Climate scientists can be advocates – Gregor Betz

Nature recently published two letters responding to Roger Pielke Jr’s review of books (pdf) in its previous issue – the first letter from one of the authors of the books under review, Prof Stephen Schneider and the other from Gregor Betz, who is lecturer at the Institute of Philosophy, University of Stuttgart.

Presumably due to word count limitations, a much abridged version of Betz’s original letter was published. Dr. Betz kindly provided the whole letter when I contacted him. The Nature version is to be found here. What is of interest is that Gregor Betz passionately defends the right of scientists, especially climate scientists  to advocate for specific policy measures. He has no doubt studied the matter in depth; he lists among his research interests the ‘philosophy of climatology’.

Gregor Betz expands on two broad contentions in his letter. We will confine ourselves to the first one in this post. Betz contends that Roger Pielke Jr “accuses both authors of unjustifiably mixing political advocacy and objective science”. Curiously enough he defends the authors (i.e, Hansen and Schneider), not by saying they have not indulged in mixing advocacy with science, but by saying, in effect, that mixing advocacy and science is justified.

The relevant passage in Pielke Jr’s review is

Yet both books largely comprise strong ideological and political commentary based on an unstated assumption that science compels action on climate change. Neither author accepts the label of advocate, claiming to be speaking for science; nor do they see the paradox in their position.

Now, before we examine this bold but yet not-novel in today’s age -formulation that mixing advocacy and science is justified, let us see what the other letter writer, Stephen Schneider himself has to say about this concept.

In his letter Schneider explains,

Pielke fairly represents my decades-old argument that scientists should avoid policy prescriptions.

He goes on to say:

…policy advocacy by scientists is inappropriate in formal assessments, such as those of the IPCC or of the US NAS

What is the inference here? We can say that Schneider is in disagreement with Betz – he seems to think that scientists should avoid making policy advocacy, especially in their capacity as scientists whereas Betz thinks that is OK. The corollary of Schneider’s statement is, as private citizens and informed individuals they are entitled to their opinions and can champion for their personal positions.

Entitled indeed they are – but the catch is, such a thing is called advocacy – which both Schneider and Hansen deny they are indulging in.

Clearly something is wrong here. If Nature publishes two letters one claiming that it is alright for scientists to be advocates and the other claiming scientists should not be advocates – that is a problem too. The magazine conveniently sidesteps this issue by deleting this part of Betz’s letter in their word-count limitation quest. One hopes the irony here is not lost on its editors.

Let us leave aside Schneider’s troublesome contentions for a moment and examine de novo, Betz’s original argument. What does he say?

…and that’s a correct thought underlying Pielke’s reasoning—policy recommendations can never be deduced from scientific results alone without committing the naturalistic fallacy. But does this mean that scientists, qua scientists, are in no position to argue that their findings recommend specific policy measures? I don’t think so (emphasis mine)

Betz argues mechanistically, that policy formulations can be ‘supported’ by science, if not directly derived from them. In his formulation of how science is linked to policy, Betz puts forward a rather limited paradigm. He contends that science can help us choose among a range of policy alternatives. It can support or favor one policy measure over the other and therefore scientists who understand the science best can guide policy making with no problems at all.

The descriptive statements identify the consequences of alternative policy options, and the normative statements evaluate these different consequences. So, while scientific facts never predetermine a policy recommendation, they clearly can support arguments which favour, given additional normative premisses, one policy response over another. But that means that there is, contrary to Pielke’s allegation, nothing paradoxical about a position which claims to support (and not: proof) a policy measure based on scientific findings.

But lest we forget, the issue in front of us is not whether science can ‘support’ policy at all. It is whether scientists can push for certain policies.

What are we missing here? Firstly, absent completely from this constricted view is the concept of conflict of interest. What is the position of a single person who describes the ‘descriptive premisses’ – the science, and harbors within him ‘normative premisses’ which he will then employ to decide which policy to push for? Where do his loyalties lie? Is he formulating policies that seek to reaffirm his scientific worldview?

Betz’s post-normal interpretation of the science-to-policy continuum creates hiding grounds for concealing, even from oneself, conflicts of interest because its reductionist view forces or assists scientists to gloss over potential conflicts. Which has inadvertently transpired in the case of Hansen and Schneider, I daresay. They advocate specific policies but do not see themselves as advocates. For to them, their policy ideas seems to flow logically and directly from their science. Whereas as Pielke Jr states and Betz agrees, this can never happen—policy never flows directly from the science, there is always some mixing of ideology that is called for.

What climate scientists perhaps realize dimly is that, by playing into the hands of advocates, they are contributing to the erosion of the authority of science itself – which is a fragile being – drawing strength solely from the impartiality of its observers. If politicians and bureaucrats wish to relinquish legislative authority in an area such as climate science, and instead seduce scientists to take on advocacy positions – the first thing to kick in, should be the self-preservation instincts of scientists. Why should angels rush in, where even fools fear to tread?

Betz summarizes Hansen’s and Schneider’s position as follows:

I suggest that Hansen, Schneider, and many other climatologist should be interpreted along these lines: They see that ongoing GHG-emissions might lead to immense and abrupt climatic changes on global and regional scales. This is an empirical, scientific result. They see, besides, that such consequences can be avoided at reasonable economic costs. This is an empirical, scientific result, too. And they presume that the vast majority of their co-citizens agrees that suffering caused by extreme weather events, famine and migration should be avoided if the economic costs for doing so are reasonable. Again, I don’t see that this stance is paradoxical.

Again, what is missing here? Policy may be closely related to science or it may be many steps away from science. The further away a policy measure is from the supporting science, the more numerous the rhetorical devices and untested scientific assumptions required to bridge the gap. These assumptions may themselves be conceptually unrelated to another, requiring leaps of faith to transit from one to another. These possibilities do not seem to be present in Betz’ linear elicitation.

Starting from the scientific observation that CO2 concentrations are rising at the Mauna Loa observatory, it takes an impressive sequence of calisthenics getting to the alarming conclusion, “manmade global warming is a danger to humanity”. It takes a bizarre set of maneuvers to reach to the policy conclusion that we might require artificial trees. Actually, the second leap of faith is not so difficult because once you set up ‘danger to all mankind’ as a conclusion of climate change, no cost will be ‘unreasonable’.

There is no recognition as well, that it is the element of fear-mongering of ‘extreme weather events, famine and migration’ that helps hold Betz’s argument together. The paradox of scientific advocacy is there, it is just not visible. Fear will submerge all paradoxes.

The best compromise at this impasse therefore would be accept Schneider’s sensible suggestion, and I repeat from above:

…policy advocacy by scientists is inappropriate in formal assessments.

Surely this is not to suggest scientists in their capacity as enlightened citizens, stay away from the policy side of things – that cannot happen and the divide is artificial, as Betz indicates himself. But if they make policy recommendations, it should be clear that they speak, in their capacity as advocates, and not scientists.

Obviously this restriction limits the direct influence scientists can have over policy.