June 23, 2015, by Andrew Gibson

Judith Curry on ‘science, uncertainty and advocacy’ @CirclingTheSquare2

Blog post by Judith Curry, climate scientist at Georgia Tech and President of Climate Forecast Applications Network.


I’m attending an interesting conference in Nottingham:  Circling the square: universities, the media, citizens and politics.

I am a panelist on a panel Science, Uncertainty and Advocacy.  The other panelists are Conrad Brunk, Andrew Peters, and Dan Sarewitz.  Below is the text of my 5 minute opening remarks:

For the past 10 years, I have been actively engaging in the policy process related to climate change through giving media interviews, writing a blog that discusses the science-policy interface and various policy options, writing the occasional op-ed, and giving Congressional testimony. A major theme of my writings on this topic has been to voice my concerns that climate scientists are doing an inadequate job in assessing and communicating uncertainty.

I don’t regard what I am doing as advocacy – I’m not advocating for any particular policies. However, I have made remarks regarding what I perceive to be the ineffectiveness of proposed carbon mitigation policies. Last year, 5 climate scientists from the U.S. wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post entitled ‘Judith Curry advocates for inaction on climate change.’ Never have I stated that we should do nothing about climate change, but since I am not actively supporting the preferred policy, then I am accused of advocating for inaction. Discussing scientific uncertainty is regarded as a political act, advocating for inaction.

In the midst of trying to navigate all this personally in a manner that I feel is responsible and ethical, I have become concerned about mess that climate scientists have made of the interface between climate science and policy.

I think it is a good thing for scientists to be involved in the policy process – warning policy makers of possible future dangers, clarifying the science and its uncertainties, and assessing the efficacy and unintended consequences of proposed policy options.

Some people regard any engagement of a scientist with the policy process as advocacy – I disagree.   The way I look at it is that advocacy involves forceful persuasion, which is consistent with the legal definition of advocacy.

In the code of ethics for lawyers, where forceful persuasion is part of their job description, they are ethically bound only not to state something that they know to be false. Lawyers are under no compunction to introduce evidence that hurts their case – that’s the other side’s job.

Unlike lawyers, scientists are supposed to search for truth, and scientific norms encourage disclosure of sources and magnitude of uncertainty. Now if you are a scientist advocating for a specific issue, uncertainty will get in the way of your forceful persuasion.

In principle, scientists can ethically and effectively advocate for an issue, provided that their statements are honest and they disclose uncertainties. In practice, too many scientists, and worse yet professional societies, are conducting their advocacy for emissions reductions in a manner that is not responsible in context of the norms of science.

In their efforts to promote their ‘cause,’ the scientific establishment behind the global warming issue has been drawn into the trap of seriously understating the uncertainties associated with the climate problem. This behavior risks destroying science’s reputation for honesty. It is this objectivity and honesty which gives science a privileged seat at the table.  Without this objectivity and honesty, scientists become regarded as another lobbyist group.

So I see two broad problems. The first problem is with scientists who advocate for an issue in an irresponsible manner. My biggest concern here is when academic and professional societies become advocates – especially when those professional societies publish journals and confer recognition on scientists.

My second concern is with scientists who completely avoid engaging with the policy process for fear of being labeled as an advocate and compromising their objectivity as scientists, or their perception of objectivity.

In effect, the most objective and disinterested scientists are effectively discouraged from engaging in the policy process, leaving an open field for the forceful persuaders. If we had a situation analogous to a courtroom, where both sides have an opportunity to present their case, then such advocacy would not necessarily introduce bias. But when one side has systematically worked to discredit and marginalize their opposition, then we have a problem.

For scientists, particularly scientists in universities, there is no code of conduct for how to communicate with the public and to engage with the policy process. Lawyers and journalists have clear codes of conducts, as do engineers. Scientists employed by the government have some codes of conduct, whereas university scientists do not, beyond admonitions related to research misconduct – fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.

As a result of this lack of a code of behavior for university scientists, there continues to be what I regard as extremely irresponsible public behavior by some climate scientists, and there are absolutely no professional repercussions.

In conclusion, my concern is that the scientific community is extremely confused about the policy process and too many climate scientists are irresponsibly shooting from the hip as issue advocates. Apart from the damage that this is doing at the interface between science and policy, the neglect and perversion of uncertainty is doing irreparable damage to the science and to the public trust of scientists.

JC reflections

I’ve had a number of previous posts related to issue advocacy by scientists:

These previous posts have mainly discussed other perspectives on the issue of scientists and advocacy.  I appreciate this opportunity to succinctly (5 minutes) summarize my perspective.

This is a very interesting Conference, I will probably do another post on this after I return to the U.S.


This post was originally published via Judith’s ‘Climate Etc.’ blog

Posted in Uncategorized