Can scientists have opinions on policy?

This post is in response to an opinion piece in The Guardian this week, Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies that is written by a climate scientist, Tamsin Edwards. It has spawned a number of blog posts already so I probably don’t particularly need to add my own but being the opinionated person that I am, I can’t resist.

Basically Edwards is arguing that climate scientists should remain completely neutral and impartial and should not get involved with discussions of policy. She says,

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 completely disagree with her. Climate scientists are people in our society too and they will face the impact of climate change just as much as the rest of us. They therefore have a right to express opinions about policy and to lobby government for what they think ought to be done.

It may be that Tamsin Edwards doesn’t have an opinion about appropriate policy or that she doesn’t want to express it and this is fine. I can certainly understand why a climate scientist wouldn’t wish to publicly express their views on policy as this tends to lead to malicious attacks from contrarian bloggers. But scientists should be free to advocate for what they believe in and it is my view that we should encourage them to do so.

Health professionals frequently advocate for policy that would improve public health like plain packaging on cigarettes packets or healthy school dinners for our children so why is it any different for climate scientists to push for policy that they feel would have the best outcome for our planet? We need everyone’s voice on important issues like this especially the voice of people who understand it better than everyone else. Otherwise we’re left with the opinion of our local hairdresser or worse, someone like me who is not a climate scientist and who struggles to understand what the hell the scientists are trying to say in a scientific paper which could arguably have been written in a different language. The more I think about it the more ludicrous I think it is that the very people who devote their life to studying and researching the science have to then sit back and watch while the rest of us make the tough decisions.

Here’s what some other bloggers are saying about this:

Wottsupwiththatblog has written a good post about this called Science and Policy. One of the comments by Tom Curtis says that it is morally offensive to suggest that certain members of society cannot “participate in political debate”.  I agree with him.

Climate scientist James Annan also blogs about it saying, “I don’t see why climate scientists should abandon their democratic rights (one could even consider them responsibilities) just by virtue of having some slightly better understanding of some aspects of how the world works.” I agree with this too.

Sou at HotWhopper has also waded in with a post, “Okay I’ll bite…should scientists be “neutral”?”.  Sou points out that the very people applauding Edwards’ article, climate science critics like Judith Curry, are themselves very vocal in discussions of policy.

I just want to say one more thing. In the quote above, Tamsin Edwards says that advocating for policy will “leave us open to criticism”. What’s wrong with that? Criticism that is constructive can contribute to the debate in a positive way. I don’t mean the malicious attacks by contrarian bloggers. These aren’t constructive criticisms at all and they succeed only in polarising the debate. Criticism that is polite and rational can add something valuable to this debate and may even help foster some creative solutions.

14 responses to “Can scientists have opinions on policy?”

  1. I tried to be quite balanced in my post and also explain some of what I thought the nuances in the argument were. However, as you explain quite nicely here, it is probably quite simple. Expecting scientists to disengage from society and remain neutral – despite the evidence – is really just absurd.

  2. Here’s a thought experiment.

    Suppose climate scientist Jim Hansen had a doppelganger, Jon Hansen, who was of equal expertise on the science of climate change but naive with respect to sociobiology. Jon thinks that a substantially warmer world would provide much more food capacity for humanity and generally be a very good thing. He advocates placing heavy taxes on solar and wind power, subsidising coal and paying frackers a bounty in proportion to the amount of methane their wells leak into the air.

    I wonder how climate science critics would respond to this.

    In advocating his position Jon is stepping outside his area of climate science expertise. He is surely entitled to do this but his opinion in this regard may carry no more weight than the legendary “Disgusted” of Tunbridge Wells. This tends to annoy scientists who are used to their opinions being respected.

    Then there is the real life case of Bjørn Lomborg, who accepts the climate science but thinks that the effect of higher global temperatures has been overrated, and that there are more important problems facing humanity. Since Lomborg has assembled panels of top economists who have supported his position, it could be argued that it carries more weight regarding what to do, than that of a climate scientist, be he Jim or Jon.

    His Copenhagen Consensus series of conferences has asked this: given that there is a large sum ($75 billion at the 2012 conference) that might be spent on addressing climate change or might be spent on something else, from a welfare economics perspective, how should these funds be used to best benefit humanity at large? Addressing climate change comes nowhere near the top.

    Lomborg has come in for pretty vicious attack by the climate science movement, which has largely buried rational discussion of his thesis. (In this his attackersare guilty of the same irrationality that they accuse denialists of exhibiting.) I am sympathetic to Lonborg’s postion except for one major flaw. It discusses the best way to spend $75 billion, but there is no $75 billion there waiting to be spent. In the meantime governments and other players are accepting that, even if Lomborg thinks that there are more pressing problems, climate change is a desirable thing to do something about.

    • Your hypothetical Jon Hansen would no doubt be applauded by climate science critics in the same way they applaud scientists like Fred Singer who have no issue with stepping into debates of policy.

      I think there are more problems with Lomborg’s analysis than just an absence of $75 billion. I’ve read that he underestimates the cost of climate change, particularly for the world’s poor, that he discounts the interests of future people and that it’s questionable whether we can really solve all the problems of the world with $75 billion.

    • MikeM, I also think that your analogy is missing the fundamental point in this argument. The suggestion is not that climate scientists should be allowed to have opinions about policy and that these should be taken seriously. The suggestion is simply that there is nothing wrong with scientists having opinions. Firstly, they are full members of society and secondly they happen to be (or largely are) experts in their field. Not allowing them to express their opinions would do us a dis-service in my opinion. However, they should be open and honest and the weight given to their views about the scientific evidence and the weight given to their views about policy should be different. This is not even a suggestion that climate scientists should be given any special place in the policy debate. It is very simply that regarding it as wrong for a climate scientist (or any scientist) to express an opinion about policies related to their science area is mis-guided.

    • I thought the panel of economists was Richard Tol and that Lomborg’s use of DICE has been repudiated by Nordhaus.


      Suppose every scientist was a clone of Tamsin.

      Imagine the empty op-eds and the empty panels.

      A would finally be A.

  3. But Lomborg is still entitled to his opinion.

    The situation is different from that of health professionals who advocate curbing use of tobacco. Nobody except extreme libertarians would argue that if a person chooses to die an early death from lung cancer or heart disease in exchange for the pleasures of smoking, they should be encouraged to do so. That is not a debate that we actively hear. On the other hand the course of climate change, its ultimate effects and what to do about it are less clear and there is debate about the urgency of the problem. There is interest in trying to find geo-engineering abatement measures (which Lomborg supports) – although in my opinion stretching a long bow.

    Lomborg’s 2012 panel of economists was not Richard Tol. It was Robert Mundell, Nancy Stokey, Thomas Schelling, Vernon Smith & Finn Kydland. Re Nordhaus & Lomborg, see Shermer,

    Whether or not $75 billion is sufficient to “solve all the problems of the world” (which is not what Lomborg actually says) – that is irrelevant. There is no $75 billion. A company established to build wind farms or manufacture solar panels is not going to stop what it is doing in favour of distributing micro-nutrients to the world’s poor just because Lomborg thinks it’s a “better” thing to do.

    • “Whether or not $75 billion is sufficient to “solve all the problems of the world” (which is not what Lomborg actually says) – that is irrelevant. ”

      I went and searched for what he said exactly and I am a little wrong. He puts aside $100 billion per year to provide clean drinking water, sanitation, food, health and education for the world’s poor.

      Peter Singer, who has devoted much of his life to helping the world’s poor disagrees with him on this point. Singer says,

      I wish that Mr. Lomborg were right that $100 billion a year could provide the world’s poor with clean drinking water, sanitation, food, health and education, but that figure is wildly optimistic.

      Lomborg’s view also requires a giant leap in political optimism and as you have said previously (I think), rich nations have had decades to help the world’s poor but have done very little. Why should it be any different now? I think Lomborg’s whole argument is to “facilitate moral corruption”, as Stephen Gardiner describes in his book, A Perfect Moral Storm. He goes on to say that it would look very different if the alternative to spending money on climate change was actually an enormous party for the world’s rich, but I think this is basically what we’re doing anyway.

      Of course Lomborg is entitled to his opinion, I just think it’s wrong. Spending money on climate change and alleviating world poverty are not mutually exclusive. Even he says we’re rich enough to do both. But the impact of climate change will be unfairly dumped on the world’s poor and I don’t think he adequately accounts for this.

      I also disagree with you on the point about health professionals arguing for something that is more clear-cut that the impact of climate change. Rising sea levels and higher temperatures are not under debate. What is being debated is the time scale at which the full impact of these changes is likely to be felt. I don’t think it is significant whether the people 50 years from now or the people living 150 years from now are the ones who bear the brunt of them, their interests are of equal importance. Even if it turns out that most climate scientists are wrong and that the changes we face will be minimal, I don’t think we can be reckless in the hope that this is the case. We have to consider the worst case scenario as well as the best. People of the future will not thank us if we bet on minimal impacts and act accordingly.

      Lomborg also argues that people of the future will be richer and so better able to deal with the problem but I think there’s an ethical case for whoever broke it ought to fix it. Also, future generations may not necessarily be richer and the world’s poor is not necessarily going to be richer than the average Australian 50 or 100 years from now. Even if they are richer, this does not mean we can inflict on them whatever we want.

    • MikeM,

      Just saw this comment. Sorry for the delay. I’ll make two comments.


      First, this:

      > Lomborg’s 2012 panel of economists was not Richard Tol.

      You’re right. My jest was based on Lomborg’s Congress testimony:

      Click to access Congress_testimony_April_2013_3.pdf

      where you can see that Richard Tol is an important part of Bjørn’s clique, in a mathematical sense, as Edward Wegman would say.

      I believe that Bart R raises an important issue with that testimony:

      Dr. Nordhaus has specifically, pointedly and emphatically asserted in public that Dr. Lomborg’s use of DICE is incorrect, that the claims of current net benefits are completely false, and that Dr. Lomborg is attempting to apply principles of cost-benefit analyses with inappropriate tools. As Dr. Nordhaus crafted the tools, one would hope Dr. Lomborg has by now made appropriate adjustments to his notes and won’t be in the position of committing scientific fraud (Economics is still a science, right?) in front of a committee of Congress.

      Now, I don’t know how this testimony coheres with what the 2012 panel says. I have not read his book yet either, but will, since they sent it to me gratis.

      Let’s say that I don’t expect Lomborg to reinvent himself from 2013 to 2012.


      Which leads us to my second comment:

      > There is no $75 billion.

      I’m not sure what this means. Occupy Irak rakes into the trillions. The market of pet food in the United States circa 2010 has been evaluated at 65 billions:

      Seinfeld reruns raked 3.1 billions:

      And that’s just the reruns.

      The health and the security issues surrounding climate change stand in another scale altogether. In fact, Lomborg’s pet argument may very well rest on a false dilemma. If I may quote myself:

      In my opinion, this argument sells well because it combines three ingredients. First, it reminds something that is plausible: we must tackle other societal challenges, which are important and less expensive. Second, it provides a dilemma: either we tackle these challenges or suppress carbon emissions. Third, this dilemma implies that if you are for suppressing carbon emissions, you are against tackling other societal challenges.

      There is an obvious problem with this argument. If these important societal challenges are inexpensive, tackling them should not prevent us from suppressing carbon emissions. When trying to put forth a dilemma, one usually tries to argue that doing both prongs is impossible. Lomborg can’t do that, since he wants to convey the idea that not trying first to solve important societal problems would be inhumane, as they cost next to nothing compared to cutting carbon emission.


      I agree with many of Lomborg’s recommendations, especially on health issues. But they do seem independent from his position on climate change. Whatever one’s position on climate change, public health issues should always be welcome.

      There’s no need to cool, lukewarm, or warm it to start saving the world, if all it takes is 75 billions.

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