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AGU talk on science and advocacy

Filed under: — gavin @ 23 December 2013

We have often discussed issues related to science communication on this site, and the comment threads frequently return to the issue of advocacy, the role of scientists and the notion of responsibility. Some videos from the recent AGU meeting are starting to be uploaded to the AGU Youtube channel and, oddly, the first video of a talk is my Stephen Schneider lecture on what climate scientists should advocate for (though actually, it mostly about how science communicators should think about advocacy in general since the principles are applicable regardless of the subject area):

The talk has provoked a number of commentaries from the Yale forum, Andy Revkin at DotEarth, Judith Curry and Bart Verhegggen – with varying degrees of comprehension of the main points.

There is a lot of overlap between my talk and those given by Stephen Schneider twenty and thirty years ago – in particular the video at the Aspen Global Change Institute on whether a scientist-advocate was an oxymoron, and in descriptions on his website. Though I also touch on newer discussions, such as those raised earlier this year by Tamsin Edwards in the Guardian and in subsequent twitter and blog conversations. Another relevant piece is the paper on bringing values and deliberation to science communication (Dietz, 2013)

What’s new today is that scientific communication (and scientists communicating) is no longer limited to a few top voices in the broadcast media, but rather to a much wider (and perhaps younger) cohort of scientists communicating at many different levels -via blogs, twitter, facebook, reddit etc as well as in the mainstream media. Issues that were merely academic to most scientists a few decades ago, are actually very real to many more now. A greater appreciation of what other scientists have previously said about advocacy is perhaps needed.

I will likely write this lecture up more formally, but in the meantime I’ll be happy to discuss the points or the implications in the comment section. Note that I at one point mistakenly credit Aristotle with a quote that actually came from Elbert Hubbard (thus are laid bare the dangers of finishing a new talk late the previous evening…).

While difficult, let’s keep the discussion about advocacy in general, rather than for or against advocacy of specific policies.


  1. T. Dietz, "Bringing values and deliberation to science communication", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, pp. 14081-14087, 2013.

177 Responses to “AGU talk on science and advocacy”

  1. 151
    Hank Roberts says:

    Gavin, I think you make clear implicitly but might want to speak directly to the difference between these:

    — advocacy by a scientist speaking as an individual
    — “advocacy science” to promote a predetermined conclusion.

    The latter is, I think, an attempt to apply the lawyer-advocate privilege* to scientists as well. That “advocacy”– doing everything for the client’s point of view — means ruling out of discussion, ignoring, or actively suppressing whatever’s not to the client’s benefit.

    The problem there is, to coin the phrase, in doing advocacy, the lawyer doesn’t know that he’s lying, or care, by definition in the system we use. The lawyer presents only material helpful to the cause being paid for, and actively tries to avoid any other material being known or allowed to be considered.

    An “advocacy scientist” may be
    — acting like a lawyer, not taking the science into account wherever it leads, but rather serving as a puppet to present only the material the lawyer allows,
    — lying

    Bringing the facts into the conversation cracks that shell. Isaac Asimov talked about that in Foundation

    … Obviously he had not seen the flaws in his own argument–but now that they had been shown to him, he refused to admit that they were flaws at all.
    Afterward, Hari had said to Leyel, “I’ve done him a favor.”
    “How, by giving him someone to hate?” said Leyel.
    “No. Before, he believed his own unwarranted conclusions. He had deceived himself. Now he doesn’t believe them.”
    “But he still propounds them.”
    “So–now he’s more of a liar and less of a fool. I have improved his private integrity. His public morality I leave up to him.”


  2. 152
    Radge Havers says:

    “science as such is value-free”

    Hm. It may be true that Mother Nature doesn’t care what party you belong to, but I tend to think of things like academic honesty and integrity, openness to serendipity, rigor, the desire for and acceptance of better answers over the demands of immature ego, etc. etc. as values that the scientific community needs to function. Otherwise ‘values’ is just another one of those empty words that puffed-up politicians love to flog.

  3. 153
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by Radge Havers — 1 Jan 2014 @ 1:21 PM

    Spot-on Radge!

    For this discussion it would be helpful to me if there were some kind of definition of political advocacy. I have read some overexcited folks who claimed that a scientist was being political when she said that if we wished to not have a warming world we all should stop generating so much fossil CO2.


  4. 154
    Phil Scadden says:

    Brian R:
    “Advocacy implies(correctly) that the advocate has a stake, financial or emotional or both, in the subject matter”

    Just about everyone has a stake in the consequences of AGW. If a scientist observed asteroid heading for planet; or a new superbug with dangerous potential, shouldn’t the scientist be advocating for measures to ameliorate the outcomes? It would be irresponsible to for science to be merely reporting and not advocating for action.

  5. 155
    Hank Roberts says:

    > just about everyone has a stake

    Not the bots, socks, and work-for-hire advocates, those
    who work for, echo or copypaste work for hidden masters.

  6. 156
    Hank Roberts says:

    Gavin, thank you for mentioning Elbert Hubbard. Despite many decades of reading, somehow, I’d never known his name. He wrote much I recognize having heard all my life.

    Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes a day. Wisdom consists of not exceeding the limit.

  7. 157

    #148–Good points, Ed. But I have to ask what the basis is for this assertion:

    “Contrary to popular belief, people in static and stone age civilizations were much less happy than we are today.”

    I can’t imagine that even the definitional issues are resolved sufficiently to make an objective judgment on such a claim–even if we had any reliable psychological data on ‘stone age civilizations.’ I’d also note that there seem to be just one choice for the deep future: at some point, zero energy growth is necessary for planetary civilization, regardless of specific issues such as climate change. If that is so, we’d better come to grips with a ‘static’ economy (at least in some respects.)

    As a final comment, it’s also true that ‘static’ is just one aspect: a wealthy society surely feels very differently about a ‘static’ economic future than a desperately poor one.

    But I’m thinking that this subthread is getting to be much more appropriate to a new Unforced Variations thread than the AGU one.

  8. 158
    Hank Roberts says:

    Contrariwise, everything has a stake, despite our legal system, which decades ago decided that decided trees and butterflies don’t have standing to ask protection.

    Among the externalized, insane costs of fossil fuel:
    killing off much of the natural living world.

    Don’t like the word ‘killing’? Call it “increasing selection pressure” — it’s already intense.

    Human-influenced climate change is an observed phenomenon affecting physical and biological systems across the globe.

    The majority of observed impacts are related to temperature changes and are located in the northern high- and mid-latitudes. However, new evidence is emerging that demonstrates that impacts are related to precipitation changes as well as temperature, and that climate change is impacting systems and sectors beyond the Northern Hemisphere.

    In this paper, we highlight some of this new evidence—focusing on regions and sectors that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) noted as under-represented—in the context of observed climate change impacts, direct and indirect drivers of change (including carbon dioxide itself), and methods of detection.

    We also present methods and studies attributing observed impacts to anthropogenic forcing. We argue that the expansion of methods of detection (in terms of a broader array of climate variables and data sources, inclusion of the major modes of climate variability, and incorporation of other drivers of change) is key to discerning the climate sensitivities of sectors and systems in regions where the impacts of climate change currently remain elusive.

    — Scientists, butterflies. Both reporting climate change.

  9. 159
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Emphasizing the best accepted science is not advocacy. It is education. Every scientist has a stake in ensuring decisions are made on the basis of the best science.

    There is no controversy over the proposition that we are warming the planet. There is no controversy over the proposition that there will be adverse consequences as a result of our warming the planet.
    There should be no controversy over the proposition that these adverse consequences should be mitigated effectively and economically.
    Insisting that mitigation be effective is not advocacy–it is being a responsible citizen and steward of the nation’s resources.

    It is only when one begins arguing for a particular policy among other likely viable policies that one is advocating.

  10. 160

    #151–Hank, that’s not quite correct. An attorney has an ethical obligation to be truthful in court:

    (Don’t know if that link will work; it’s supposed to point to ‘officer of the court.’)

    It’s fair game to try to exclude adverse evidence, as we all know, but lying in court could end a legal career–so an ‘advocate scientist’ who lied would be going well beyond the remit of an attorney.

  11. 161
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Asimov … Foundation

    Oops, I mis-cited: that bit above is from an anthology, “Foundation’s Friends” — from The Originist, by Orson Scott Card

  12. 162
    Hank Roberts says:

    > ethical obligation to be truthful

    But no ethical obligation to find out more than necessary to argue the points at issue, from the points of view of the client.

    Yes, an attorney who realizes “my client is lying, now what?” has ethical questions arising.

    Short of that, when the client provides a technical or scientific paper, the lawyer uses it in advocacy.

    The lawyer doesn’t swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth” — the lawyer is an advocate.

    Overreaching happens:

  13. 163

    >Overreaching happens


  14. 164
    Hank Roberts says:

    And if you wonder about how that works, look at
    which collects advocacy source material for reuse.

  15. 165
    Edward Greisch says:

    157 Kevin McKinney: “Contrary to popular belief, people in static and stone age civilizations were much less happy than we are today” etcetera is directly from “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch. Deutsch covers a lot of ground in this book. It is “philosophy level difficult” reading. I recommend this book highly, but don’t expect an easy read.

    As for which thread, everything Deutsch says is directly on the subject of science and advocacy. You could also put in Michelle Rhee’s book “Radical,” which is not radical. We scientists need to get radical about advocating more education, and education is most of where our advocacy can go.

    As 159 Ray Ladbury says: “Emphasizing the best accepted science is not advocacy. It is education.”

    Science is civilization-changing in many ways, and must be.

  16. 166

    #165–Thanks, Ed.

  17. 167
    Tom Adams says:

    121 Hank. I don’t have a better source. I saw this in a broadcast of Pandora’s Promise on CNN but I don’t think the video provides much more, may it included an image of one of the newspaper ads IIRC. When you ask for my source I googled to locate that transcript. I agree that it’s not a slam-dunk good source.

  18. 168

    It is possible to share values with others while differing in the details of how to best live up to those values. I need to remember this.

    Paul Vincelli
    University of Kentucky

  19. 169
    Mal Adapted says:


    Among the externalized, insane costs of fossil fuel: killing off much of the natural living world.

    True, and tragic from my PoV if not everybody’s. But as we know, that’s been going on since the discovery of agriculture. Agriculture simplifies ecosystems (otherwise, why bother?) by favoring edible species and exterminating or driving away competitors. Of course, even as foragers humans were causing extinctions by overhunting, and altering ecosystems with fire and other tools. Agriculture, though, allowed human populations to exceed local short-term carrying capacity, and positive feedbacks accelerated the ongoing anthropocene extinction event while leading to our current globally-unsustainable society.

    I’m with Jared Diamond, but while it’s arguable whether humanity has benefited from agriculture, it should be self-evident that much of what’s done “for the benefit of humanity” is to the detriment of every other species.

  20. 170
    Mal Adapted says:

    Me, previously:

    it should be self-evident that much of what’s done “for the benefit of humanity” is to the detriment of every other species.

    Well, that’s self-evidently fatuous. Species of human gut flora, inter alia, have benefited at least as much as humanity has. How’s this:

    it should be self-evident that much of what’s done “for the benefit of humanity” is to the detriment of everysome other species.

  21. 171
    Hank Roberts says:

    Is A Right Wing Political Action Group Impersonating the American Meteorological Society?? Seems That Way.


    A disturbing aspect of this e-mail is that it seems some effort was placed in making it appear to have been sent by AMS. It was sent from an e-mail account with AMS in the name (though not from the “” domain) and featured the AMS logo prominently (used without permission from AMS). Only in the fine print at the bottom was it clear that this apparently came from the Heartland Institute. The text of the e-mail reports results from the study far differently than I would, leaving an impression that is at odds with how I would characterize those results.

    If you got this Heartland Institute e-mail, or if you have read articles or blog posts related to this study, my suggestion is simple. Rather than take someone else’s interpretation of the survey results, read the paper yourself and draw your own conclusions. It is freely available here ( as an Early Online Release.

    It’s a shame Nature closed their blog; that belongs under their collection, the annals of climate misinformation.

  22. 172
  23. 173

    #171–Wow, Heartland hijacking the identity of a respected organization in order to misrepresent the results of a peer-reviewed study?

    Who could *ever* have seen that one coming?

  24. 174
    patrick says:

    Had you elected psychopaths thinking they were mere idealogues, how would you know the difference? If not by the fact that they practiced book burning, according to the methods of the day?

    Don’t you dare be intimidated about being normative, or it will lead to worse silencings.

    It’s time to assert that the National Academy of Sciences is squarely in the tradition of the most known American president in history–and the first one associated with the GOP.

    Ditto for the wide advocacy of public libraries among the founders of this country.

    So you want to be guardedly non-normative because you want to be regarded as impartial? And why is that? Impartiality, in the first place, is a value only because it is instrumental to objectivity, trustable science, and oh, I dunno, truth.

    Non-advocacy in the service of distortion, misdirection, irrelevance, and imposture is no virtue. If the service is unwitting or indirect, no cigar.

  25. 175

    Heartland spoofing AMS email?

    If they could put their message honestly, they would. Lying has a cost.

  26. 176
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Heartland spoofing …

    Reminds me of Wegman’s claim that they’re the good guys (which seemed his justification for plagiarism and fakery providing talking points to the Republican climate deniers). To them the end justifies their means. And his specialty — data mining — has been much in the news lately thanks to Snowden. What else have they been doing with the information they gather, besides twisting it and lying about it?

    Til science and communications came along, with the accompanying threat of an informed populaace, this fooling and faking and pretense probably was how most human politics got done, don’t ya think?

    Remember this one?

  27. 177

    Gavin–Fine work at your end. One comment on advocacy and scientists:
    If ever there were times for scientists to advocate mitigation of the rate of climate change, it is now. We all should do ALL we can to slow its progress. The consequences of inaction are too horrendous to contemplate.