Friday 2 August 2013

Tamsin Edwards, what is advocacy?

Tamsin Edwards has started a discussion on advocacy by scientists. A nice topic where everyone can join in and almost everyone has joined in. While I agree with the letter of of her title: Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies, I do not agree with the spirit.

If you define a climate scientist as a natural scientist that studies the climate, it is clear that such a scientist is not a policy expert. Thus when such a scientist has his science hat on, he is well advised not to talk about policy.

However, as private citizen also a climatologist naturally has freedom of expression; I will keep on blogging on topics I am not an expert on, including (climate) policy.

Other scientists may be more suited to give policy advice (answer questions from the politicians or the public on consequences of certain policies) or even to advocate particular policies (develop and communicate a new political strategy to solve the climate problem). Are hydrologists, ecologists, geographers and economists studying climate change impacts climatologists? They surely would have more to say about the consequences of certain policies.

Some scientists focus their work on policy. If that is mainly about climate policy, does that make the following people climatologists? They are certainly qualified to publicly talk about climate policy.

For example, Roger Pielke Jr., with his Masters degree in public policy and a Ph.D. in political science. I guess he will keep on making policy recommendations.
Gilbert E. Metcalf and colleagues (2008) studied carbon taxes in their study, Analysis of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Tax Proposals and probably did not do this to have their study disappear in an archive.
Wolfgang Sterk of the Wuppertal Institut suggests to change the global cap-and-trade discussion to jointly stimulating innovation towards a sustainable economy (unfortunately in German). Sounds close to my suggestion to break the deadlock in the global climate negotiations.

Science and politics

One thing should be clear, science and politics are two different worlds. Politics is about comparing oranges and apples, building coalitions for your ideas and balancing conflicts of interest. Politicians are used to deal with ambiguity and an uncertain future.

Natural science is about comparing like with like. However, you cannot add up lives, health, money and quality of life. Science can say something about implications (including error bars) of a policy with respect to lives, health, money and maybe even quality of life if you define it clearly. The politician will have to weight these things against each other. Science is also about solving clear crisp problems or dividing a complex problem in multiple such simple solvable ones.

With some exceptions, scientists being used to solving completely other types of problems are likely bad at political advocacy. It is much smarter to do what you are good at and most scientists can best explain how climate change works and what are the likely consequences, if the chose to participate in the public arena at all.

I do not know whether I should write so, it sounds trivial, but may be it is part of the controversy: Naturally when a scientists advocates a certain policy, that does not mean that the politicians should slavishly follow, nor that they will do so. Good politicians will appreciate the advice and will get advice from many other sources. Then they will make up their own minds and do what is politically doable and fits their interests and hopefully the interests of the people who voted for them.

Scientists are not law maker, police, lawyer and judge in one person. Formulating this more poetically: As Doug McNeal writes: scientists are not the doctors of the planet.
Here is a thing that always comes up in these debates – the idea that climate scientists are like medical doctors for the planet. ... I think that this is a terrible comparison. ...If you are a climate scientist, you are not here to save the planet. It is incredibly arrogant to see yourself as some kind of planetary doctor, able to save the planet. You cannot save the planet. You can (probably incrementally) increase the sum of human knowledge about the planet. That is a good and extremely valuable thing.

Freedom of expression or lobbying?

Much debate may simply be because people interpret the word advocacy differently. The definition of Oxford dictionaries is quite neutral.
public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.
Many people probably notice the negative undertone of the term, described by the introduction of the Wikipedia article on advocacy.
Advocacy is a political process by an individual or group which aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions. Advocacy can include many activities that a person or organization undertakes including media campaigns, public speaking, commissioning and publishing research or polls or the filing of an amicus brief. Lobbying (often by lobby groups) is a form of advocacy where a direct approach is made to legislators on an issue which plays a significant role in modern politics.
In his post on the topic, Some random thoughts on advocacy, Oliver Bothe (a German climatologist), describes the next level: Stealth advocacy.
Stealth advocacy is a problem. It is something we should try not to do, but which may be hard to avoid sometimes. Stealth advocacy is, as Roger Pielke Jr puts it "when scientists claim to be focusing on science but are really seeking to advance a political agenda". The transgression from science to advocacy may happen or likely happens often subconsciously. We scientists should try to be aware of this and to be clear where we leave our expertise and voice "just opinions".
It makes quite a difference if you are thinking about actively going out to explain the science in a neutral way or whether you are thinking of lobbying and using every dirty trick available to influence people. I expect scientific advocacy to be neutral in content, not to overstate their confidence and hope that this is not a matter of dispute. But I see no problem in actively seeking attention, publicly funded research is not done for a dark archive.

I guess the climate sceptics find advocacy of climatologist just as desirable as climatologists advocacy by climate sceptics and in that case think of the "Wikipedia definition". And if they think of advocacy by themselves, they likely think more about the "Oxford definition".

Which also points to a weird aspect about the discussion: why only discuss this for climatologists? You could say that Edwards talks about climatologists because she is also one herself. However, it does sound a little as if this is a special problem for climatologists. Which is another reason, I do not like the title.

A large part of economics papers ends with the policy implications of the work. And that for a science that still has large fundamental problems.

Personally, I would like to see much more advocacy by scientists, biologists and agricultural scientists working on (agricultural) biodiversity, social scientists and economists working on poverty and inequality, soil scientists working on erosion. I wonder whether they advocate too little or whether no one is willing to listening.

Other's posts on Advocacy

More posts on science and the scientific community


  1. In my opinion, pseudoskeptics perceive as "stealth advocacy" whenever a climate scientist identifies human activities as the cause of warming and points out (or when pointed out by others) that the future impacts of this man-induced warming are negative.

    The concern has zilch relationship to any specific policies. They wouldn't care if Tamsin thinks a carbon tax or *any other policy choice* is a good idea if you want to reduce CO2 emissions. They'd have attacked for wanting to reduce CO2 emissions, because, as everyone knows, CO2 is not a problem.


  2. I understand what Edwards is talking about but the question might be, if not scientists, who then will advocate for good policy? Everyone and their dog has an opinion about climate change, they vote and push for specific policies or even no policy at all, and scientists are supposed to keep quiet about it? No, I don't think so.

    As long as one is intellectually honest and open about one's expertise or lack thereof, I see no problem in talking about policies.

  3. Daneel Olivaw, I also see no problem in talking about policies.

    However, in case of climate change, I also see no need for it. Political parties and politicians are supposed to take this role, as well as NGOs from Greenpeace to Heartland.

    If science is abused in such a discussion (e.g. WUWT) it is a task of scientists to correct this. At least if these fringe ideas start to pollute the public discussion as in the USA.

    In case of biodiversity, poverty, inequality and erosion, I do see a need for an active role of scientists, as these topics have not (hardly) made it into the public debate.

  4. Let's also not forget that scientists are often asked whether specific policies will be helpful in achieving a certain goal. Some even specifically have this as their research area: testing how policies fit with the stated aims of those policies.

    If that climate scientist publishes his conclusions of that research, pointing out that some are better than others in achieving the intended goal, the pseudoskeptics will see him as an advocate...


  5. Marco, I agree, someone working on climate policy should naturally be "allowed" to communicate his work.

  6. Didn't Immanuel Kant propose a rational form of ethics that used the Categorical Imperative, which basically went: don't do stuff that you expect others not to do. A sort of updated Golden Rule - do unto others etc etc.

    Are Tamsin and those who agree with her going to impose a self-denying ordnance on themselves to avocate or critique policy?

  7. @Unknown. I expect that Tamsin Edwards will not discuss political matters herself. No idea what her definition is exactly. You could call her current discussion post also politics.

    I do not expect that most climate ostriches that agree with her will naturally not keep their mouths shut. The rule they cheered for is just for scientists working on climatic questions.

    The irony is that many times I tried to discuss something (most homogenization) with climate ostriches, they actually tried to drag me into a discussion on politics. A much more pleasant topic, because in science you can be proven wrong.

  8. The science that led up to the Montreal Treaty relating to the ozone layer was also politicised by vested interests and those who support them. The scientists who said that CFCs were causing depletion were attacked similarly to the hounding of climate scientists (and by some of the same people - see Merchants of Doubt book). The scientists were regarded as political by simply by saying that CFCs needed regulation. I greatly admire Tamsin Edwards for her approach because those attacking the science and scientists have created such a poisonous atmosphere that I think it is very important, particularly for those doing primary research, such as Tamsin, to both engage and be able to act as "honest broker". But we need people in interlocutor roles with sufficient understanding of the science and sufficient grasp of policy etc. to act as a bridge for policy makers. Often, these bridge people are ex scientists (ie no longer doing primary research). Ex policiticians won't cut it because they cannot summaries results in a fair and balanced manner and are too easily swayed by the latest headline. We also cannot lock up Tamsin's valuable time persuading outlier folk that CO2 is a greenhouse gas - now that would be wasting her precious time.


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