Dr. Andrew Dessler shakes hands with U.S. President Bill Clinton. Dr. Dessler served as a Senior Policy Analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for the last year of the Clinton administration. Photo: atmo.tamu.edu

By John Abraham and Andrew Dessler
6 August 2013

(The Guardian) – We scientists talk to each other … a lot. Usually it is about breaking studies or techniques that can help us better understand the world around us. On occasion, however, we talk about how to communicate our science to the world. We believe that our research is critical to helping us all make better decisions now to preserve the future for all of us.

During one such conversation I had with a colleague, Dr. Andrew Dessler, we got onto the topic of how scientists should advocate to the general public. In particular, we focused on a shortsighted article recently published in the Guardian. After our conversation. Dr. Dessler wrote his thoughts which are contained below as part of this blog post. Take it away, Andy…

"In a recent Guardian post, Dr. Tamsin Edwards argued that scientists should scrupulously avoid advocating for particular policies — going so far as to say that this is a "moral obligation".

The foundation of Dr. Edward's argument is that the general public is too dumb to understand the difference between a scientist talking science and one advocating policy. While it is certainly true that most members the general public are not scientific experts, they are experts in figuring out who the experts are and in discerning what the practical importance of expert opinion is. Arguing that we must filter what we tell the general public so as not to confuse them is patronizing and greatly underestimates their intelligence and abilities.

Given that values play a huge role in policy debates, it is certainly true that scientists have no special claim to authority in policy debates. And the fact that, decades after scientists recognized the global-warming problem, we still don't have a climate policy in place, is evidence of this. But this does not mean that scientists therefore have NO authority. The values held by scientists are as legitimate as the values of any other citizen and scientists have as much of a right to advocate for policy as anyone else. The argument that I gave up my rights to engage in the policy debate when I became an expert in the science is, to me at least, both offensive and absurd.

A more interesting question is whether, from a practical standpoint, scientists do more harm than good when they advocate for policies. For example, Dr. Edwards claims that "much climate skepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence." She certainly may believe this, but it's wrong. Cognitive research has shown that views on climate science can be almost entirely explained by an individual's values — e.g., their view on the proper role of government.

The argument advanced by skeptics that "scientists are political advocates" is simply a post hoc rationalization for rejecting the expert opinion of the world's scientific community, thereby allowing the skeptics to reach a conclusion consistent with their values. If scientists stopped advocating for policies, skeptics would simply come up with another excuse to reject expert scientific opinion. Blaming scientists for skeptical irrationality is hopelessly naive. [more]

For some climate scientists, speaking out is a moral obligation


  1. Dan Pangburn said...

    Many (if not all) really missed the boat when they looked at TSI, didn’t see any effect and ruled sunspots out as a factor. If they had thought of conservation of energy and looked at the sunspot time-integral they might have discovered what actually drives the average global temperature. Change to the level of non-condensing ghg has no significant effect.

    One corroborating study is described at http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2010/01/blog-post_23.html . This shows a trajectory based on the sunspot number time-integral beginning in 1610. The decline of the LIA and rapid rise since approximately 1941 are evident.

    After about 1895, accurate temperature measurements were made world wide and revealed the oscillations above and below the sunspot-number-time-integral-trajectory. The oscillations are caused by the net effect of ocean cycles (which are dominated by the PDO). The resulting graph and physics-based equation that accurately (R2=0.9) calculates the measured anomaly trend are shown at http://climatechange90.blogspot.com/2013/05/natural-climate-change-has-been.html

    Several other informative links are in the References at http://consensusmistakes.blogspot.com/

  2. Jim said...

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for dropping in. To my mind, Foster and Rahmstorf (2011) show conclusively that no solar variation (including sunspots) can be responsible for the 20th-21st century warming trend.


  3. Dan Pangburn said...

    Jim - The main mistake in their study was using TSI (which doesn't correlate) instead of the sunspot time-integral which correlates very well.

    Another factor can be excused because of timing. The data available to them ended in 2010 which included the peak of the last el Niño. Including the data to the present substantially changes things. The graphs in http://endofgw.blogspot.com/ are through May, 2013.

    Realize that everything that was not explicitly considered in the equation in 'climatechange90' must find room in that 10% that remains unexplained.  

  4. Jim said...

    The problem with explaining the 20th-21st century warming trend with solar variations is that you must invoke an extraordinary sensitivity to tiny TSI fluctuations while simultaneously invoking an extraordinary (and unphysical) insensitivity to the enormous excursion in atmospheric CO2.  

  5. Dan Pangburn said...

    Jim - If you would look at my stuff you would see that I did NOT invoke TSI and did NOT invoke insensitivity to CO2.  

  6. Jim said...

    But you are invoking an extraordinary insensitivity to CO2 by claiming that the 20th-21st century temperature trend isn't driven by rising atmospheric CO2. For your idea to work, you have to overturn what we've known about radiative thermodynamics since Fourier, nearly two centuries ago. Why wouldn't dumping 500 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere change its radiative properties?

    I always recommend reading a good college text on climate science, usually Principles of Planetary Climate by Ray Pierrehumbert, because I had a small part in editing it. With your degree in mechanical engineering, I think you'll find it particularly illuminating.  


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