The public role of scientists


To what extent should scientists differentiate in their role as ‘pure’ scientists and their role as public educator, advocate, activist, or whatever other public role they may want to assume? James Hansen is not afraid to voice his political opinion. As expected, he is viciously attacked for that by political opponents, but others, even if not in agreement on everything he sais, give him credit for differentiating clearly between talking science and providing a personal opinion. I definitely do.

Roger Pielke Jr frequently takes issue with how scientists blur these roles. He often charges that scientists (especially those from RealClimate are a frequent target) “argue politics through science”, i.e. pretending to talk only science, but in the meantime providing a value-laden political stance. Now that all depends on what he means by “politics”.

Climate scientists more and more speak out about the need to (drastically) reduce emissions. IMHO, they do so based on an understanding of the science. Of course, it is also based on a value judgement, that the risks posed by unmitigated climate change are undesirable. Roger’s point (I think) is that this value judgement is not widely shared. He may be right in that, but I think that the vast majority of people opposing the need to curb emissions do so for reasons other than science, and then rationalize that decision by twisting the science around so that it fits their pre-conceived wish not to curb emissions. There are preciously few people who really accept the science, and still strongly argue against emission reduction.

Consider the analogy of a lifelong smoker who goes to see his doctor for breathing problems. The doctor may say: “All the indications point towards your lung function deteriorating. This is very likely related to you having smoked for X decades. In order to minimize the risk to your health, I urge you to quit smoking.”

That is what I see Gavin Schmidt and many other climate scientists doing. And I find it perfectly legitimate, even desirable, that scientists (as well as doctors) share their knowledge about risks with those who need to know.

If the doctor were to say as the last sentence instead “(…) I urge you to take these nicotine patches” he would act as a stealth advocate, since there are many more options to quit smoking that the patient may want to chose from.

If the patient is so hooked to his cigarettes, and would rather continue smoking than extend his statistical life expectancy by X months, he is free to do so. If however he rationalizes that decision by claiming “smoking isn’t bad for your health at all. My dad was 96 when he died in a car accident, and he chain-smoked his whole life!”, the doctor would be right to reply: “You’re mistaken. Smoking is definitely bad for your health. If you keep smoking, your life expectancy will be X month less than if you quit smoking, and you will have more breathing problems. It is your choice whether or not to quit smoking, but you should make your choice in the full knowledge of these consequences”.

This highlights a different problem. One could argue that by continuing to smoke, the patient really only impacts his own health negatively (and those who breath the second hand smoke; likely not the doctor). If the majority of people, and especially the people in power, decide to ignore the problem and not change the trajectory society is on, it is everybody who suffers. Even worse, those in different parts of the world, and those who have yet to be born, will suffer the most. That makes it much more difficult to just say “I don’t care if you quit smoking, as long as you realize the risks”. 

So climate scientists could perhaps be more specific about this, by saying e.g.: “You’re mistaken. Unabated CO2 emissions will very likely cause substantial climate change, with serious consequences. So you should decide your course of action based on this knowledge. If you don’t care about these risks, that is your perogative. However I do. Please find yourself another planet to experiment on.”

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8 Responses to “The public role of scientists”

  1. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    I gave this comment to one of James Annan’s posts. It seems quite relevant to this post of yours:

    It’s pretty hard to communicate accurately to the public what “the science” says. I think it would help to refrain from loud, but unspecific calls for action, combined with a claim that this is precisely what “the science” says.

    I think what the science says, if one has to abbreviate it into a one sentence type sound bite, is that the price of carbon given by models is from somewhere around 0 to thousands of Euros per tonne, depending primarily on assumptions about the fragility of ecosystems, equity, what drives wealth and how to account for the more uncertain risks.

    If you don’t claim (quite wrongly in my opinion) that the climate science is the key battle ground and that everything hangs on whether climate sensitivity is 1C or possibly 5C+ (a la Lindzen), or whether today’s temperatures are warmer than the MWP (lots of Hockey stick debaters) or not,

    climate scientists can nicely stay above the fray and bask proudly in the glory provided by their widely acknowledged independence and objectivity.

    Plus, it’s much easier to have sensible discussions about say what we really know about the world average temperature between the years 1000 and 1500.

  2. Bart Says:


    You would want your doctor to give you a fair warning for imminent changes to your health, right? Same for volcanologists about an imminent eruption. Why would it be any different for a climate disruption?

    Uncertainties (and their evil twin: risks) abound with all these fields. The major difference I see is the timescale: Compared to the other issues, climate disruption is a disaster in slow motion. People have a hard time in general to deal with such long timescale problems. Perhaps even more reason for those who understand the underlying physics to speak out about the risks.

    It does blur the line between pure science and (let’s call it) consultancy or assessment. Same goes for the physician and the volcanologist. They are required to make a risk assessment for the situation that they have expertise in. Doing so requires judgment calls. I think it is good to differentiate when you’re making a judgement call versus when you’re explaining a scientific fact. But there will inevitably be grey areas.

    Science shouldn’t be the battleground for political decisions as all. It’s very unfortunate that some people have made it into an apparent battleground by twisting the science to suit their political agenda.

  3. Eli Rabett Says:

    Seems to me the doctor could say: My experience with other patients is that the nicotine patches are the best solution to help people quit.

    Roger’s mistake (and it is purposeful, because he keeps it up) is to refuse to acknowledge that the science should inform policy decisions. Inform is not determine, but you really should stop smoking.

  4. Bart Says:


    You’re right. Science should most definitely inform policy decisions. That is one of the things I don’t understand Pielke on. I thought he would surely agree to that, but from the conversations I’ve had with him, I’m not so sure anymore.

    The difference with a doctor is of course that they are charged not only with making a diagnosis, but also to come up with a solution for the patient. Scientists are only charged with the former, and (in the eyes of e.g. Pielke) lose credibility when they engage too much in the latter.

  5. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    I suppose I find the comparison with doctors less helpful than you do. It’s a general problem with comparisons though that they tend to be very apt in some respects and rather less so in others.

    I have three issues with scientists being too media savy and activist:

    1. It might impact their scientific work through confirmation type biases
    2. They will be tempted to pontificate on issues where they have no more expertise than the average citizen using the mantle of authority
    3. They may be tempted to massage their message so as to influence public opinion towards the course of action they deem best

    On 1) we have talked before and having thought it through I think it applies to few areas of climate science and even there it’s unclear how important it is to deal with it. So, suppose the UAH temperature readings are indeed biased downward through biased decision making, how much does it matter to correct this? And how? The double blind trials of medicine do not readily lend themselves as the model. Anyway, with most papers I have no idea what view on climate change the author has; that’s not to say that confirmation bias shouldn’t be watched for; far from it, there are many other reasons authors can have too strongly held pre-conceived opinions that they are seeking confirmation for.

    Regarding 3)

    On the ECN forum somone remarked that we need to be careful about mentioning geoengineering, because doing so might reduce the willingness of the public to support renewables.

    I don’t think the public have a problem with straight advocacy, an expert on volcanoes thinks an eroption is likely within 5 days and recommends evacuation say. The problem comes in when the expert thinks a 0.01% likelihood justifies evacuation, but the public thinks it ought to be 1%, the expert knows this and chooses to express his warning in terms that the public will take as a 1% likelihood. Let’s call that paternalistic advocacy.

    I am dubious how effective paternalistic advocacy actually is. The public may see right through it, realistically assess the chance of an eruption at 0.01% and stay right put. And it may not enhance the standing of the expert in the eye of the public.

    For climate change, it’s much more complex than that. As said all comparisons have their strong and their weak points.

    For climate change it’s unclear what is meant by strong action or emission reductions. There is no simple yes/no do we mandatorily evacuate? type decision to be made.

    Still, it’s problematic when the public thinks you are presenting 7 m sea level rise as likely by 2050, because you actually believe 7 m sea level rise by 2500 is reason to act, but don’t trust the public to act, unless you imply it’ll be 2050.

    I know that paternalistic advocacy requires quite a few elelements:

    1. You need to believe that action is necessary given the full facts
    2. You need to believe that the public won’t believe action is necessary given the full facts
    3. You need to actually spin the facts

    So, if you actually believe 7 m by 2050 is likely, there is no paternalistic advocacy, if you believe the public will act appropriately believing in 7 m by 2500, there is also no paternalistic advocacy. And this gets fuzzier still, when you don’t tell them it’ll by 7 m by 2050, but just leave it open, when the 7 m are likely.

  6. Bart Says:


    Analogies are always imperfect indeed, but insofar as they are valid, can be useful.

    Ad 1) The thing with scientists being activist at the same time is: Do they let their understanding of the science guide their activism (perfectly fine), or the other way around (questionable indeed). There are a lot of shades of grey as well, e.g. someone can be activist and decide to delve deeper into the science, and become more (or less) activist as a result.

    Ad 2) Could be an issue, if they don’t clearly state when they merely offer a personal opinion versus scientific conclusions.

    Ad 3) I see this much more of an issue with advocacy groups and politicians than with scientists. And this is much more of a problem with the nay-sayers than with the science minded folk (which is not to say that scientists don’t have to worry about it; it is an important issue to be conscious of as a scientist). The nay-sayers sometimes go out on a limb towards the totally anti-scientific in an attempt to rationalize their preferred route of (in)action (i.e. the left most hump in Tobis’ graph, which doesn’t have an analogous anti-scientific side on the exaggeration side).

  7. Heiko Gerhauser Says:

    The graph is interesting. It’s drawn though without underlying survey data, or a definition of “professional opinion”. Nor does it take into account time or probability.

    Mild benefits from global warming for warming of less than 2C is something you’ll find aplenty in the climate economics literature.

    For the time before 2050, virtually the entire climate economics literature foresees small impacts.

    For more than 2C and after 2050, that’s rather different.

    If BAU were extrapolated to 2200+ and included completely uncontrolled emissions of all greenhouse gases, including HFC’s, on the other hand, I think a runaway greenhouse gas scenario with temperatures rising beyond the boiling point of water is credible. And so does Hansen (you’ll have followed the discussion on the global change group I guess).

  8. Gavin Schmidt and Judith Curry on Science Advocacy by Dr. Bart Verheggen Says:

    […] course of action, especially when the latter is not one’s area of expertise. I wrote about the public role of scientists before, which touches on many of these same […]

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