Monday, November 8, 2010

Scientific Expertise and Political Power

The present state of the policy debate about how to deal with climate change has a lot of climate scientists shaking their heads. How many times, they ask, do we have to tell people that the fate of the planet hangs in the balance before the voting public decides to do something about it? They know they took a political hit when the ClimateGate scandal revealed the readiness of reputable climate scientists to subvert professional norms of scientific objectivity by playing fast and loose with the peer-review process, depriving skeptical colleagues of the data to reproduce their experiments, etc. But that doesn’t mean that reputable climate scientists don’t have important things to tell the rest of us.

A bunch of climate scientists have apparently decided to take things into their own hands (my emphasis):
“Faced with rising political attacks, hundreds of climate scientists are joining a broad campaign to push back against congressional conservatives who have threatened prominent researchers with investigations and vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

“The still-evolving efforts reveal a shift among climate scientists, many of whom have traditionally stayed out of politics and avoided the news media. Many now say they are willing to go toe-to-toe with their critics, some of whom gained new power after the Republicans won control of the House in Tuesday's election.

“On Monday, the American Geophysical Union, the country's largest association of climate scientists, plans to announce that 700 climate scientists have agreed to speak out as experts on questions about global warming and the role of man-made air pollution.”
 Let’s stipulate for the purpose of argument that the people running the American Geophysical Union are right about the science of climate change and its implications for public policy. Why aren’t voters listening?

One set of answers turns on the alleged irrationality of voters. President Obama has recently supplied us his own theory of this form: "Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time,” he told a room full of Democratic fat cats, “is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared." The implication, I guess, is that if voters would just take a deep breath and relax, they’d start listening to what people in the know are telling them. Obama might be right, but it’s an awfully convenient thing for him and the climate scientists who support Cap-and-Trade to believe.

Here’s an alternative explanation that turns on the limited political self-consciousness of the climate scientists. Isn’t it a little strange that it seems never to have occurred to the leaders of the American Geophysical Union to ask whether they, qua scientists, have any business “going toe-to-toe” with “congressional conservatives”?  It goes without saying that scientists have as much right to be politically active as anyone else. But that doesn’t mean that their scientific expertise will, or should be, a source of political power.

Lots of important public policy issues turn on the findings of natural and social science. So it makes some sense on such matters for voters to defer to a scientist’s relevant expertise. All other things being equal, a politically controversial proposition that turns on scientific judgments is more likely to be true just because a highly credentialed scientist says it.

Yet a scientist's intellectual authority in matters of public policy extends only to the aspects of their views that are dictated by the expert application of the norms of scientific objectivity. To that extent, scientific expertise can exert a benign influence on public policy without the expert’s exerting political power herself. To the extent the scientist’s public policy advice is an expression of her own ethical and political values, however, according special political weight to her policy preferences is a form of double counting that has no place in a one-person-one-vote democracy.

Such double counting is plainly what the scientists at the American Geophysical Society are after. They mean to turn their scientific expertise into a weapon of hand-to-hand political combat. But the political power of a scientific community is an exhaustible resource; it vanishes as soon as the voting public starts to suspect that the community’s professions of scientific objectivity camouflage naked political advocacy. ClimateGate planted that suspicion in the public mind.  It’s hard to think of a better way of nurturing it than for professional scientific organizations to set up shop in the political advocacy business.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the climate scientists should just run for office. That seems to make more sense than to just go on talk shows and try to advance their cause.

The public might be turning against their cause because of the cost involved. No one is saying we shouldn't do certain things, but there is a cost. Cost vs. benefit always has to be weighed. A case in point is NJ Gov Christie's killing the commuter tunnel. He never said it wasn't a good idea -- he just said NJ can't afford it.

For my part, I'm sick of the doom and gloom of the climate change scientists. We need to get the economy rolling again, first and foremost. I'll bet most people can't concentrate on saving the planet when they are trying to save their families from economic disaster.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

I honestly cannot figure out what you're trying to say here. For the last ten years or so, conservatives have orchestrated a disinformation campaign to undermine public belief in the scientific reality of global warming. This campaign has not been in good faith (a good-faith response might be to temper the policy responses, to investigate other means of effecting cooling besides carbon reduction, or to call for more and better scientific research).

The fact of global warming has been known for 20 years (there is 97% consensus among climate scientists: I doubt you could find 97% consensus for gravity). The science has become more and more firm over all these years. The potential results of global warming range from bothersome to near-catastrophic. And a bunch of ideologues have made the tactical decision that acknowledging the issue might result in policies that they are temperamentally opposed to, so they'll deny its very existence.

This is the ground upon which the scientists are countering the conservatives. It is because the "skeptics" have decided to trod on scientific turf, not because the scientists have invaded the political sphere.

And you have a problem with this?

Ron Replogle said...


The American Geophysical Union isn't just defending scientific models of climate change. It's staging "a broad campaign to push back against congressional conservatives . . . [who have] vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions." That's mixing it up with politicians not about pure science, but about public policy.

My points are simply that: (1) scientist shouldn't expect the rest of us to defer to their expertise when they engage in political advocacy that exceeds their professional competence; and 2)the more zealously they advance political positions, the less reasonable it is for the rest of us to defer to them even when they stick to their own turf.

And indeed, even apart from ClimateGate, climate scientists have raised reasonable suspicions about their own scientific integrity. All scientifically respectable models of climate change incorporate lots of speculative assumptions and generate results that are highly sensitive to minute changes in what is assumed. Moreover, they all rely on data that has to be massaged a lot to permit apples-to-apples comparisons between climate conditions over time. So even if we could agree which of the various models is the best one, the predictions it generates are highly uncertain at best. Indeed, we can be very certain that those predictions are false because even the best models can't even retrodict the last thirty years of temperature variation when you plug in highly massaged data.

In light of all that, isn't it a little suspicious that "[t]he fact of global warming has been known for 20 years (there is 97% consensus among climate scientists: I doubt you could find 97% consensus for gravity)."

That sounds to me a little like those elections in Iraq that reelected Saddam with 97% of the vote. I'd have expected any soundly functioning scientific community to generate a lot more dissensus than that about predictions under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Wouldn't you? If you ask me, that alone is reason enough to wonder whether establishment climate science functions more like a genuine intellectual discipline or a partisan political association.

Osama Von McIntyre said...


I am not a scientist, so I have deferred to the scientific consensus in my estimation of the reality of global warming. My understanding is that 97% conform to the understanding that man-caused global warming is a fact, and that it has a significant liklihood of being genuinely significant. I don't think that any honest advocate can vouch for the absolute accuracy of a prediction model: I've always heard outcomes expressed within confidence intervals.

I read the entire article that you linked to, and have reached an entirely different conclusion as to what the scientists are doing:
the article states, pretty clearly, that their goal is to combat misinformation, and to protect their own profession. There is not a word in that article that suggests that they are going to propose or advocate for particular climate policies.

I think your newfound skepticism towards liberalism and its advocates may have resulted in a little oversensitivity: I think you're responding to a story that isn't even there...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Von Mc: the article says that the climate scientists want to "to push back against congressional conservatives who have ... vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions."
I take this to mean that they will strenuously advocate greenhouse gas emissions limits. What am I missing.
Also, I'm not sure where all these statistics are coming from. As far as I'm aware, no one is claiming that the earth isn't warming -- there was an ice age for God's sake and most of the Americas was a big ice cube not too long ago. Last I checked, everyone agrees that the ice melted. But I didn't think that it was a slam dunk that everyone agrees that man is causing it or, or more importantly, that man can do anything about cooling it off without a cost too high for anyone to live with.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

You can always tell a dishonest argument by the presence of an ellipsis:

hundreds of climate scientists are joining a broad campaign to push back against congressional conservatives who have threatened prominent researchers with investigations and vowed to kill regulations to rein in man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Once the missing text is restored, so is the meaning of the paragraph. Once again, there is nothing in the article to suggest that the scientists will be anything but expert advocates for the science, and for their profession, in the face of ad hominem attacks on their integrity, motives, and objectivity.

Nice try, though.

Anonymous said...

To Mr. VM: the operative words are "push back" not what I eliminated with the ellipses. Why don't we just wait and see what they say and then we'll see who is correct?

Lone Wolf said...

"[T]here is nothing in the article to suggest that the scientists will be anything but expert advocates for the science, and for their profession, in the face of ad hominem attacks on their integrity, motives, and objectivity.

Come on OVM, that's just a lame debating point. You've never heard climate scientists lending their professional prestige to, say, the Kyoto Treaty?

Or take this passage from the link in RR's post:

"This group feels strongly that science and politics can't be divorced and that we need to take bold measures to not only communicate science but also to aggressively engage the denialists and politicians who attack climate science and its scientists," said Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

"We are taking the fight to them because we are … tired of taking the hits. The notion that truth will prevail is not working. The truth has been out there for the past two decades, and nothing has changed."

Want to bet that this guy has never tried, and will never try, to use his scientific credentials in the service of policy positions?You don't normally hear disinterested analysts lamenting the fact that nothing has changed for the past two decades.

And haven't you ever noticed that all the lapses in professional ethics exposed in ClimateGate and all the scientific mistakes reproduced in UN climate reports always have the effect of overstating the severity of climate change? Wouldn't you expect them to be randomly distributed in scientific community that wasn't politicized?

I don't know the truth about climate change. But I know enough about how climate scientists have behaved not to defer to them as if they were disinterested counselors.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

It's hard to wrest someone from a position they already hold. It seems that you are so tethered to your position that you cannot read what's in front of your face: the scientists are being attacked by idealogues, and have talked only about defending themselves and the science.

Yet, you "know" their real intentions because, um... Sorry, I missed that part. You've made a bunch of assumptions and accusations, presumptions and speculation to assure yourself that the scientists will do something "improper." All of that is coming not from the article, but from your ideology and belief system.

Remember, the conservative strategy regarding climate change has NOT been to accept the science and debate the policy response, but to deny the science, and question the motives of those that study the issue.

Given that the political people have moved the debate to the science, it is perfectly appropriate for the scientists to respond there: it is science that's under attack.

Anonymous said...

When I was a little girl, my teacher told me that California was going to fall into the ocean. Scientists said so. Still waiting ...

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Okay. I take it all back.

None of us should ever listen to a scientist, ever again.

Lone Wolf said...

OVM: A guy who's always complaining that other people aren't reading carefully enough ought to read more carefully himself. I didn't say a word about anybody's "intentions"; didn't level a single "accustion"; and didn't "speculate" about anything (placing a bet isn't speculating). Moreover, I didn't say a word about political advocacy on the part of climate scientists being "improper." (You're the only one making those kinds of accusations with respect to opponents of C02 regulation.) If you'll read what I wrote you'll see that I asked you some questions that you didn't deign to answer and gave some reasons for thinking that the community of climate scientists has forfeited any claim to the deference we normally extend to disinterested experts. If you'd bothered to read RR's post a little more carefully you'd have notice that what I was saying speaks directly to the issues he was addressing--something that you've never managed to do in any of your comments.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Being snootier than me doesn't get you the moral high ground.

Point by point:

1. "Come on, OVM, that's just a lame debating point." I read the text: you presume subtext and argue with that. What can I really say? The "quick response team" was created to "speak out as experts on questions about global warming and the role of man-made air pollution." Read the article: there's not a word in there about advocacy for specific policies. What you saw there was a product of your own sensitivities and belief system.

2. Betting is speculation.

3. "Ethical lapses... exposed in ClimateGate" People under attack tend to circle their wagons, and what I've seen of the so-called ClimateGate emails shows a couple of scientists being human, and nothing resembling scientific fraud. From what I've read of the emails, the primary concern seemed to be ensuring that their findings were not distorted by the politically-motivated. You say that they have the effect of overstating climate change, but I've seen nothing that would comport with that.

For at least the last five or six years (or at least since An Inconvenient Truth was released, conservatives have been attacking climate science and climate scientists. Their motives and integrity have been challenged. They are not going to be "disinterested" in such an environment. No human would.

Anonymous said...

If anyone is still reading this line of arguments, I have one question? Is it possible to be a liberal and to be agnostic when it comes to the great climate change debate? Must a conservative always "attack" climate science and a liberal be "for" it? If so, why?

Ron Replogle said...

That's a great question. If people really were applying apolitical standards of scientific objectivity, you wouldn't expect views on the reality of climate change and ideology to be so strongly correlated. That suggests to me that both liberals and conservatives are trying to colonize climate science and that scientists should be fighting to hold their ground against both sides.