How Loud to Squawk

The question of scientific neutrality vs scientific obligation to the greater good comes up constantly.

As the title and explanatory anecdote of this blog allude to, one of the most irritating aspects of denialism (which is to say, about deliberate lying regarding science) is the suggestion that controversy advances one’s career. In fact, it is always safer to pick the strict neutrality position for someone pursuing a conventional career in science. People like Joe Romm have a different career path; people like me, not conventionally ambitious, have less to lose. The career scientists who are the mainstay of RealClimate, though, get no advantage for their efforts: time spent on taking a position, even a position that is totally in line with scientific evidence, is time at best wasted in advancing a career in geophysics.

(It may be different in biology, particularly wildlife ecology, for reasons which are interesting.)

The usual person who comes to mind in this context is James Hansen, who has clearly become an outspoken advocate. Even some of his peer reviewed papers have a tinge of advocacy. Is this the right thing to do?

On the one hand, one wants a body of knowledge that is reliable and as untainted by custom, culture and opinion as is possible. That is what makes science science. On the other hand, eventually matters reach a point where one has to begin to insist that society is grossly mishandling a situation, is severely out of touch with the extent of risk that is happening.

I received via email a pointer to an interesting debate on this subject involving my correspondent and the the Texas State Climatologist, who is a meteorology faculty member at Texas A&M and a blogger at the Houston Chronicle.

The question is to what extent the State Climatologist’s job is to rub the government’s nose in the mess it is leaving on the carpet, fully aware that doing so may lose one the title and the modest funding that I am guessing goes with it. To suggest that this is part of the role of the State Climatologist is itself interesting; certainly that is not the traditional role of that position. A case can be made. On the other hand, if the SC is so outspoken as to lose his or her position, the replacement is likely to err on the side of caution.

Max Planck found himself in a similar quandary. The question of the extent to which to defend Einstein and Haber as contributors to physics in the light of a certain lack of respect from the German government for people of Jewish descent turned out to be a major theme in his later life. He avoided speaking out. Wikipedia has the following anecdote:

Hahn asked Planck to gather well-known German professors in order to issue a public proclamation against the treatment of Jewish professors, but Planck replied, “If you are able to gather today 30 such gentlemen, then tomorrow 150 others will come and speak against it, because they are eager to take over the positions of the others.”[6] Under Planck’s leadership, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG) avoided open conflict with the Nazi regime, except concerning Fritz Haber. Planck tried to discuss the issue with Adolf Hitler but was unsuccessful.

All of this is discussed in detail in the remarkable biography of Planck: The Dilemmas of an Upright Man (J. L. Heilbron, 2000).

Science, properly construed, is neutral, and the main goal of the scientific community must be to protect that neutrality. The question is what is the right thing for an individual scientist or a scientific community to do when society’s relationship to that neutral science goes awry. Such quandaries go back to Copernicus. I don’t think we have an easy answer.


  1. Sure, the public health people and evolutionary biologists have been worrying for decades about the agricultural use of antibiotics and the spread of disease resistance. Ah. This reminds me of the Tyrone Hayes & frog feminization fiasco several years ago, speaking of openness in data. Alex Avery wrote a hit piece at Tech Central Station about Hayes' methods not being reproducible in the Indy-funded lab (Monsanto-funded, IIRC). Funny thing was, Hayes (being a biologist) wrote the procedure in the paper (common in the discipline). The Indy-funded lab didn't even bother to reproduce Hayes' results, but claimed that they couldn't reproduce them.I went back and forth with Avery, pointing out at every turn he was lying through his teeth and was full of it. He claimed I worked for Hayes' lab, and apparently Avery wasn't smart enough to figure out I was reading the two papers for my replies to Avery. Anyway, the strawman about transparency in science and record sharing and all that is certainly trumped up, and folks who use it obviously never had a science class with a lab at the college level (and thus, implicitly, can't speak to the issue). Best,D

  2. Sure, the public health people and evolutionary biologists have been worrying for decades about the agricultural use of antibiotics and the spread of disease resistance.Asking the wholesale ag suppliers for total amounts purchased, sold into commerce and applied in agriculture would provide a very useful database.You want to see scientists speaking up, look at any field where the natural world is changing the fastest under human influence. Just e.g.:

  3. Bernie, if you have credentials, go ahead. Michael, I’m oversimplifying to make a point. I agree with your past statements that sloppiness may not be uncommon, and change is good. But the implicit assertion that climate science has something to hide is, simply, BS. Best,D

  4. Dano:That Colorado air is going to your head! You are denying the reality of what has been at best sloppy practices and a lack of adherence to stated policies by journals and funding institutions. MT at least argued that meeting these requirements was onerous, he never suggested that the archiving policies were consistently adhered to.

  5. Bernie,if a scientist wants data, they call the PI and ask for it and the PI sends it along. What’s the problem? The problem is that a few with an agenda have constructed a false problem. I have contacted dozens of first authors and never – never – that is, never, have they refused to comply with a request. Never. Never. Ever. Please. You have been duped into believing there is a problem. And please don’t trot out the rare situations where one a-hole with an obvious agenda got the runaround with a grad student or delay over a holiday. But I agree that reading newspaper comments in certain subjects is depressing. The level of knowledge about how it works is depressing and leads to false perceptions.Best,D

  6. Dano:Equating “those subject to that advocacy” to “joe six pack” is condescending, elitist and silly. Scientific journals and funding agencies already have instituted their own transparency and accessibility requirements and follow a similar logic – in their case they implicitly are defining “those subject to that advocacy” as other specialists. If the scientists choses to broaden their advocacy to the public at large, do you think the argument for transparency and accessibility somehow disappears or becomes stronger?Are you really arguing against transparency and accessibility?

  7. Another thought just occurred regarding the role of scientists as advocates. If scientists assume this responsibiity then the basis for their advocacy must become more accessible and transparent to those subject to that advocacy. I thought this line of argumentation was put to bed. Apparently it moves in its sleep.This premise is based upon the public being able to judge the work. If this were true, then our course of specialization needs to be reversed, as we were wrong about everyone’s ability at absorbing – Jefferson-like – huge amounts of material and keeping it straight in the modern world. That is: Joe six-pack is as likely to be able to judge the robustness of, oh, Hansen’s work as he is able to judge the ability of Mormon tea to absorb phosphorus in sandy soil under an altered hydrological regime. Lookit how amateurs are going about “proving” that the USHCN sites are “biased” – driving around and taking pictures. Sure. That is not to say that all is perfect in the world. That is to say that the “Google Fallacy” – Googling something and five minutes later one is an expert – is at play here. Best,D

  8. Another thought just occurred regarding the role of scientists as advocates. If scientists assume this responsibiity then the basis for their advocacy must become more accessible and transparent to those subject to that advocacy. Failing this, scientists as advocates are simply saying that we should trust them because they are different from all other advocates and are not subject to the natural human tendency to see reality as they would like it to be rather than as it is.

  9. I guess the issue is whether the scientist should play a role akin to a lawyer i.e., advocate, or a judge. I have no problem if they play either role, but it is tough to play both on the same case.

  10. Mike Powell:In the case of global warming there’s an additional complication. There are scientists, and then there are the policy-makers (well, politicians). So the thinking is that the scientists should just report their findings dispassionately and leave it to the politicians to push the correct policies forward and turn them into laws.To use your analogy, it’ll be somewhat (but not completely) like a newspaper reporter seeing an unconscious man on the sidewalk.

  11. This is an interesting topic. I don’t have a definitive answer either, but I think there’s a sense in which scientists fall victim to apathy as a consequence of shared responsibility. If a lone person comes across an unconscious man on the sidewalk, that person is very likely to attempt to render aid and/or summon help. However, an unconscious man on a crowded sidewalk is less likely to receive aid from any given passerby. I can’t remember the name for this psycho-social behavior, but it stems from the reduced personal responsibility we all feel when we’re in a crowd.We need to ask ourselves, though, “What is the ethical thing to do?” I’d say the ethical thing to do is to render aid regardless of how many other people are around.My thought is that because there are so many scientists involved in climate-change-related research we have a circumstance similar to the crowded sidewalk. They all see the seriousness of what faces our civilization, but because there are so many others who share the responsibility to speak up, the responsibility for any one scientist is diluted down to a level where it’s easy to ignore most of the time.But what is the ethical thing to do? Is it ethical to let the man lay unconscious on the sidewalk simply because there are many other people around? Is it ethical to rely on some other scientist to raise the alarm simply because there are so many other scientists involved?To avoid this “shared responsibility trap” I think we each need to act according to how we’d act if we were alone. In other words, if you were the only person on Earth who understood that human-induced climate change is a serious problem, wouldn’t you be squawking pretty damn loud to anyone who’d listen?-mrp

  12. There are two questions here: (1) what it means to be “neutral” in the face of overwhelming evidence towards one side; (2) how one should handle the situation where speaking the truth may cost him his job.I just scribbled some quick thoughts on (1). Regarding (2), apparently Hansen’s response to influence from the higher-ups was to simply ignore it, and it worked, though perhaps he was just lucky; I suppose the best that can be done is to hope that public pressure (in the right direction) will save the day.

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