Monday, January 20, 2014

Why Shouldn't Scientists Express Their (Informed) Opinions?

This comment, at Dot Earth about Michael Mann's op-ed in the New York Times is the best thing I've read on it. It's by one Louis Derry of Brooktondale, NY:
This seems a bit of an invented controversy. The notion that science is some kind of simple list of “facts” is not, never has been, and never will be true. Interpretation and judgment about data and theory is a critical part of science. The idea that there is some strict separation between “science” and “policy” is a false dichotomy. What makes someone a “policy expert” anyway? Implicit in any choice of political or economic policy are values and judgments. I have yet to see the policy analyst who’s views aren’t influenced by his/her values. I agree with Ken [Caldiera] that it’s important not to make a big pitch on an issue unless you have done your homework. As he points out, too many people pontificate on subjects about which they have cursory knowledge (I could go on about some physicists and climate). But any scientist willing to put in the work can be a perfectly good advocate for policy. Scientists are generally pretty good with data and numbers, and those skills can indeed translate usefully into the policy realm. So much of what passes for policy debate is sufficiently devoid of any real constraints that a more “scientific” approach can only be an improvement. I quite agree with Michael, more scientists need to step up. There isn’t a thing wrong with proposing or advocating policy as a scientist as long as you have taken some time to inform yourself and have something both reasoned and reality based to say.
(emphasis mine). Why do we expect a policy person to understand the science any better than we expect a science person to understand the policy space?

Who do we want pontificating about climate science? Bill O'Reilly? Joe Palca? Sean Hannity? Noam Chomsky? James Inhofe? Marc Morano? 

The Mark Steyns of the world, in the time they have left over after insults and bon mots??

Inhofe doesn't get anywhere near enough grief for pontificating about the science, and Morano is held up by the likes of CNN as some meaningful participant in the scientific debate, but as soon as someone with some actual knowledge says we need to cut our CO2 emissions the entire opinoionsphere comes down on him for daring to say anything beyond the fact that the molecular weight of CO2 is 44.

That's absurd. The whole reason why our universities and governments are giving out scholarships and research assistantships and NSF grants is so these people can spent their lives studying this stuff and tell us what they've learned

If an astronomer discovered a big asteroid heading right smack for Earth, are we supposed to fault her if she dares to jump up and down telling us we need to take this seriously? Or are we going to put her on the high-powered government task force that has to come up with a solution?

This isn't just about Michael Mann. Other knowledgable people are just as free to jump in to the debate and express their opinions -- and some do so. They're going to get criticized no matter what, but I don't see any reason why they should be accused of compromising their science. Their science informs their opinions -- how could it not? 

And why shouldn't it?  

6 comments:

Brad Keyes said...

Let's review the principles:

When climate skeptics voice their beliefs in the popular press and the blogosphere, they're just trying to bypass peer review, the scientific method and answerability to their colleagues' scrutiny.

When Michael Mann does it it's because there's an asteroid headed for earth.

Evidence is nice... but we can't always afford to wait for it!

David Appell said...

Brad Keyes: No more responses for you. I've caught you at least twice here presenting obvious falsehoods.

Andy Revkin said...

Keep in mind that my post exists because Mann found fault with Ken Caldeira's criticism of the Hansen-Sachs paper for being cast as science instead of a commentary/opinion paper (despite Mann's claims on Twitter, I can't see any objective person reading his op-ed as anything other than critical of Caldeira). Both Ken and I supported Mann's argument for scientists to enter the fray. My other point is about blurring the line between what you know and what you feel. This was Gavin and Steve Schneider's (and Ken's) important point about being explicit about the difference.

Andy Revkin said...

Keep in mind that my post exists because Mann found fault with Ken Caldeira's criticism of the Hansen-Sachs paper for being cast as science instead of a commentary/opinion paper (despite Mann's claims on Twitter, I can't see any objective person reading his op-ed as anything other than critical of Caldeira). Both Ken and I supported Mann's argument for scientists to enter the fray. My other point is about blurring the line between what you know and what you feel. This was Gavin and Steve Schneider's (and Ken's) important point about being explicit about the difference.

Dano said...

Clearly we need to start training our students in communications if this is the case.

Best,

D

Squander Two said...

This is a straw man. No problem arises when scientists enter a political debate. A problem arises when scientists enter a political debate and then, when faced with political rebuttals, complain that non-scientists are daring to contradict them despite a lack of appropriate qualifications and history of peer-reviewed published papers.