I’ve spent a good deal of the last couple of days sitting around waiting, with nothing but my trusty mobile phone and it’s twitter and feed reader client to keep me company. (Technically, I’m on holiday, but for various reasons, I’m not actually on holiday …)

Two twitter memes have kept me company in that time: the first kicked up by Tamsin Edwards (@flimsin) was a storm of comment around the proper role for scientists in advocacy, the second, much more recent was the tip of the iceberg as to what should be done about “realistic scenarios” in CMIP5 (raised by Gavin Schmidt, @climateofgavin). More of that one anon.

Tamsin’s basic point is that trust in scientists depends on trust in their impartiality, and that if we advocate any policy response to our observations about the real world, we’re crossing some line which will lead to less trust by the public, and hence less (appropriate) responses by the public (and governments).

I think Tamsin’s position is pretty mainstream, I’ve heard it in every department I’ve visited (and I visit a lot). However, I’ve heard it argued against in every one of those departments too. OK, and here comes a gross generalisation: on average, Tamsin’s argument is mostly from the older folks, and the contrary from the younger. Clearly there are exceptions, and I might even be wrong. However, I don’t think it matters who holds these positions or why, because to some extent they’re both right …

My personal position is that we’re all advocates of policy response at some level all the time. I doubt you’ll find a climate scientist who having confessed what they do in a “social environment”, hasn’t been asked three questions in roughly this order, pretty quickly:

  1. Do you believe this climate change stuff?

  2. What are you doing about it?

  3. What do you think we (society) should be doing?

Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible to opt out of an answer to any of those questions in a social setting. So in what setting can one opt out? Well, the most obvious one is where the answering can be misinterpreted and misused (yep, that’s in answering a journalist in a situation where you don’t have control over the outcome). That’s also of course the situation where you have the most potential of getting a “good” outcome … (by which I mean increasing the knowledge of a large audience). It’s going to be a personal decision as to where on that spectrum one opts out, based on how effective one believes one can be in that situation (and perhaps, whether one believes that one can learn how to be a better communicator by, well, communicating).

The subtext (not very sub) to the “never advocate, we’re impartial” position is that the best way of getting the right outcome is to be seen to be impartial. So, those who argue this position have already got a concept of what the “right” outcome should be … (NB: for Tamsin, and trollers, she never argued “never advocate”, I’m simply extrapolating to make this particular end of the spectrum position clearer). In this case, the definition of “right” can’t be my one from the previous paragraph, since by definition, not engaging in communication, can’t increase the audience knowledge. So, “right” in this case must mean something else … and depend on someone else.

So who does use this information (that is being so impartially presented)? How? Do we have economics experts (who might wrongly think that climate models are as flakey as their models) weighing up the evidence? Nope, that argument fails by symmetry. The experts on economics and climate? Nope, they’ve been ruled out! Who’s left, if we leave out all the experts (which rather does seem to be Tamsin’s position)? Do we leave it to career politicians to develop and argue policy? We all have opinions on how successful that is.

Speaking personally, I entered the field because a) I got promised a trip to Antarctica, and b) (as a young physicist) I didn’t believe the greenhouse effect would be a problem, and I wanted to be the one who entered the field and showed up the worriers. As it happens, I started by working on the ozone hole, and by the time I got to climate it was obvious I was only going to be dotting the I’s etc over the issue of “will it be a problem” (my a priori position was obviously wrong, once I understood the relevant physics). It rapidly became clear that the real scientific issues are around “how much of a problem?”, and “what should we do about it?”.

Clearly, the latter question is precisely what started this meme. Clearly society has to decide what to do, and as members of society, we (climate scientists) are part of the decision makers. What does give us a unique perspective is that we understand the climate risks rather better than the general public. That gives us no preferential position as to understanding the other relevant risks (economic, political etc) which come with “doing something about it”. But it does give us skills for weighing up the climate risks of some of the possible policy responses (including doing nothing).

If those questions above are the first questions you get in a social setting, you can bet that the reality is that the public do want to hear from us, they just don’t believe they are hearing from us! The general public do, IMHO, want to hear what we think about the risks to them, but they want those understanding in narrative form. Who better to do that than climate scientists? Clearly one needs to do this with care, not overstating what we know, or which policy is most likely to be effective (but even then, who apart from climate scientists can argue whether geoengineering might, or might not, be effective)?

So, I reckon the public is genuinely interested in our weighing those risks up against the other risks (political and economic etc). At this point, most sensible folks will understand that we have no unique perspective or in-depth understanding of politics and economics, and do their own weighing up of our positions. That’s how social discourse works. Not taking part doesn’t help anything, it just leaves a vacuum for misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

The middle question is precisely the most important problem for contemporary climate scientists: “how much of a problem?”. That’s what we spend most of our time thinking about, and you know the consensus of most of us is that it’s a biggie, big enough that there has to be a policy response that addresses both adaptation and mitigation. However, this is also my segue to my next post, which is about CMIP6.

(Yes, there will be a next post, it’s about time I got back into blogging, and maybe this is the right time … on holiday, but not really).

comments (6)

William (on Friday 09 August, 2013)

Just for the fun of it: how would you deal with the meta-problem that Tamsin is clearly advocating no-advocacy? Why doesn’t her post instantly fall into a hole of self-contradiction and disappear?

Bryan (on Friday 09 August, 2013)

If self-contradiction resulted in disappearance, methinks most of the (communication/troll/septic) problems we are dealing with would disappear as well … leaving only the truly skeptic (those who respond to rational argument).

William (on Friday 09 August, 2013)

We, yeah, but I was a bit more serious about that.

Why are some kinds of advocacy from Climate Scientists (like the stuff Tamsin indulges in, in her piece) entirely OK, but others are forbidden?

Do we try to claim that Tamsin was only offering “advice”, not “advocacy”? That would be Jesuitical, so clearly not.

Do we argue that we don’t care about inconsistency? Again, clearly not, otherwise everything is allowed.

Perhaps that Tamsin was talking to “us” rather than to “pols”? That would be better, but I still don’t think its good enough. That would make “political” advocacy special and forbidden, other types of advocacy would be allowed. Meta-political-advocacy, that she is doing, would be allowed.

So, I’d be interested in how you resolve this problem.

Bryan (on Friday 09 August, 2013)

What I think Tamsin was doing was having a discussion about what the rules of “best practice” should be for climate scientists. It’s just fine for a discussion about rules to be conducted according to a different set of rules than the thing you are discussing (e.g. a discussion of the rules of rugby should not be subject to a referee with a whistle). So, Tamsin’s discussion was at a “meta-level” …

That said, as I kind of implied, there is a subjective scale behind her analysis against which “best” should be evaluated. My problem with her analysis is that the scale was one where “best practice” seems to be the one that enables climate scientists to most efficiently effect policy … which as you imply is tautological (if not Jesuitical).

Whatever. I don’t see a problem here, let a thousand flowers bloom and all that. We’re all allowed our perspectives, and we should all do the best we can.

William (on Friday 09 August, 2013)

I offered ‘Do we try to claim that Tamsin was only offering “advice”, not “advocacy”? That would be Jesuitical, so clearly not’. But I think that’s the choice you’ve taken, except you’re using “discussion” instead of “advice”.

I’ve just gone back and re-read Tamsin’s article. It is not a discussion. It is very clearly advocating a position. Its an abuse of language to get out of the contradiction by calling it “discussion”.

I’m also all in favour of everyone being allowed their perspectives. But we shouldn’t respect those perspectives that are self-contradictory.

Bryan (on Saturday 10 August, 2013)

I think advocacy takes part in political discourse aka discussion, taking a position is part of what goes on in a discussion, so I’m comfortable with my reading. I also don’t find Tamsin’s position so self-contradictory in the context of a meta-discussion … but I do in the context of the sub-text that it is inherently about obtaining a “right-outcome”. However, I happen to agree about the right-outcome, so I’m not even particularly uncomfortable about that.

We can’t treat discussion, or even advocacy, by the same rules of evidence that we treat science. It isn’t science!