|Do you trust that face?|
During my long and unexplained hiatus -- during which I may or may not have been reforging the sword of my fathers in anticipation of the final confrontation with Steven Goddard -- there was a large amount of buzz about Tamsin Edwards' throwing down the gauntlet and proclaiming that no one in climate science ought to offer any opinion about climate policy.
In the descriptively but unimaginatively titled, "Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies" Edwards lays out her case for abstinence-only public science eduction:
I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.Pace Edwards, scientists who indulge in advocacy can expect to see their reputations trampled in the mud, their credibility shredded, and their careers imploded. Examples are not far to seek. In 1947, for instance, a middle-aged physicist published "Why Socialism?":
[M]ost of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.There goes his credibility. By the Law of Edwards, he's finto. It's a shame. But for this, I really think that Albert Einstein guy could have made something of himself.
If anyone would like a long list of immortal scientists who argued for particular public policies, I'm happy to provide one, but for the moment let's take that as read and ask why Dr. Edwards has put forward so aggressively an argument that falls apart like tissue paper when applied to real scientists?
Edwards lays out her initial motivation in her first sentence: "As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate." She doesn't want to be a political advocate. But she obviously feels some defensiveness about this reluctance, or she would simply have said "Fuck off; I'm busy" rather than develop a general theory about why not only should people stop pestering her to take a stand, but that all scientists everywhere should never do so.
Now, if Dr. Edwards had stuck to her own case, and refused to engage in policy debates, her position would be, in my opinion, unassailable. Scientists have an obligation to do good science. They have no obligation to address any question of public policy. If they are reluctant to do so, they had best not do it. No one should bully them into it with expansive doctrines of the scientist's duty to educate. That "duty" has no basis in the traditions of science (1).
But it extrapolating from the personal to the general, Edwards misses the mark. Her argument is threefold:
1) Scientists who advocate for particular policies will lose the public's respect.
2) Scientists who advocate for particular policies will inflame climate deniers (whereas they love and respect Edwards.)
3) Scientists don't know what they are talking about (and anyway, it's all about values and stuff).
The third point I have addressed before. I have little to add, except that I like that post better than when I wrote it, and I think in a small way it contributes to the discourse, in that the nonsense claim that climate change is all about values has a lot of currency on both sides.
The second point is not only thin but somewhat sad:
So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.I have no doubt that Edwards is accurately describing how some climate deniers react to her They are pleased with her, as indeed they should be, because she is not challenging their inactivism in any way. Anyone who knows anything about climate "skeptics" knows that they do not care passionately about the scientific reality, but about the implications of that reality for public policy, so the fact that they like Edwards' stance is utterly predictable. Silent, neutered climate scientists are to deniers almost as good as no climate scientists at all.
Note what Edwards does not say: She does not say any "climate sceptics" have changed their minds about the science. She does not say they have changed their minds about any question of policy. She does not even claim that they accept her "absolutely mainstream" scientific views.
So what is she claiming? Really, only that climate skeptics tolerate her. They don't verbally abuse her. They don't threaten violence against her or her family. They don't sue her, or spam her with FOI requests, or file complaints with her university.
Shorn of sentimentality, this is what Edwards is actually saying: If you refuse to make any connection between your science and public policy, and denounce others who do, climate deniers will spare you the campaign of abuse they inflict upon more dangerous scientists. They may even call you an "honest broker." (No word on whether they call her the Gangster of Love.)
Of course the irony of claiming that title is that Edwards is not an "honest broker." She may be honest, but she can't be a broker, one who "arranges or negotiates (a settlement, deal, or plan)." That is what she has said she will not do, and what climate deniers do not want to do. The irony is thick. Just as many on the right want a government which does not govern, so the climate deniers' ideal "broker" is one who refuses to negotiate a settlement.
Finally we are left with Edwards' claim that scientists who weigh in on matters of policy will lose the public's respect.
This is another place in what Edwards doesn't say is as interesting as what she does. She doesn't say that scientists who advocate policy solutions will lose their objectivity and their science will suffer for it. She is not such a fool. As a working scientist, Edwards knows that scientists working a hypothesis are far from objective. She, like any publishing scientist, could probably list the top ten biases any scientist is fighting to keep at bay upon sitting down at the bench, to wit:
1) I hope this is publishable.
2) I hope my hypothesis is correct.
3) I hope I collected enough data.
4) I hope this work is broadly useful to society.
5) I hope this work shows something substantially different than what my reviewers have read in the last few months.
6) I hope after I publish this it will be easier to get funding.
7) I hope I'm invited to present this at a meeting somewhere nice.
etc. . . .
Edwards, as I said, knows all this, so she doesn't make the claim that you need objectivity to do good science. Instead she claims that scientists need the appearance of objectivity to maintain the respect of the public. Which, if you think about it, reduces to an odd claim: in order to maintain the public's trust, we must all participate in misleading the public about what a scientist is and how science happens.
Because science, in fact, does not depend on objectivity or impartiality. That's why no one cares that Albert Einstein wrote "On Socialism" or that Issac Newton needed a special dispensation of the king to refuse the ordination required of all professors at Trinity College or that Jonas Salk, having invented the polio vaccine, urged its wide adoption.
Science does not require impartial individuals because science can be tested. Science is grounded is data, and the reproduction of results. A baseball umpire or a traffic cop or a federal judge ought to be known for their impartiality, because of the inherent subjectivity of their judgments and the difficulty of revisiting them. Science, ideally, involves careful judgements based upon shared facts and evidence that can be modified or discarded as they are repeatedly reexamined.
Appearing objective, then, is essentially a dodge, a hustle, the opposite of honest. If we are going to try and buttress scientists' respectability by that, we ought to ask Dr Edwards why her blog photo shows neither glasses nor a white coat even though both of those things (2) have been shown to increase the trust of the public in the speaker.
Ultimately I find Edwards position sad. She began with a personal refusal to engage with politics, as is absolutely her right. She extended this to an ill-considered attack on other scientists who made a different choice. Predictably this has led to praise and admiration from the usual suspects who are more than happy to ignore her "mainstream beliefs" (3) and celebrate her rejection of "activism." This praise seems to have turned her head, and only time will tell if she has, as it seems, embarked on the long downward spiral into irrelevance and Curryism.
1) Compare medicine, where practitioners take an oath "to teach [students] this art; and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher's sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws."
2) Glasses convey the impression the wearer is intelligent and good.
White coats convey the impression the wearer is an authority and is trustworthy.
3) Much like they ignore the multitude of contractions between the various mutually incompatible "skeptic" theories.