Practical definition: Government climate scientists

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 23, 2008 under Practical definitions | Comments are off for this article

Government climate scientists: policy advocates who may or may not have science credentials, such as PhDs in physics or chemistry

The USA Today headline was “Scientists: Weather extremes consistent with global warming.” Wow. They’re not exactly saying the weather extremes are actually caused by global warming, but that distinction is bound to be missed by headline readers, which is the likely intent of the headline writers. More to the point, they’re implying that scientists are making this connection. So, you’d think that they were quoting scientists. They work at something called the U.S. Climate Science Change Program.

Folks, these people are not scientists, they are advocates. They may have scientific credentials, and may even conduct real science in other contexts, but in this context, they are advocates.

Science is a process of developing and testing models based on theoretical and empirical evidence. Models tell you the relationship between A and B. Concluding that B is bad and therefore we should do less of A is advocacy.

I won’t get into whether the climate models behind the grand pronouncement of this headline has any merit or not (better persons than I have looked at this already). I will only suggest that once a scientist has signed up for “change” they are no longer doing science. They are doing advocacy.

Sometimes, the line can be blurred. Let’s say that a scientist develops a model that says: “If you put tennis balls into a toilet, the world will blow up.” If they release these findings, it may safely be implied that they are doing two things at once: they are explicitly illustrating a relationship between tennis balls in toilets and global destruction; and they are implicitly advocating against tennis balls in toilets. Although these things are happening at the same time, one can still distinguish between their science and advocacy.

When Einstein wrote and published his paper on Special Relativity, he was acting as a scientist. When he wrote a letter to FDR suggesting the possibility of developing a nuclear bomb, he was acting as an advocate. That’s not to say that Einstein wasn’t a scientist when he wrote that letter. The point is that the letter itself was advocacy, not science.

The line between science and advocacy is further blurred by high impact results with a low statistical significance. For example, statistics may indicate a less than one chance in 20 (a common standard in science) for the relationship between tennis balls and global destruction to be true. But the stakes are so high that a less than one-in-20 chance may still be alarming. In this case, it is clearer that a scientist publishing these results is acting as an advocate, but it’s less clear that they are also acting as a scientist since their work has not met a common standard for scientific achievement.

People working in a “Climate Science Change Program” illustrate this blurred distinction. Scientists suggesting that industrialization creates global warming are acting as scientists as long as they are clear about the statistical significance, or lack thereof, of their findings. But scientists who know that the statistical significance of their findings are low, and parade the results anyway, and highlight the negative effects of global warming, or linking global warming to select events in order to portray it as bad, are simply advocates in white robes.

There is nothing wrong, by the way, with a scientist doing advocacy. We all have a right to express our opinions. But when one advocates from behind the cloak of “scientist” one always does two things at once. The intended effect is to increase the weight given to our advocacy. This effect is often noticeable, sometimes decisive. Einstein got FDR’s attention, and the Manhattan Project was born. The unintended effect is to decrease the credibility of all scientists. This effect is often so small as to be unnoticeable. Science was hurt by the advocacy of certain scientists of something that has been clearly unpopular with pacifists and anti-nuclear groups. When thousands of scientists lend their good names and credentials to this or that cause over an extended time, science itself becomes increasingly subject to skepticism. After a long enough time, non-scientists (and many scientists themselves) will come to view pronouncements by scientists with suspicion, to the detriment of science.

Note that for each individual scientist, the rewards of using their scientist credentials in support of a cause is usually much higher than their share of the downside, the imperceptibly incremental cynicism about science created by this scientist advocating a cause. Thus, there is no effective control on scientists diluting their impact on science by using their credentials in advocacy. Unfortunately, there is also no way to completely eliminate that dilution. Only someone concentrating in a field of study can study the claims in that field.

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