What Role for Experts in the Climate Debate?
Balancing Trust, Advocacy, and Social Change
Given the threat of climate change, do scientists have a moral duty to advocate on behalf of specific political actions and to hold elected officials accountable? Or are they better suited to serve as policy advisers working with a diversity of their peers to broaden the menu of options under consideration by political leaders and the public?
--Guest post by Greg Alvarez
The release this week of the latest United Nations report on climate change has generated renewed debate over the role that scientists should play in mobilizing support for policy action. Some scientists are hesitant to enter this arena, fearing that such advocacy has the potential to undermine their credibility and objectivity, while eroding the public’s confidence in their work.
Others believe that the scope and immediacy of the climate crisis compels them to become advocates for political action, and that if done appropriately, such a role does not conflict with their work as scientists. Bill McKibben even went so far as to argue this week that scientists should “go on strike,” no longer talking about their science. “At this point the white lab coats would be better used drawing attention to sit-ins and protests than drawing yet another set of ignored conclusions,” he wrote.
To be sure, when scientists assume greater political visibility, they risk the possibility of undermining their own authority and legitimacy. However, if scientists fear that a lack of action on climate change endangers society, are they morally obligated to promote policy actions they believe to be a logical extension of their scientific findings?
In his frequently cited 2006 book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Politics and Policy, Roger Pielke Jr. attempts to explain some of these conundrums faced by the scientific community, articulating four different models by which scientists can interact with policy makers and the public. He notes that all four roles are important in a society with healthy decision-making processes, as long as scientists are clear and open about which role they occupy.
The first of Pielke’s four scientific roles is the idealized pure scientist, who’s apparent only concern is doing science. He/she makes no effort to engage in advocacy or to promote certain policies. Nor is the pure scientist available to answer the questions of policy-makers, the media, or other interested parties; outside of how they might communicate by way of traditional peer-reviewed channels. In this way, the pure scientist strives to maintain absolute objectivity with no “practical considerations for the results of his research.”
Somewhat similar to the pure scientist is the science arbiter. Like the pure scientist, the science arbiter expresses no opinion on policy preferences, or even proactively discusses policy at all. Objectivity is once again one of the scientist’s primary goals.
Yet the science arbiter departs from the pure scientist in that science arbiters make themselves available to policy makers for questioning. They realize people sometimes have questions about their work or need expert clarification on certain points, and they will provide such information. However, they stop short of providing direct policy guidance or recommendations, unless requested. According to Pielke, in theory, scientists working at federal agencies fill the role of science arbiters.
Inhabiting the role of pure scientist or science arbiter does not come without its difficulties. As Pielke explains, it can be easy for these scientists to become stealth issue advocates. Stealth advocacy occurs when scientists say they will only concentrate on communicating about scientific findings, when in actuality they are promoting a specific policy agenda. As Pielke notes, stealth issue advocates assert that they are “above the fray, invoking the historical authority of science, while working to restrict” the menu of policy options considered.
Yet taking this position can be particularly damaging to the public’s trust in science. This can lead to a scenario in which – to promote a particular policy outcome such as a carbon tax or investment in solar and wind -- certain scientific findings are overstated in importance and conclusiveness. If and when the public discovers such artificial inflation, it can seriously damage scientific integrity and taint future efforts to communicate about research findings.
Despite the propensity to fall into the trap of stealth issue advocacy, many scientists do feel that the pure scientist or science arbiter roles are most appropriate. UK climate researcher Tamsin Edwards argues that, “advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science.” She further explains that scientists have a “moral obligation to strive for impartiality.” She warns that even when scientists preface a statement by indicating it reflects an opinion and not a scientific fact, such stipulations are routinely ignored.
At his New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin relays a similar sentiment from climate scientist Susan Solomon, who famously refused to answer a question about the findings of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report (IPCC), which she co-chaired. As she explained: “… it’s not my role to try to communicate what should be done. I believe that is a societal choice. I believe science is one input to that choice, and I also believe that science can best serve society by refraining from going beyond its expertise.”
Science, Values and Advocacy
Yet some question whether or not the absolute objectivity for which pure scientists and science arbiters strive is even attainable. Michigan State University philosopher Michael Nelson posits that many aspects of science are infused with value judgments. From the chosen area of study to the funding scientists choose to accept or refuse, scientists routinely exercise their beliefs and personal values. Even Tamsin Edwards writes, “I became a climate scientist because I’ve always cared about the environment…”
Such a position reflects an underlying value system and signifies that Edwards does in fact view certain issues through a pre-conceived, personal lens. This perceived reality is what causes some climate scientists, such as NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, to believe that if scientists do not explain their values or advocacy positions, “people will choose for them what values they hold. You’re better off owning that and telling people what you’re advocating for.” Schmidt’s recommendation leads to Pielke’s third role for scientists, issue advocates.
Issue advocates attempt to steer policy-makers and public opinion in a particular direction, one they believe is best according to their research and scientific judgments. As Pielke explains, conceptually, issue advocates try to narrow the range of political and technological solutions to a problem, as opposed to presenting all available options. Crucially, an issue advocate “aligns himself/herself with a group (a faction) seeking to advance its interests through policy and politics,” he writes. The issue advocate accepts the notion that science must be engaged with decision-makers and seeks to participate in the decision-making process.”
Many of history’s most prominent scientists have occupied the role of issue advocate, such as Albert Einstein. Pielke notes that while Einstein may have started as a pure scientist, he later became an issue advocate when his opposition to the continued advancement of nuclear weapons compelled him to speak out. Similar perceptions of danger and urgency are what have caused many well-known climate scientists, such as James Hansen and Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann, to become issue advocates in recent years.
Writing in The New York Times, Mann explains that, “it is no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines.” According to him, the immediacy of the climate crisis has rendered the positions of the pure scientist and science arbiter irrelevant when it comes to this issue. Because the futures of his children and grandchildren are at stake, in essence, his hand has been forced and he must enter the public forum in a more visible way with an advocacy-oriented approach, even if this brings the threats of physical violence Mann has in fact experienced.
Mann argues that, “it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.” Speaking about his colleague James Hansen’s public calls for a carbon tax, Mann posits that such a position is perfectly acceptable: “There is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.”
Mann and Hansen are not alone in their belief that the role of issue advocate can be appropriate for scientists. Gavin Schmidt notes that as long as scientists do not misrepresent their work and are transparent with their results and processes, issue advocacy is perfectly acceptable. Perhaps most importantly, if scientists are to be effective issue advocates, it is critical that they make clear the lines between their science and their personal opinions.
However, Schmidt does not frame the morality of issue advocacy quite as starkly as Mann. In a recent speech to the American Geophysical Union, he argued: “Scientists should have the right to advocate for anything they want, as long as it’s absolutely clear that they speak for themselves. They also have the right to not advocate for anything at all.”
For the philosopher Michael Nelson, the choice by scientists to become issue advocates is their democratic right as citizens. He calls the surrender of this right, “un-democratic, unhealthy, and un-American.” Nelson believes that it is the duty of scientists to use their advanced knowledge of a topic for the betterment of society, and if that means promoting one policy over another, then so be it.
Like Schmidt, Nelson also echoes the paramount importance of drawing distinct lines between science and opinion, as well as the necessity to be transparent in one’s work. Furthermore, Nelson sees an opening for universities, particularly public ones, to engage in issue advocacy. He believes actively working for the better of the public and in a more visible way could be beneficial to such institutions. Finally, Nelson departs from Pielke’s view of federal agencies as science arbiters and sees a role for them as issue advocates as well. He explains, “…if federal employees are not working on behalf of the well-being of the public what are they doing?”
Honest Brokers and Trusted Community Voices
As we have already seen, scientists such as Susan Solomon and Tamsin Edwards, are likely to disagree with the sentiments of Mann, Schmidt, and Nelson. Apart from their beliefs that scientists should be morally objective, issue advocacy also poses real risks. Pielke shares a similar concern, explaining that scientists need to make sure that the public does not view them as serving special interests. “Groups with otherwise conflicting interests each look to science to enhance their political standing,” he writes in The Honest Broker. “The result is that political battles are played out in the language of science, often resulting in policy gridlock and the diminishment of science as a resource for policy-making.”
Indeed, Pielke further notes that when scientists act as issue advocates, scientific uncertainty can be used to discredit a scientist’s position. Thus, we come to Pielke’s final role for scientists, that of the honest broker of policy alternatives. This position can ameliorate some of the concerns associated with issue advocacy, while still engaging with policy options in a way that the pure scientist and science arbiter do not.
According to Pielke, “The honest broker of policy alternatives engages in decision-making by clarifying and, at times, seeking to expand the scope of choices available to decision- makers.” In this model, a group of experts attempts to identify and contextualize a broad menu of potential policy options to solve a problem. This differs from issue advocates, who only discuss their favored options rather than a broader portfolio.
Pielke further explains that honest brokers are often part of an interdisciplinary group or committee of experts, because it can be difficult for a lone scientist to present all available options, and a variety of expert perspectives can also help prevent stealth issue advocacy from occurring.
So in the case of climate change, rather than strongly advocating for a carbon tax and investment in solar and wind as is the case in many of the reports by environnemental groups, experts authoring a report in the mold of honest brokers would discuss not only these options but also a diversity of others including government innovation strategies; resilience measures; and “hard” technologies such as nuclear and carbon capture and storage. In presenting a diverse rather than narrow portfolio of options, they would let the policy-makers and the public decide which option is most appropriate.
Arizona State University’s Daniel Sarewitz is a proponent of the honest broker role; and takes it a step further in arguing for the inclusion of public consultation early on in the expert decision-making process, especially as they relate to innovative new technologies. He explains that it is impossible for any expert to be fully informed of the benefits and trade-offs of emerging technologies. Therefore, scientists need to let the rest of society have a say in policy formulation and governance.
He cites the creation of nuclear power in the United States as an example of a case in which the honest broker role combined with public consultation would have led to a more effective outcome. U.S. nuclear power was largely developed based on the advice of scientific experts and industry with little public engagement, resulting in an unnecessarily costly and politically unpopular fleet of reactors. The results of this are still evident today, as the development and building of new nuclear power plants is so unpopular that it is a political non-starter.
In a 2009 article at Slate magazine titled “Chill Out: Climate Scientists Are Getting a Little Too Angry for their Own Good,” communication researcher Matthew Nisbet also argues on behalf of a version of the honest broker model. He explains that as part of human psychology, it is natural for scientists to misjudge how much of an audience impact conservative attacks on their work might have, and therefore exaggerate and over-react to incidents such as “Climategate.” Rather than turning to liberal blogs and cable news to respond to these feared attacks and potentially only deepening polarization, climate scientists would be better served by working through their universities to create “opportunities for greater public interaction, dialogue, and partnerships in communities across the country.”
As discussed, there are a variety of roles that scientists can fill as they interact with policy-makers. All are important and necessary for a robust decision-making process, but scientists need to think critically and be upfront about the roles they adopt. Often, a scientist’s personal beliefs or understanding of a threat determine which path they choose. Our media-echo chamber may cause them to feel as though partisan opponents are closing in, or they may believe a danger is so grave they must speak out.
Others see a scientist’s place in the laboratory or out in the field, where there are fewer distractions and challenges to authority and reputation. The urgency of the climate threat has forced many scientists to reconsider what role is appropriate for themselves and their institutions, further complicating science’s already messy relationship to policy-making.
In order to maintain their integrity and safeguard public trust, scientists must carefully consider the issues raised by Pielke, Nelson, Schmidt, Mann, Sarewitz and others, reflecting upon how their own values, goals, and professional roles relate to them.
--Greg Alvarez is an MA student in the School of International Service at American University studying Global Environmental Politics. This post is adapted from a short analysis paper he wrote in Professor Matthew Nisbet’s course on “Communication, Culture and the Environment.”
Nisbet, M.C. (2013, Nov. 26). A New Model for Climate Advocacy. Ensia magazine.
Tamsin Edwards, “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies,” The Guardian, July 31, 2013.
Bruce Lieberman, “Gavin Schmidt…Speaking up and speaking out,” The Yale Forum n Climate Change & the Media, December 12, 2013.
Michael Mann, “If You See Something, Say Something,” The New York Times, January 17, 2014, accessed February 11, 2014.
Matthew Nisbet, “Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Advocacy?,” Age of Engagement Blog: ThinkBig.com, September 13, 2010,
Matthew Nisbet, “Chill Out,” Slate, March 18, 2010.
Andrew Revkin, “Fresh Views on Climate Scientists as Advocates,” The New York Times, January 19, 2014.
Daniel Sarewitz, “World view: Not by experts alone,” Nature, 466, 688, August 4, 2010.
About Matthew Nisbet
Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at American University, Washington, DC. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses at American University, including those on Communication, Culture and the Environment; Media, Technology and Democracy; and the Civic Science Lab, a short course for scientists. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.