Chime In: Should Scientific Societies Speak Out on Public Policy?

I recently had a letter published in Physics Today, taking issue with another reader who wrote that “pronouncements concerning global warming issued by the Royal Society and the American Physical Society in 2007 indicate that some societies appear set on usurping science.”

He broadened his argument to claim “For a committee, however distinguished its membership, to pontificate on scientific matters is not only hubris, it is dangerous. Let individual scientists speak and let committees be silent.”

I disagree both on the specific issue and in general. Science advances by developing a consensus while keeping an open mind about alternate interpretations and new data. When the consensus suggests a need for changes in public policy, the view of a committee of distinguished scientists carries a lot more weight than that of a few individuals, no matter whether they agree or disagree with the consensus view.

You can read the exchange of letters by following the links above. My full letter is reproduced below.

(From Physics Today, September 2010, page 9. Copyright 2010, American Institute of Physics. This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Institute of Physics.)

I respectfully disagree with B. K. Ridley’s conclusions about the role of prestigious scientific societies in areas of major societal consequence (PHYSICS TODAY, July 2010). Ridley argues that the Royal Society and the American Physical Society should have remained silent on the issue of climate change. My view is that not taking a position would be the height of social irresponsibility and a disservice to science.

The political discourse on climate change needs to be informed by science’s best tradition of evidence-based consensus and openness to alternate interpretations. Unfortunately, a cacophony of vested interests has dominated the media and the blogosphere, often giving a false impression of balance by understating the breadth of support for the consensus opinion and overemphasizing dissenting views. The consequences have been serious for such international policymaking efforts as the unproductive 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

If we had time to let nature run its course, we could trust the scientific process to sort things out. Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, many broadly accepted climate models predict dire economic and social consequences if governments and individuals do not take action.

Scientific societies would be derelict by not speaking out once their internal deliberations determine that such consequences lie ahead. Individual scientists who disagree with the societies’ conclusions are free–in fact are obligated by scientific integrity–to put forward alternate interpretations. In that way, the societies and the individual dissenters would work together, to quote Ridley, “to serve and promote science.”

I offer an example from medicine. According to Ridley’s logic, the American Medical Association and other medical societies should have remained silent as evidence grew about the harm caused by cigarette smoking. Had they done so, they would have violated their principles as healers, and millions of people would have lived shorter, less healthy lives.

[NOTE ADDED 1 October 2010: The Royal Society has issued an important new report on climate change.]

9 thoughts on “Chime In: Should Scientific Societies Speak Out on Public Policy?”

  1. The trouble with forming a consensus is which came first, understanding or agreement.

    When agreeing on a science that is not your own, do you first ensure that you know enough about that science to determine if it is legitimate? Or do you assume the scientists that create the work are correct in all or most of their conclusions? Are you sure that the experts that agree are independent enough to arrive at the same conclusion unprompted? Or are they too independent and they have no real point of overlap? Are they just assuming their colleagues are right?

    Is the science developed enough to justify a consensus? Does the scientific community encourage divergent viewpoints? Or does it stress conformity? Are dissenting ideas seen as a dilution of the central message and as such unwelcome?

    If the standard practice for peer review is to present work without data or code, who but the author knows if it is honest? How can the author be sure he/she hasn’t made a mistake? How can you? Where are the bodies set up to observe standards and punish infringements? Or are we to assume that scientists are infallible and unimpeachable?

    How do you word your consensus? With a field as immense as climate science, do you blithely agree with all of it (no caveats) or do you create a statement that is so vague as to be meaningless?

    The IPCC report is supposed to boil down the best information on AGW available but it is riddled with qualifiers, uncertainties and grey literature. The IAC review of the IPCC reports said:

    “authors reported high confidence in some statements for which there is little evidence. Furthermore, by making vague statements that were difficult to refute, authors were able to attach “high confidence” to the statements. The Working Group II Summary for Policy Makers contains many such statements that are not supported sufficiently in the literature, not put into perspective, or not expressed clearly.”

    How can you boil an already over reduced subject, down into a society standpoint? To then further pontificate on policy for which you are no more qualified than any other sector of society is an act of extreme hubris. Or maybe scientists don’t see a problem with that?

  2. TinyCO2 lists many important questions, as if the American Institute of Physics and the Royal Society did not consider them in their deliberations. When they decided that it was important to speak out as societies, they recognized they were placing the reputation of their membership behind their declarations.

    The Royal Society includes scientists in many fields, including atmospheric and climate scientists who have scrutinized the body of evidence for global warming and the scenarios that the evidence predicts.

    Likewise, since climate science includes plenty of physics, and since atmospheric physics and geophysics underlie most climate modeling, the American Institute of Physics brought similar expertise to the table.

    Both societies were therefore eminently qualified to judge the scientific consensus and the range of predictions, and both elected to speak out in the public interest.

    TinyCO2, are you arguing that the societies should remain silent when the consequences of the status quo are so great?

  3. You ask “as if the American Institute of Physics and the Royal Society did not consider them in their deliberations”. I ask, do you mean they considered all those things and decided they weren’t important? Or that they know that there is something seriously wrong with climate science but decided to jump on the band wagon anyway? I hope it’s the latter because what has shocked me most about climate science has been the low standard to which it has held itself accountable. To find that the rest of the scientific community consider those standards as acceptable would be a further shock.

    There is no body of evidence that clearly points to a dangerous amount of warming, only various facts and theories that have been programmed into a number of models. From those we are presented with projections of future climate. From my own experience of computers, it is possible to create any number of realistic worlds, none of which actually reflect reality. In climate, the sum of the parts do not add up to the whole, especially when most of the parts are only loosely understood or roughly measured. The more you learn about what they DON’T include in the models the more you doubt they are accurate. That’s even before you embark on the impossibility of modelling of chaotic systems. It might even mean that things are worse than they’ve predicted.

    Too much of climate science is shrouded in mystery, we (the public) only see snapshots of the work and those images have not been reassuring. Instead of showing a determination to exceed the highest standards expected of life altering industries (medicine, engineering, etc) we see sloppy work and a tendency to hide things. Only now, after a disastrous year of scandal, are the first steps being made towards that ‘robust’ body of work they’ve always talked about. I fear those steps will stumble to a halt. If the societies endorse climate science now, they endorse the bad practice too.

    Of course none of this negates the possibility that the planet is at risk and we should do something about it. I even agree. However, until the science is exemplary the solutions are guesses upon guesses. The public are not impressed by guesses. How far will those solutions go without public confidence?

    So, should the societies have a standpoint on AGW and it’s solutions? Sure, why not. Politicians, journalists, royalty, Hollywood actors and green advocacy groups are failing abysmally to persuade the public, why not add scientific societies that distinguished group.

  4. TinyCO2 writes: “I ask, do you mean they considered all those things and decided they weren’t important?”

    My reply is that they considered all the evidence and decided there were clear indications that global warming is real and caused by human activity. Even “Skeptical Environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg has changed his tune and conceded that the effect is real. Follow that link and you will find an article that begins

    With scientific data piling up showing that the world has reached its hottest-ever point in recorded history, global-warming skeptics are facing a high-profile defection from their ranks. Bjorn Lomborg, author of the influential tract “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” has reversed course on the urgency of global warming, and is now calling for action on “a challenge humanity must confront.”

    TinyCO2 also states: “There is no body of evidence that clearly points to a dangerous amount of warming, only various facts and theories that have been programmed into a number of models.”

    That is a red herring, as most science rests on models that are tested against observation. Climate models are based on well established formulas, but their major limitations are the data the goes into them and the computational limitations. The IPCC is not a research organization but rather is charged with assessing the climate science so that various governments and the UN can develop effective public policy.

    The IPCC’s assessment uses a set of broadly accepted climate models that vary in approach. Those models, and the data that go into them, are constantly being refined and updated.

    The IPCC’s charter puts stringent limits on its consensus. In fact, it was set up to prevent the kind of bandwagon thinking that TinyCO2 accuses the climate science community of following. That conservative approach has, in fact, produced a prediction of sea level rise that neglects dynamic melting (i.e. accelerating slippage of ice sheets into the oceans rather than just simple melting) and is likely to be much greater in the next IPCC report. Sea-level rise is probably the greatest concern for the world economy.

    In short, TinyCO2’s argument does not attack the evidence or the scientific techniques. It only attacks the approach.

    Even the recent “Climategate” flap, which has revealed very human flaws among the scientists and led to changes in IPCC procedures, has been shown to have no impact on the major recommendations and projections of the latest IPCC reports.

    Bottom line, the consensus is based on evidence, not bandwagon thinking, and we can no longer afford business as usual.

    I will close this rather long reply with a quotation from my chapter on climate modeling in my recent middle-grade book Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology (Twenty-First Century Books, 2010) (Copyright 2010 by Alfred B. Bortz):

    If the climate models are correct, humans are going to have to take steps to slow global warming. We’ll have to make major changes in the way we live—and quickly. To keep the CO2 levels down, we’ll have to stop burning so much fossil fuel. That will be difficult. We use those fuels for our homes, cars, factories, and most of our electricity.

    But those predictions are only from models, and models might be incorrect. Should we really worry so much about what those models tell us? How do we know whether to make major changes or keep going as we have been?

    To answer those questions, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The IPCC’s main job is to keep us from acting on bad information. It doesn’t rely on any single climate model. It looks at the predictions of the models from the world’s best climate scientists using the world’s most powerful computers.

    The IPCC models all agree that the world is warming dramatically. They also agree that climate change can create very serious problems. But they disagree on how soon and in which ways we will have to act to prevent them.

    World leaders would prefer more definite answers to make better decisions. But they realize that one set of questions often leads to another.

    Climate modelers have produced many important discoveries, but much more exploring lies ahead. The more they discover, the more likely we are to make decisions that are good for humanity—and for the world.

  5. I will fully admit that I’m not qualified to “attack the evidence or the scientific techniques”, though I could have a good go. I only attack the approach for two very good reasons.

    Firstly, it shouldn’t be random people who debate the science, it should be experts (including ones who are self taught like McIntyre). That debate should be public and well documented. Each and every point that crops up again and again, should be examined. Any data or code or research that is used should be freely and easily available. That debate should be hosted by an unbiased, international site (not RealClimate or Wattsupwiththat.) At the moment the sceptics are dominating the debate, largely because they’re the only ones having one. The Hockey Stick has become an emblem of how climate science works. Is that how you would have it perceived? Isn’t it time to throw open the doors to the rest of climate science to prove how much better it is than the CRU? Now some would say we haven’t the time or resources for all that, I’d say we can’t afford not to.

    And that comes to my second point. The current approach isn’t working!

    You can claim till you’re blue in the face that the science is fine, that the models actually work, that Climatgate had no impact, that the investigations cleared the CRU and that the IPCC is as strong as ever, but real facts indicate that interest in AGW is losing it’s fizz. Actually it never had that much support from the start. Do I feel a survey of the public coming up, showing how concerned they are about AGW? No, because any survey worth anything would examine what people do, not what they say and by that evidence there are only a handful of people who give a flip. Politicians may have been energised by the idea they would be saving the planet but they soon lose interest when they realise that any benefits will be seen long after they’re dead and the disadvantages hit their popularity now.

    If you are happy with the science as it stands, you are at liberty to cut your CO2 unilaterally. Believe me, no sceptic will stop you or anyone else. Indeed I would go so far as to say it would be beneficial for believers to lead the way. Perhaps the societies could ask their members to log their CO2 footprints and then commit to a sizeable reduction? One of us will be surprised by the results.

    In the comments of a blog, we can’t convince each other of our scientific standpoints but I would hope that you can see the need to address my doubts, if only because there a millions, maybe billions like me.

  6. Clearly TinyCO2 and I will never agree. Nature (and human activity) will ultimately settle the argument, though we will not be around to see it.

    But here’s a varied reading list for those who want to understand the issue. It is not one-sided, though it reflects my reason to accept the scientific consensus and reject the political posturing on both sides of the issue.

    Meanwhile, it would be nice if other people will chime in here with their comments on the original question. Should scientific societies speak out on issues of social importance, of which climate change is but one example?

  7. How do we have informed decision making if scientists don’t speak out. Unfortunately what we of the scientific community are n0t good at doing is having a clear simple message- putting stuff in a way the layman can digest. Hell some of us even scoff at the whole idea…. it’s dangerous to be so dismissive. We have a moral obligation and a pragmatic imperative to speak out . WHether it be on issues of science education or on specific issues within our fields.

    We are also a bit anal by nature which means we often lose the intent for the detail…. above is an all too common case in point… no offense to my clearly intelligent/ learned co-posters. Oh and we must remember that when commenting on things beyond our experties we too are laymen.

  8. Thanks for adding your voice, SZ.

    You are correct when you say “Hell some of us even scoff at the whole idea…. it’s dangerous to be so dismissive.”

    Consider the experiences of Carl Sagan, who was denied election to the National Academy of Sciences because he focused too much on outreach (see section “Sagan the Celebrity” in that link).

    I’m no Sagan, but I experienced the condescending attitude of colleagues when I realized that my natural audience was adolescents. I discussed that in my acceptance speech for the 2002 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for works intended for young readers.

    But there are also many other scientists who realize the importance of broadening their audience. Not everyone has to be involved in such communication, but there ought to be someone in a research group who appreciates that part of their effort and becomes more adept at speaking to the nonscientists who (a) want to know, (b) need to know even if they don’t think so, and (c) support scientific work through their taxes and will vote against science if they think they are being misled rather than informed.

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