Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Trouble with Tamsin

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.


  1. As usual you hit the nail on the head, IdiotTracker.

    The other irony that I picked up on was that Tamsin was doing in her article, what she said scientists must not do. She was advocating policy! The policy being that no scientist should comment on policy.

    That policy if translated beyond climate science becomes preposterous. Imagine if it were applied to fields such as the medical science, arts, sport or education.

    Take a person who is an academic studying adult learning or childhood education. Imagine if they were not allowed to comment on education policy!

    Or a medical researcher studying measles or polio not being permitted to comment on whether childhood vaccination programs are beneficial.

    The notion is as silly as that of a climate scientist not being able to discuss the implications of not reducing CO2 emissions. Or not being able to publicly express a personal opinion on whether an emissions trading scheme introduced now would have a greater or lesser impact (or cost) than geoengineering in 2080.

    1. I absolutely agree.

      Scientists are citizens, part of our democratic society. To exclude their voices from the public discourse is flagrantly stupid. Democracy is about harnessing the collective wisdom of the people, not suppressing it. To your examples I would add -- what about the artists? The writers? The philosophers? The teachers? The public servants? Is there anyone in the public sphere that cannot in some context desire it appear impartial? Are we going to silence anyone who knows anything?

  2. "Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream."

    The reason they say this, is because they don't care about the science one yota. All they care about is the communication of what that science means to society. And this is where Tamsin contributes nothing to the debate and therefore is not "dangerous".

    Funniest thing is those that are so much insisting that they only trust climate scientists who do not promote policy are usually not very hesitant to discuss or promote various policies themselves. Mostly "do nothing!" of course...


  3. hmmm.

    Did my previous comment get lost? If so, please delete either that one or this one...

    "So what is she claiming? Really, only that climate skeptics tolerate her. They don't verbally abuse her. "

    Even that isn't true, actually, If you look at the comments on her blog posts, you will find vitriolic comments directed at her as well as many others (I reserve the term "abuse" for actions that have greater real-world impact than comments on blog posts).

    Tamsin is quite convinced that her approach is effective. Nonetheless, I would argue that while some "skeptics" might be less vitriolic toward here than, say, Michael Mann because she is less overt about her non-activist form of activism - there is precious little evidence to show any substantive differential impact. For example, which "skeptics" have changed their views on iota because of her approach? How has her approach altered the nature of the climate wars? Policy development? Has it lessened the overall vitriol?

    As a scientist, Tamsin should be basing her conclusions on a careful study of the variables that help to show a cause-and-effect relationship. So what is the effect she is measuring and how does she validate a causal relationship?

    1. I don't know where the other comment went, Jon, sorry.

      "I would argue that while some "skeptics" might be less vitriolic toward here than, say, Michael Mann because she is less overt about her non-activist form of activism - there is precious little evidence to show any substantive differential impact."

      Yes indeed. There is no small degree of hubris in the belief that you and you alone have "cracked the code" allowing you to defuse partisan hostility. Most often, partisan hostility is not the result of a misunderstanding or trivial grievance. The comforting reception Edwards describes is more likely the vitriolic ideologues lowering their voices temporarily in welcoming a useful idiot.

    2. The 'tone' makes no difference to the hard-core deniers. The difference comes when the reader is new to the topic and has no firm opinion. There are various studies about this IIRC.

      For a non-scientific take, FWIW, just my own experience - just what impact "tone" has, IMO, depends on the reader. A polite approach may be appealing to someone who prefers "nice". Who gets easily upset by frankness not softened by (mealy-mouthed) words. Whose ego may be more fragile. In a "polite" discussion they are not so fearful about joining in and asking questions. So to that extent it may work with some people but could be quite confusing to others. Outsiders have to read through two layers. They have to read through the polite layer (you are of value solely because you are human) to get to the substance of the discussion.

      An stronger personality wouldn't be put off by a tougher approach like that of Michael Mann. In fact they are probably more persuaded by a vigorous discussion than by one in which everyone is talking past each other in an effort to be "nice" and not offend. The substance is laid bare without having to work through the veneer of politeness.

      (I can personally vouch for the fact that some hard-core deniers suffer such severe confirmation bias and have such weird egos that they will take almost any statement as a personal affront, no matter how politely expressed - even if they haven't been part of the discussion at all.)

    3. Sou -

      As an educator, I would say that there are certain principles of pedagogy that apply. Certainly, there are always exceptions regarding what works best for any particular individual - but I think that your whole paradigm of a "polite" versus "tougher approach" is a bit off the mark. People tend to learn better when they are actively engaged in the learning process and learn better when they are open-minded and motivated. A more didactic and top-down approach is going to be less effective on average because it tends to lead the learner into a more passive role. In that sense, I have some sympathy for the rationale behind Tamsin's approach. Although I think that the frame of being "nice" versus being "tough" is a skewed view of the pedagogical questions (being "nice" versus being "tough" is largely secondary), there is something to be said for an approach that is directly oriented towards keeping people open-minded and engaged and active as learners. A problem, however, is that while being "nice" is probably somewhat related to facilitating open-minded learners, it is not the same thing by any means.

      And of course, as you say the problem on top of that is that most "skeptics" engaged in these debates have their minds made up (for reasons I would say don't have much to do with the science) and are governed largely in their learning process by confirmation bias. I think that anyone would be hard-pressed, howev99er, to make the case that "skeptics" convinced of their opinions are any more subject to confirmation bias that "realists" who are similarly confident in theirs. We see the same patterns play out across a variety of controversies, and the problems are more universal than what can be associated by particular views on particular issues.

  4. @TheTracker

    Why are you starting this up again after 4 months? There's nothing here that hasn't been said before. Seems a bit unnecessary to re-start the fire.

    Also I think it's out of order for you to call Tamsin an "idiot". She most certainly is not. You say this explicitly in your comment at Dec 11 3.17pm, calling her a "useful idiot", and it's also implied simply by having a post about her under a blog title "Idiot Tracker" - it seems you think she'd one of the "idiots" that you are "tracking".

    I also think that comments on honesty and trust are a bit rich when done anonymously.

    1. This is me, I'm away from my computer.

      To address your points:

      1. I'm bring this up now because I haven't don any significant blogging is the last few months, and this post has been rolling around in my head for most of that time.

      2. If you think it's going to "re-start the fire," you obviously haven't seen my site's traffic numbers.

      3. I don't think Tasmin is an idiot, and that's not what I said. The term "useful idiot" applies to a good-hearted person who for whatever reason, is somewhat naive about how their activism is being but to use.

      4. The blog is called "Idiot Tracker" because when I named it I thought it would be focused on people like Watts and Jo Nova, idiots by any reasonable definition. I did not know at that time that:
      a) Others, like Wotts Up With That and HotWhopper, would do a better job than I could ever hope to.
      b) Even had i stuck with my original purpose, it should have been called "Watching the Deniers." Still kicking myself over that one.
      c) That I would ultimately get a little bored with raving loons (Monckton et al) and be more interested with people who manage to be wrong (by my lights) without being crazy or stupid (Edwards being a good example).

      If you would like to suggest a rebranding strategy, be my guest.

      5. "I also think that comments on honesty and trust are a bit rich when done anonymously."

      We'll have to agree to disagree on that. I see nothing dishonest about anonymity. And being anonymous means you cannot make any aurguments from authority, and you are inviting people to check your facts and take your words for what they are worth.

    2. "useful innocents" is another softer version of the term.

      How about "Watching the lukewarmers" (or as I prefer to call them, the "carbon mitigation deniers").

      The cranks like Watts, Jo Nova etc are a sideshow. And Curry is desperate to join them.

      It is Pielke Jr, Lomborg, Ridley, everyone at the Breakthrough Institute, etc who get the op eds, get to testify before Congress, get invited to speak at conferences.

      They pose more of a risk to an effective response to climate change precisely because they are not idiots.

    3. Curry is an interesting case, because she started rather closer to the middle and has become more and more of a conventional climate denier with time: repeating the myth of "climategate," accusing scientists of neglecting uncertainty and fearmongering, etc.

      It's not breaking any new ground in the psychological sciences to say that in arguing for something, especially against strong opposition, we become more persuaded of it, but in Curry this has happened to a really stunning degree, given her background in respectable climate science. She still gives lip service to the scientific facts, but emotionally she's selling denial pretty hard these days.

      What has happened to her comment threads is also fascinating. They've gone from being a mixed group of normals, lukewarmers, and raving lunatic deniers to maybe 90% raving -- classic case of "bad money drives out good."

  5. Hi Sou,

    "The notion is as silly as that of a climate scientist not being able to discuss the implications of not reducing CO2 emissions. Or not being able to publicly express a personal opinion on whether an emissions trading scheme introduced now would have a greater or lesser impact (or cost) than geoengineering in 2080."

    These are not examples of policy choices, though:

    1) implications of not reducing CO2 emissions -> quantification of climate response and other earth system impacts to different SRES/RCP scenarios -> our area of expertise -> talk about as experts

    2) Or not being able to publicly express a personal opinion on whether an emissions trading scheme introduced now would have a greater or lesser impact (or cost) than geoengineering in 2080.
    -> conflates two things - will separate:

    a) opinion on whether an emissions trading scheme introduced now would have a greater or lesser IMPACT than geoengineering in 2080
    -> quantifying climate response to reduction in GHG forcing at time t1 and to geoengineered change in forcing at time t2 -> e.g. can we get to preindustrial climate with mirrors in space? probably no because regional distribution of heat different, likely to affect monsoons etc; also effects on sea level may be diffferent -> see papers by Pete Irvine etc -> our area of expertise, so we should talk about it

    b) ... COST ... -> not our area of expertise, assuming we are talking about scientists that study the earth system

    1. It's absolutely admirable to know the limits of your own expertise and not try and claim authority outside of it. All well and good. But most real-world problems are going to involve a wide range of subjects, and if we cannot propose or support a plan of action unless we are experts in all subjects touched upon, then no one will be able to say anything.

      The scientists aren't economists. But the economists aren't scientists, and the politicians (and concerned citizens) aren't either.

      The premise of democracy has always been that the public discourse and decision making benefit from the participation of the knowledgeable. Eschewing all matters other than that exclusive to one's own discipline would effectively destroy that dialogue.

    2. Tamsin, it would be useful if you reminded folk like Tol, Lomborg and Pielke to stay out of 1 as much as you ask others to stay out of 2 and 3. Moreover, if someone has something to say about 1, they also get to point out that the 2 and 3s had better accept that there is a problem and let us hear about what you propose to do about it.

      Like all of your ilk, you practice asymmetric warfare for which you expect praise. Eli disagrees with the Tracker.

  6. Something I think may be lost in all of this is remembering to define terms, and imagining how others might blur terms.

    Assigning the role of ghg to CO2 and identifying anthropogenic emissions as a source of growing CO2 concentration leads immediately and inevitably to the question, "will reducing anthropogenic CO2 emissions then reduce or help to control CO2's role as a GHG?" For many, answering "yes" to this question is confused with advocacy, even though the answer is obviously not advocacy but simply plain fact.

    I think Tamsin misses this problem and does not realize that a lot of people confuse "report" with "advocate."

    The problem becomes worse when the requirement to develop informed solutions is handed off to people with specific training lending itself to addressing mitigation. An economist is going to describe economically driven policy responses that are simply indistinguishable from advocacy. Suitable policy outcomes may indeed be constrained to so few choices that advocacy of a particular means is essentially all that's left to say.

  7. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I observe that climate "contrarians" are themselves the most strident advocates of policy you're likely to find. Furthermore, they began their advocacy before any climate scientists (possibly excepting James Hansen) took up the cudgels.

  8. I agree. I hope all climate scientists do not hide the fact that they are really climate activists like James Hansen, pushing socialism and the destruction of free enterprise. That should give scientists tons of credibility with the public when scientists ask them to sacrifice economically.