Tamsin Edwards wrote an article for the Guardian yesterday called Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies. After reading the article, I largely agreed and wrote the first comment. My main issue with the article was the idea that scientists who have been advocating various policies may have damaged the public’s trust. I find this a little unlikely. It seems, to me at least, that the main reason why there is a lack of trust is because there has been a campaign by some to convince the public not to trust climate scientists. They may have used campaigning by climate scientists as one reason why they shouldn’t be trusted, but that doesn’t mean that the public would have concluded this without these prompts from anti climate science campaigners. You may think I’m being a little insulting to the general public, and maybe I am, but I’m really just saying that without some form of prompting I don’t think people would thought anything of scientists expressing their views about policy.
The article, however, prompted some quite interesting discussions on Twitter. There was also an apparent split between those in the UK (Doug McNeall, Tamsin Edwards, Richard Tol) and those in the US (Peter Gleick, Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann). Those in the UK seemed to largely agree with the views expressed by Tamsin Edwards, while the US scientists seemed to quite strongly disagree. O. Bothe wrote what he called some random thoughts on advocacy that highlighted some of the subtleties of this issue and made me realise that this topic is probably much more nuanced than Tamsin’s article indicates.
As an individual I like Tamsin Edward’s viewpoint. If I was presenting evidence to someone (or to a group) so that they could make some kind of decision, I would want to be as neutral and objective as I could be so that they could make the best possible decision. I would not want to use some status that I may have (I don’t by the way) to try and make my evidence seem more credible than someone else’s evidence. So, I can see scenarios where Tamsin Edwards would be completely correct.
However, scientists aren’t simply a resource for society to use. Scientists are members of society. They do have a right to have a view about policy, just like any other member of society. I agree that they do need to be a little careful. When acting in a professional capacity, they should not use that platform to put forward a particular belief. But I see no real problem with scientists talking publicly about their views on what the evidence suggests should be done. Some might argue that they could get a bigger audience for their views because they’re a scientist than they would if they weren’t, but I doubt this is all that relevant. Yes, some scientists have a few thousand followers on Twitter, but celebrities can have many more and noone says that they shouldn’t advocate or campaign for certain policies. At least scientists would, in general, be campaigning based on evidence that they understand better than almost anyone else.
The other issue I have is where you draw the line and how you decide if something is appropriate or not. Climate scientists have been – as far as I can tell – quite poorly treated in the recent past. They’ve been accused of fraud, bad scientific practice, being involved in a massive conspiracy, to name but a few of the accusations leveled at them. Now, I do think that scientists should aim to hold the moral high ground. But, if scientists start obeying certain rules, what about the other players in the game? Should a scientist employed by the Global Warming Policy Foundation or the Cato Institute follow the same rules? Does a non-scientific representative of a think-tank have to obey these rules or not? Personally, I think everyone should be as honest and open as they can be, so I’m not suggesting that scientists should do anything that would be regarded as morally questionable. I’m simply suggesting that a scientist expressing their opinion on a topic about which they have a great deal of knowledge should not be seen as something that is wrong.
Now, I’m not sure if I’ve explained myself particularly clearly and I certainly haven’t completely made up my mind about this topic, but I do think it is much more complex than I first thought. I think Tamsin Edward’s article is very interesting and thought provoking, but possibly doesn’t take into account that we don’t live in an ideal world where we can trust our policy makers to make unbiased decisions based only on the evidence. There are also some more fundamental issues. There are clearly examples in the past where scientists have become involved in advocating for policy related to their research. Medical researchers arguing for vaccination programmes. Scientists on the Manhattan project arguing against the development of nuclear weapons. When the evidence becomes strong, then it would seem wrong if scientists didn’t get involved in advocating for something to be done.
One could argue that once a scientist starts campaigning, it then suggests that their research may be influenced by their campaigning. In the case of one individual, there may be some truth to this. However, any individual who is publishing flawed work to suit their campaigning will be caught out by others in their field. When a large group of scientists start to advocate for action, it seems much more likely that the science is driving their campaigning than the campaigning is driving their science. So, again I’m still not completely sure that I understand what would be appropriate or not, but I do think that when people look back on the early 21st century, there will be two things they are likely to ponder. Why didn’t the public and policy makers listen to the climate scientists? Why didn’t the climate scientists kick up more of a fuss?