rise, and that some of that sea level rise may be the consequence of anthropogenic global warming. But the implication — Gavin’s values — that New York is more vulnerable to nature’s whims or vengeance now than at any point in its history is not plausible.

New York is also capable of defence. It would not have taken much might to defend against the storm. And it would not take much to protect New York against another 10-12 inches, as it would need to anyway, like London or Amsterdam have needed to, and will need to, and New Orleans should have been. It is Gavin’s assumption here that society, or cities, have been organised around the principle of an unchanging environment, and that a stable climate can ever be achieved. There is an assumption that cities would not ever, given a stable climate, be assaulted by the waves.

Gavin’s climate sociology is simply wrong. Society has never been built on the assumption of climate stability. No good farmer lacks the knowledge that drought, famine, are possibilities and that climate varies. No forward-thinking architect ever imagined that the weather could not get the better of his building. Consequently, people improved their skills and climate takes fewer and fewer lives, and society founded on industrial agriculture produces more and more, to feed more and more people, who live longer, healthier and more wealthy lives — all in spite of climate change.

It is this low estimation of society — that it is dependent on the environment, rather than resources of its own construction — that is the value which should be reflected on. That’s not necessarily something I think Gavin should be aware of when he declares the causes he advocates for. But he will not hear it unless it is pointed out to him in debate, along with the observation that his deterministic, and highly ideological understanding of society’s relationship with the environment is a view that dominates the scientific establishment, the academy and global politics (especially in Europe).

And Gavin nearly gets it:

Scientists and philosophers have long distinguished between descriptions of what “is” (derived from scientific investigations of the real world), what “ought” to be (based on one’s value system), and suggestions for what one “should” do in the face of this knowledge (Hume, 1740; Schneider, 1996).

Schneider’s talk is unfortunately no longer available, though, he, like Gavin, strikes me as an odd person to be pontificating on the is-ought fallacy. Rather, I think they have stumbled across this obstacle, and are trying to revise a way around it, in much as the way Gavin is avoiding admitting that he is advocating a political cause, by claiming that he is only advocating science.

Here is one such instance of is-ought thinking which popped up today… Roger Harrabin is back, telling the winter that it is misbehaving…

Botanists have been stunned by the results of their annual hunt for plants in flower on New Year’s Day.

They say according to textbooks there should be between 20 and 30 species in flower. This year there were 368 in bloom.

It raises further questions about the effects of climate change during the UK’s warmest year on record.

There may be many reasons why the world does not act in accordance with textbooks. And climate change may be one of them. But to immediately frame the phenomenon as a consequence of climate change reveals the extent to which climate change and its presuppositions has become an encompassing narrative, as if an early bloom could not happen in an uncontaminated world, and was a harbinger, as deadly as Hurricane Sandy. Environmental correspondence are obsessed with early and late winters.

Back to Gavin. Anyone invoking the is-ought fallacy should ought to think more carefully about why it happens, rather than drive a train through it. What causes people to read is as ought?

And this is why I find these epiphanies so unconvincing — the author fails to reflect on the epiphany itself. For instance, as I pointed out in my review of Mark Lynas’s book, The God Species, the book, and his newly-found support for GM technology and nuclear power did not reveal anything about what drove the more orthodox-green Lynas.

Lynas’s transformation shows few signs of self-reflection. Yet this would surely be the most interesting thing he could discuss. Why did ‘denial’ provoke such incomprehensible rage to the younger Lynas? And now that he finds himself accused of it, why is he not more cautious about the word ‘denier’, which he still uses with abandon? Instead, he puts his past eco-zeal down to mere ‘ideology’. Ideology it may have been, but there is no discussion about its character, its origins and context, or how he came to be vulnerable to it. His metamorphosis from long-time anti-GM campaigner to advocate came about, he explains, after he read some scientific literature in 2008. Lynas’s conceit is that he has freed himself from ideology simply by reading ‘the science’.

But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? […] Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.

And Gavin has much of his former self to reflect on, too. When he declared back in 2009 that he was not an advocate, he also explained his views on ‘noise’ in the climate debate:

This leads to maybe the final question that I think about, which is, “how do you increase the signal-to-noise ratio in communication about complex issues?” We battle with this on a small scale in our blog’s comment thread. In un-moderated forums about climate change, it just devolves immediately into name-calling. It becomes very difficult discuss science, to talk about what aerosols do to the hydrological.

The problem is that the noise serves various people’s purposes. It’s not that the noise is accidental. When it comes to climate, a lot of the noise is deliberate because if there’s an increase of noise you don’t hear the signal, and if you don’t hear the signal you can’t do anything about it. Increasing the level of noise is a deliberate political tactic. It’s been used by all segments of the political spectrum for different problems. With the climate issue in the US, it is used by a particular segment of the political community in ways that is personally distressing. How do you deal with that? That is a question, which I am still asking myself.

‘Noise’ is the price you pay for science and for unqualified democracy (if it’s qualified, it’s not democracy). ‘Noise’ is the consequence of trust in other people, even though they might be wrong. Noise is what you have to suffer, when you understand that science is messy and that science and politics are not easily delineated. And noise is what you must accept you may be producing in an open, democratic society, in which science can trump politics.

You can’t stand on a soapbox to shout about ‘the hydrological’, and expect an audience to obediently go away, to rebuild society on the premise of the seemingly correct understanding of climate. Not even scientists have the right not to be challenged, to be challenged robustly, and to be challenged by people who are wrong. ‘Noise’ is ultimately the process by which the best way forward is negotiated, in spite of mistakes made on the way. Gavin, albeit mealy-mouthed, seems to have realised that the idea that scientists channel uncontaminated, noise-free truth from objectivity itself, is not credible.

This returns us to the question, how is it that is becomes ought?

One reminder of the real role that science is playing in society, and why Gavin misapprehends the human world’s relationship with the environment is the recent death of Sociologist, Ulrich Beck.

Beck, along with New Labour sociologist Anthony Giddens, developed an influential theory of Risk Society. According to Beck, the modern era — technological, industrial society — had exposed society to ever greater, global risks, and that our awareness of these risks and the scepticism of modernity’s achievements marked the beginning of a new historical era, in which this awareness of risks and their amelioration would become the basis of politics. In particular, Beck, the European Federalist, noted environmental risks, and his thinking is in many sense the blueprint for environmental policy. An informative interview with Beck on the LSE’s website reveals how the concept of risk altered the political landscape, and became the basis for new political institutions:

If we look at how the issue of climate change fits into the general perspective we have in politics and the social sciences, we can see the limitations of what I call ‘methodological nationalism’. We frame almost every issue, whether it relates to class, conflict, or politics, in the context of nation states organised in the international sphere.

However, when we look at the world from the perspective of climate change, this doesn’t fit at all. For example, if we take the basic concept of risk – in this case global climate risk – we find that there is a new power structure already imbedded within the logic of this concept. This is because, when we talk about risk, we first of all have to relate it to decisions and decision-makers. We have to make a fundamental distinction between those who take the risk and those who are affected by it. In the case of climate change these groups of people are completely different. Those who are taking the decisions are not accountable from the perspective of those who are affected by the risks, and those who are affected have no real way of participating in the decision-making process.

So from the start we have an imperialistic structure because the decision-making process and the consequences are attributed to completely different groups. We can only observe this when we step outside of a nation state perspective and take a broader view of the issue. I call this a cosmopolitan perspective, where the unit of research is a community of risk which includes what is excluded in the national perspective: i.e. the decision makers and the consequences of their decisions.

Beck’s largely imagined, and entirely unquantified notion of climate catastrophe allowed him to construct the idea of an imperialism of risk, to which the solution appears to be the construction of a cosmopolitan institution — let us call it the UNFCCC — to mediate the relationship between the two putative categories of people: those who benefit from risk and those who pay for it. Hence the climate activist’s, UN cheerleader’s and European Federalist’s maxim: ‘global problems need global solutions’. The truer maxim, however, is that global solutions need global problems.

Beck’s blueprint (if it wasn’t merely an observation), is not hard to spot in debates about climate. Take Nicholas Stern’s words, for example…

Policy-making is usually about risk management. Thus, the handling of uncertainty in science is central to its support of sound policy-making. … Thus, climate science supports sound policy when it informs risk management, informing the selection of climate policy measures that influence key aspects of the causal chain of climate change. This chain runs: from humans to emissions and changes in atmospheric concentrations; from changes in concentrations to changes in weather conditions which, with their induced feedbacks, change the climate; and from the weather of this altered climate to changes in risks and the circumstances of individuals. Coherent risk management across such a chain requires input from both the social sciences and the physical sciences, and not only from economics and physics but also from other disciplines, such as ethics. Deep insights and frightening uncertainty in one link may prove either critical or irrelevant, as the implications of a policy option are propagated down the chain to explore their ultimate impact on people.

Stern and Smith, you will note, were housed at the same institution as Beck — The London School of Economics. These economists have eschewed the idea that simple wealth is the best defence against things as trivial as different weather — climate resistance.

And their way of looking at the world exists outside of the climate debate, which brings us back to the Royal Society, and what it and its presidents were trying to do with their scientific authority. Rees, in an online bet, and in his book, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?, claimed that “By 2020, bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event.”

by 2020 there will be thousands-even millions-of people with the capability to cause a catastrophic biological disaster. My concern is not only organized terrorist groups, but individual wierdos with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.

By “bioerror”, I mean something which has the same effect as a terror attack, but rises from inadvertance rather than evil intent.

And it is Rees who really lets the cat out of the bag, and gives the best illustration of the transformed role of science — the thing that Gavin Schmidt is advocating — in society. Beck’s observation is that the modern era unleashes ever greater risks, and that these risks become the basis on which politics is organised. In other words, it is science which unleashes destructive potential. But it is that potential, in the hands of people, that science becomes risky. Rees worries that an incautious or malicious scientist will kill a million people in one event, and that as the 21st Century develops, so the potential for wrong-doing and error increases. While risk society appears to be conceived of in order to protect people, and science is emphasised by its advocates to inform people, what is really going on in these arguments is not in their interests — it is intended to deprive them. In this, postmodern scientific era, people need to be regulated, because as individuals, and as groups, they are risk factors to themselves, to each other, and to the continued survival of the species and life on the planet.

Whether or not Gavin Schmidt would agree with Stern, Beck or Rees, their words describe the context into which he has stepped, nonetheless. That is what ‘science’ is doing in the 21st Century: regulating people, limiting their expectations and making arguments from authority, for authority, in contrast to the promises made by science in the modern era, to respond to the desire to improve circumstances. On the Risk Society perspective, improving our lot through industrialisation has inadvertently created incalculable risks, which need to be mitigated by the likes of Stern and Rees.

So it is not enough to admit, mealy mouthed, that he is an advocate for ‘science'; science is not a straightforward thing. The scientific process may well be simple enough, but the priorities and presuppositions of science as an institution — which ‘speaks’ to the public, to tell them what to do and what to expect — owes much more to the historical context and to politics and ideology than its advocate can admit. Like Beck, Rees and Stern, Schmidt imagines a society, not comprised of autonomous, thinking agents, capable of negotiating their own risks and responding to their own ‘challenges'; but of a fragile system, which is closely dependent on stability for its own survival, imperilled by the arbitrary decisions and desire of so many unthinking, blind, and ignorant bodies.

5 Responses to Advocating the Science Cake and Politicising it

  • I’ve got worse news for Gavin. Although he seems not to realise it, people living in hurricane-prone regions already know that they do. Being prepared for bad weather means you are already prepared for ‘bad’ climate, by definition. The “I told you so” finger wagging is already discounted.

    And modern buildings aren’t designed or intended to last for a century. So by the time the hypothetical sea level rise occurs, someone will be tearing them down to build something new anyway and the original owners will have passed away. At the front line, many people living by the shore are wealthy enough to take care of themselves quite well, thank you very much.

    Schmidt is selling a product almost nobody wants to buy, if they are allowed a free choice.

  • A world of autonomous agents is a world which can learn without anyone being in charge. This is the miracle of Adam Smith’s free market. No single person knows how to make a pencil or how many to make or where to ship them, but wherever they are needed they are there. The pioneers did not know what crops would grow best on which soils in which states, but over millions of trials it became a science. People learn how hazardous a coastline is when houses get washed away. All this wasteful trial and error I am sure makes geniuses like Stern and Schmidt dizzy and uncomfortable, but the philosopher king alternative has never worked and can never work because no individual can ever obtain or process enough information. In the same way, plants and animals and farmers will adjust to the likely moderate changes in climate, without any help from scientists.

  • “This is because, when we talk about risk, we first of all have to relate it to decisions and decision-makers. We have to make a fundamental distinction between those who take the risk and those who are affected by it. In the case of climate change these groups of people are completely different. Those who are taking the decisions are not accountable from the perspective of those who are affected by the risks, and those who are affected have no real way of participating in the decision-making process.”

    The above is part of your quote from Beck.

    This is Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass stuff.

    Even in the poorest countries, politicians and bureaucrats are the priviliged class. Apart from the tiny number of people who are very rich, they are the least likely to suffer the consequences of the risks they decree on behalf of everyone else.

    Even if they are sacked or thrown out of office, a fat pension and other perks accumulated along the way await. Meanwhile, the real risk-takers who carry their own weight, like businesses whose energy bills skyrocket for no sensible reason, are thrown to the wolves.

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