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Advocacy --- or Not?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 3:37 AM GMT on April 22, 2008

Scientists as Advocates:

This entry will be different, more in the spirit of opinion. It picks up on some of the recent comments about scientists as advocates.

I have just finished the third year of my course on climate change. This course strives to be a course on problem solving. The students work on a project that integrates climate change into their analysis and their recommendations. One of instructions for the project is to separate what is known, from what is believed – to separate what is, from what is wanted. People tend to tie all things together in their minds and words. I try to teach awareness of advocacy.

When I worked in Washington for NASA, I saw many examples of advocacy becoming the end of a project - over advocacy. In the case of a space instrument, often the advocacy blurred what an instrument could surely measure versus what it might measure with a high-risk technological development. Other times the advocacy was anchored on the potential impact of an instrument; for example, what uncertainty would be reduced or how the weather forecast might be improved. My experience was, when a scientist became an advocate that the facts of the scientist’s message were lost. The audience became polarized, those who were on the scientist’s side and those who were not. The result of this is often a call for independent, external review. Sometimes projects proceed, sometimes they do not.

It is my opinion that the influence that I have is far larger if I maintain the discipline of separating knowledge, from what is likely known, from what is derived knowledge, from what is believed. I believe it is important to separate, distinctly, knowledge-based analysis from advocacy.

There have been a number of comments in the blogs about Jim Hansen and the work that comes out of the activity at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies). Jim and I sat on the same staff at NASA, and I have no doubt that Jim and the entire group at GISS perform outstanding scientific research. Their work is some of the most highly scrutinized research, and it is some of the most influential research.

I also have no doubt that Jim Hansen is an advocate, who senses urgency for us to address the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (Here is one of my old blogs on the basis of why there is urgency: Strange Urgency). The urgency comes first from a need to act soon if we are to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Hansen’s work also includes the idea of using methane regulation in the near term to buy time, and most recently the need to stabilize carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million, an actual reduction below present amounts.

While I believe that I am most influential when I distinctly separate advocacy from knowledge-based analysis, there is an obvious role for the scientist as advocate. There is a need to bring important pieces of information forward, and this often requires people with a passionate belief. When a person does this, they change, in a fundamental sense, the audience to whom they are speaking. They take strong positions in order to make points; the discussion becomes more polarized, like a trial.

(It is also important to distinguish what a scientist advocates from what is reported in the different media that report opinion and news. Each step away from primary source of information is another opportunity for either a conscious or sub-conscious message to be advanced. I am occasionally interviewed, and I am always concerned about what will happen to my words.)

Not only are there advocates who argue that climate change is a far reaching problem that demands urgent attention, there are also scientists who conclude that urgency is unwarranted. One person who advocates that climate change does not carry the urgency that Hansen ascribes to is Jim O’Brien at Florida State. As some have noted this Jim is my thesis advisor, and I can say with no hesitancy that he is one of the most influential people in my life. Jim O’Brien has a long history of outstanding research. It is a history of challenging prevailing wisdom.

There is a classic split that appears again and again in science and decision making. That split is - when does one conclude that research is robust enough to make a decision? There is always uncertainty in scientific research. If the decision is based on research that has pervasive implications throughout society, or is highly related to making or losing money, then many other factors have, and should have, influence. This is not only an issue of climate change, but also of new drugs, ozone depletion, and bio-fuels. There are examples of waiting too long; there are examples of acting too early.

With climate change, most have concluded that there is enough evidence, and that the predictions are robust enough to make a decision. The arguments have been brought out of the realm of the scientific literature, and scientists being members of society, being human, advocate for what they believe in.

(I would be interested in comments of those who paid attention to the report last week, the Journal of the American Medical Association, I think, on “guest authors” on pharmaceutical tests. Some Info )

The practice of challenging conventional wisdom is an important part of science. Robust challenges have a testable hypothesis as their foundation. Robust challenges are not collections of figures that support the challenge while ignoring the evidence that does not support the challenge.

Ramble on. For me, the influence that I might have, it is important to separate advocacy from knowledge. I do believe that if the knowledge that one has implies consequential risk, then the scientist, the person, has the responsibility to act on that knowledge. For some this becomes a matter of advocacy. And with advocacy, comes a new flavor of argument and controversy.

I will next start a series on the “attribution” of climate change.


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.