Saturday, December 12, 2009

Politicization of Climate Sciences

Written for Freedom Democrats

In the wake of Climategate, climate researcher Mike Hulme has articulated the ideal role of science in public discourse. Basically, he declares that scientific debates should be kept separate from ethical debates (leaving aside bias inherent in hypothesis generation and choice of research directions), while still informing our actions. This is a nice ideal, but ignores the fact that people will enter scientific debates with ulterior motives and it can be hard for the layman to distinguish between the sincere scientist and these charlatans.

In contrast to Mike Hulme's call for the separation of science and politics, we have his colleague James Hansen (head of NASA's Goddard) who is quite happy to transform his scientific prestige into a platform for political moralizing. In reviewing Hansen's new book for DailyKos, DarkSyde introduces him in this manner:

To be a top climate scientist today means being up to speed in graduate level physics, advanced mathematics, planetary astronomy, meteorology, paleontology, oceanography, bio and geo-chemistry, dealing with programmers and constantly shifting computer architectures, and now on top of everything else, you have to be a tireless political activist and media celebrity.(emphasis mine)

No, you don't have to be a political least not in Hulme's model of science and politics. The scientific method strives for consensus, while the political method strives for domination; If Hansen and DarkSyde want to make politicians out of scientists, then they should expect politicized resistance and deal with it as a political dispute.

When Hansen compares carbon emission credits to the Indulgences that sparked the reformation, he just sounds like a moralizing fool (even to someone like me who agrees with his preference for a carbon tax, in this case).

There is no necessary connection between doing research and political advocacy. A scientist does have a responsibility to communicate his findings to the public, and when his findings have urgent implications, there is not time to allow the knowledge to percolate through the formal education system (i.e. inform other researchers, who inform their students at university, who become teachers in the primary and secondary schools). So there is an imperative for some member of the field to directly communicate the field's findings to the general public, which probably means being "a media celebrity". However, this is an issue for all academic disciplines, and it is not a requirement for everyone in the field--certain individuals naturally distinguish themselves within the field as communicators and politicians (often taking jobs such as heading major research institutions), and these individuals are the natural public spokespersons of the field.

But what if the research findings have implications for economic policy? If the spokesperson ignored those implications, they would be neglectful in their communication to the public, but taking a position politicizes the field of study. Following Hulme's model, I suggest that that the scientist make a point of contacting political activists, informing them of the situation, and allowing them to advocate for policy changes. This may even include sitting down with them for a public Q&A, where the scientist acts as a resource on which they draw as they suggest policy responses. This could be either a live discussion, or a book where the first chapter describes the scientific situation and the subsequent chapters are written by activists/politicians who explore the implications.

I'm not saying that scientists should avoid politics all together, just that they shouldn't use their prestige as a practicing scientist to gain exceptional authority in their political advocacy (at least until they have retired).

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