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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. 1
    Edward Greisch says:

    Thank You Gavin. Of course scientists must advocate because the system that is required was never created. The basic organization of civilization was never meant to handle GW. The basic organization of the human mind has never evolved to handle GW. There is no provision in the US constitution for scientists to take over the government in case of future climate emergency. There is no funding for science advertising.

    The constitution isn’t set up to make possible the punishment of genocide that most people can’t see as already happening.
    “Climate change stokes violent reaction”
    “UN warns of food riots in developing world as drought pushes up prices”

  2. 2

    Gavin, I want to express my appreciation for your venture into a challenging topic. I continue to deliberate about where advocacy is an appropriate fit for me, as a public scientist. As I know you are aware, this topic is relevant to all scientists, including folks like me who engage on the scientific aspects of other controversial topics, like GMOs and pesticide use. You’ve helped advance discussion of an important topic. As I have said in other venues, I look forward to someday buying you and others a glass of a fine Kentucky bourbon to share ideas on this.

    Paul Vincelli
    University of Kentucky

  3. 3
    AbruptSLR says:


    I very much appreciate your video/lecture on the topic of advocacy and values, and I would like to reinforce Schneider’s point that being aware and open about one’s sub-conscious values is a difficult matter and that one needs actively re-examine these sub-conscious values that one (including scientists) merely assumes as a given. Certainly, one must start with a “prior” but one must update that “prior” with each new learning opportunity. Currently, many learning opportunities are being lost because our preconceived sub-conscious assumptions do not allow us to value these new learning opportunities. If we want sustainability in a non-stationary/changing world, then each one of us must that responsibility for up-dating our “priors” regularly. Furthermore, I believe that this process of up-dating our “priors” would be facilitated if forums for climate change advocacy better acknowledged “deep uncertainty” rather than by focusing on matters that we feel that we know a comfortable amount about.

  4. 4
    PeteB says:

    Very clearly thought out (and interesting how Stephen Schneider had figured most of this out)

    I saw a hostile comment elsewhere saying that you didn’t come clean on what you were advocating, which I think says more about their assumptions than anything else. My impression is you want as many people as possible to have a clear (and nuanced) understanding of the science and the policy implications, rather than advocating any particular policy as such, but please correct me if i’m wrong !

    [Response: My main advocacy is for people to have a higher level of conversation on these topics than we generally see in the public discussion. That means trying to focus attention on substantive issues rather than trivialities, adding context to points that get media attention and calling out the strawmen arguments, cherry picks and red herrings that generally pollute the discourse. The main value I have that relates to that is that I think people have the potential to make better decisions when they have better information and that democratic values require us to strive for an informed population. Then if people want to choose a course of action they can at least do so knowing (as best we can tell) what the consequences are. I’m not a big fan of sleepwalking through choices and hoping everything works out!

    On this issue, I’m advocating for a higher level of awareness when people advocate – it has very little to do with what they actually choose to advocate (or not advocate) for. – gavin]

  5. 5
    rabbit says:


    Are you seriously calling for the take over of government by scientists or the punishment of people who don’t recognize GW?

    Your post is the embodiment of how badly things can go askew when issues pass from the scientific sphere to the public one.

  6. 6
    Robert says:

    It’s been my observation that the abstention from advocacy on the part of many scientists, with respect to AGW, confuses many in the public. “If the risks were truly this large, why aren’t those who understand them best marching in the streets?!?”

    Imagine the confusion of the passengers if the lookout who sees the iceberg took no position on changing course — a lookout, by the way, whose family is quartered in steerage while a few blowhards in first class advocate for no course correction, as it may spill the champaigne at the party in the ballroom…

  7. 7
    Hank Roberts says:

    “What!” he said, “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!” — Voltaire

    quoted here

  8. 8
    Ray Ladbury says:

    It is no more reasonable to expect all scientists to take an advocacy position about their expertise than it is to expect all accountants to have a well thought out position on changes to Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP). Most scientists should be doing scientists. Those who feel passionate and have the ability to argue persuasively, should feel free to engage public officials–their status as scientists doesn’t stop them from being citizens.

    What is really needed is for our political leaders to grow a pair of reproductive gland they favor and tell themselves and their constituents the truth.

  9. 9
    Eric Swanson says:

    Gavin, it’s of interest to compare your presentation with that of Jim Hansen, in which he presents his new paper just published on PLOS one. Hansen’s presentation gives a detailed description of the effects of humanity’s impact on the Earth (as do others at the AGU FM) and concludes that something must be done to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. He then repeats his preferred solution, (as given in his book), which is a tax on carbon that is to begin small and grow rapidly, the result being a large increase in cost of carbon emissions in the world economy. He also goes further, claiming that we must also implement the next generation of nuclear power plants. Whether these solutions are the proper course of action (or not) isn’t part of the science of climate change, but, given that the scientific projections may be correct, both the problems and the possible solutions must be widely discussed in the political world in ways which the public can understand.

    Some scientist think objectivity must prevail over advocacy in order to maintain the credibility of the scientist, however, it may be better to use the medical model of science, where solutions to identified medical problems, such as new diseases, are sought before they become epidemic as a basic function of the community. That’s actually more of an engineering approach than the purely scientific investigation of the natural world, but one which is necessary for humanity, if the next plague is to be averted. In the context of treating diseases, action by the scientific community is required. If the worst impacts of climate change are credible, the scientific community must respond as a doctor would when confronted by a sick patient, even though there is uncertainty as to the exact cause of the ailment. The alternative is to sit back and simply continue collecting data objectively while the passengers on the ship are slowly cooked.

  10. 10
    MARodger says:

    In the Q&A session the maxim “It’s important for people who know things not to give up the public sphere to people who don’t know things” perhaps suggests a scientific intervention in non-scientific arenas can be simply correcting error in contrast to a value-laden advocacy. It’s just stating truth, isn’t it?
    I would say that any intervention is not really about truth. It’s about important truth. A minor mistake by a journalist wouldn’t result in a Letter to the Editor. Even a real howler in scientific terms may not result in a Letter to the Editor unless it is important enough. And what is ‘minor’ or ‘important’ is a value judgement.
    Thus the Thomas Stocker quote (or the recipe for apple pie @ Curry’s) could be perhaps called valued truth. And the likes of Curry also sees the value side of it, suggesting the Stocker quote is tantamount to saying “that CO2 is the dominant control knob on climate change on timescales of decades to centuries,” an idea which some (maybe those including herself) do not believe to be true.
    So I don’t think such scientific intervention can escape the value judgements or be entirely aware of all the connotations of the value ‘system’ being entered. But it can (and should) be clear on the solidity (or otherwise) of the science.

  11. 11
    Kip Hansen says:

    The tension between Scientists and Advocacy is when the makers of the science are also the advocates for social or political action based on their own science. The more one convinces oneself about the correctness of his own work and then invests his persona in advocating based on it, sets the scientist up for the need to defend his advocacy and thus his science. Advocacy for a “solution” to a science finding becomes the necessity for producing more science that supports the solution.

    [Response: You should distinguish people who advocate strongly based on *only* their work, and people who advocate based on their understanding of the field in general. The latter are far less invested in the self-esteem problem you describe. Good example of the former (in a different domain) is David Perlmutter. – gavin]

    Medical doctors do not diagnose or suggest treatment for their own families for a very similar reason ==> their closeness to the patient and the treatments , their investment in the desired outcome, their investment in believing their own diagnosis, their potential inability to be disinterested and objective. All these conflicting emotional and intellectual forces, and the long string of bad outcomes, have convinced the medical world that a medical scientist (a doctor) should not be involved in the treatment of someone close to them.

    Likewise, scientists who work on climate questions, whose science must not be biased by their policy preferences, should not involve themselves in advocating social or political responses to the science they produce. Doing so runs the risk, possibly not inevitable but only very likely, of the advocacy beginning to produce the science.

    [Response: Your medical analogy does not extend very far. For instance, if you consider that we all have a vested interest in the existence of the planet, would you conclude that no-one (however well-informed) could ever advocate for an asteroid-impact defense system should a threat be detected? I think you (and I) would rather that the people who know most about the issue should be assigned to the problem right away. There are of course potential conflicts of interest in almost any real situation – is the doctor skewing the trial because he has shares in the pharma company? Is the rocket engineer recommending a design to benefit his sister’s widget-making company? etc. But these are issues where openness about potential conflicts and values are the solution, rather than the blanket injunction for people who know things to cede the discourse to those who don’t. – gavin]

  12. 12
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “What is really needed is for our political leaders to grow a pair …”

    The only thing that will cause that to happen is public demand for action that is sufficient to overpower the massive financial influence of the fossil fuel interests on the political, legislative and regulatory process.

    In short, everyone who has a clue about the severity and the urgency of the problem should be practicing “advocacy” — which is to say, demanding action, NOW.

    Why climate scientists would NOT be doing that is beyond my comprehension.

  13. 13
    SecularAnimist says:

    Eric Swanson wrote: “Hansen’s presentation gives a detailed description of the effects of humanity’s impact on the Earth … and concludes that something must be done to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. He then repeats his preferred solution …”

    James Hansen is obviously highly qualified to provide a “detailed description” of the severity and urgency of the problem, which makes his conclusion that “something must be done” compelling, and makes him a powerful advocate for rapidly reducing GHG emissions. As such he exemplifies the role that more climate scientists could, and I think should, be playing in the public discourse.

    However, Hansen lacks any expertise in the technology or economics of non-fossil fuel energy sources, and his opinion about “preferred solutions” is no better informed and carries no more authority than that of any other citizen. He has, of course, the same right as any other citizen to offer his opinions on such subjects — but to suggest that his expertise in climate gives weight to his views on energy technologies is a mistake. Indeed, I would argue that his views are, in fact, ill-informed, misguided and even counter-productive.

    Fortunately, it is not necessary for climate scientists to become experts on energy technologies and economics and offer specific solutions for reducing specific types of GHG emissions from specific industrial sectors. It is MORE than sufficient that they are clear and uncompromising in asserting the severity and urgency of the problem, and in demanding action.

  14. 14
    robert says:

    Re: Ray Ladbury (8)…I

    I don’t know that anyone has said, a priori, every scientist needs to be an advocate. You’ve said those who want to, should. But I think you sidestep the issue: the notion that a scientist abdicates objectivity when he/she moves into advocacy. As the culture stands, any scientist moving to advocacy is regarded with suspicion not only by the public, but by their fellow scientists. I have witnessed this first hand. As it is, there is a cost to advocacy, one that is not entirely reasonable.

    Second, let’s be clear: we’re not talking about taking a position on less saturated fat in our diets. All issues are not created equal. Some issues, in fact, do not lend themselves to neutrality. There is no neutrality on slavery; no neutrality on genocide. Regarding AGW, for those most knowledgeable, the refusal to advocate against massive risk to the human civilization and the well-being of our descendants is, to my mind, no longer defensible. When the issue is of the scale of AGW, and the risks so great, there’s no fence-sitting: once side or the other. We’re not talking about regulating seatbelts or marijuana — we’re talking about a massive body of science that strongly indicates enormous risk, absent meaningful action. Those who understand this best are precisely those who need to speak up…

  15. 15
    David B. Benson says:

    Somewhere I recently read an brief article about a poll. According to it, the majority of adult Americans do not trust scientists and science reporters even less.

  16. 16
    Radge Havers says:

    “Some scientist think objectivity must prevail over advocacy in order to maintain the credibility of the scientist.”

    Whether or not you advocate, objectivity should prevail. And you want to be careful how you open that door. Today it may mean speaking up for environmental responsibility. Tomorrow it may mean the free flow of fossil fuel money.

    “Most scientists should be doing scientists.”

    OK then. Sounds like a plan!

  17. 17
    prokaryotes says:

    This is also a good guidance for climate communicators. Factual statements like mentioned from Thomas Stoker could be extended with recommendations, how to achieve required targets. And in a public discussion you can draw from the IPCC reports or other comprehensive studies. Though it might be good to not force advocacy discussions, but when the time is right.
    I think the public discussion has advanced now from the consensus finding to the discussion about the right solutions.

    Talking about solutions, Hansen’s advocacy of nuclear power comes to mind, but i instantly wonder how this would work out in a world with a more active Geosphere and renewables appear to work just fine. What i want to say is that in rare cases, such as in the face of dangerous climate change, advocacy becomes a legitimate to some extent and sadly this burden at least in part should come from scientist’s. And it those cases it would help to have every detailed addressed and easily accessible, to improve communication.

    On another note, i think general information sharing (think YouTube videos, facebook or twitter stream) might be confused with advocacy sometimes. Only because someone posts or mentions something doesn’t necessarily means he advocates the context.

  18. 18
    Kip Hansen says:

    Dr. Schmidt ==> We all recognize the ramblings of a “scientific one-man show” — and Perlmutter is a fine example — but are often led astray by the assertions of a team effort or something new and upcoming that seems promising and gathers a scientific following.

    The medical world was rocked this month by three studies and an accompanying editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine (the journal of the American College of Physicians). For twenty years vast amounts of research money have been spent on nutritional supplements, vitamins, anti-oxidants, Vit E — the National Institutes of Health was forced to create a whole new bureau to study the benefits of these substances. Basic research was “encouraging”, doctors lined up to advocate for anti-oxidants as a cure-all and preventative of old age itself. There developed a whole industry ($28 billion dollars strong) to sell these miracles to the US public, to save their very lives. The bottom line, after whole careers have been spent researching and advocating, from the College of Physicians, when all the science was finally in, and the hard hard long term studies had actually been done, not by advocates, but by disinterested medical scientists —> “Despite sobering evidence of no benefit or possible harm, use of multivitamin supplements increased among US adults ….The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.”

    Vitamin E it turned out, taken in the dosages recommended by advocates, was not only not beneficial, it was harmful. Multi-vitamins useless in the general population. The public health policies pushed by advocates, though well-meaning, would have been harmful in many cases, or at best ineffective, not justified, and to be avoided. These doctors weren’t crooks or frauds, they believed — oh, how they believed. But they were wrong.

    [Response: You are exaggerating the degree of consensus on these issues. Where was the AMA statement declaring they were 95% sure that multi-vitamin supplements were essential? (Nowhere). That there are fashions in science is undeniable (and not just medicine), but the best bet for avoiding the vast majority of these is to pay attention to the assessments (from the AMA, or the NRC or the IPCC) and not to individual scientists (including us). – gavin]

    I am sure that you are sure that your viewpoint about Climate Change, your own field, is absolutely correct.

    [Response: What a dumb statement. Where have I ever claimed to be omniscient? My views are as correct as I can make them (I don’t deliberately say things that are wrong), but I make no claim of inerrancy, and I am always learning more, so your claim is patent nonsense. – gavin]

    You seem to think you are one of those who has the potential to save the planet. You may be right. But there are equally fine minds, equally highly trained, equally involved in the exact same field, who do not agree with you, either on the factual details of causes and effects or on the policy recommendations you put forward. These you seem to dismiss with a snarky assignment to the category of “those who don’t” know — but you seem to mean “those who don’t agree with me and my close associates”.

    [Response: I have no idea who you think you are trying to address. Perhaps you’d like to find any quotes of mine that support your characterisation? If you want to engage with me, try and at least argue with actual claims I have made or points I have brought up. Your kind of shadow boxing with imaginary simulacrums of climate scientists might be fun for you, but is pretty pointless for everyone else. – gavin]

    It is difficult to accept your premise that you are the one to define “those who know” and your self-appointed right to dismiss those who should be your colleagues as “those who don’t”. In this, you begin to sound like Perlmutter.

  19. 19
    Jon Kirwan says:

    I loved the imagery you paint, Robert (#6.) And yes, I’ve had that conversation with folks I know about why scientists aren’t making a public scene.

    Most people see things through the eyes of their primary sources of “news.” Things are presented there as “debates” between charismatic “authorities.” But that’s actually just entertainment and it’s how they sell product. The winner is about better “memorable” quips that “strike home” and perhaps cause the other side to pause uncomfortably. Sound argument isn’t judged. People understand emotion and they can tell if someone stumbled for a moment and had to struggle because of something another said. They judge “form,” not “substance.”

    This whole milieu is anathema to science thinking. Sound bites, one-off quipping, unfair jabs and attacks that strike home emotionally, making points by force of charisma, etc., are things all scientists have spent lifetimes learning to recognize, avoid, discount, and despise.

    The facts are on the side of climate scientists and all of the interwoven science that carries their work. But the public can’t and doesn’t take the time needed (a lifetime to be honest) for a long and continuing education that is necessary. They have a life and they aren’t going to set aside an hour or two a day continually for years just to develop an opinion.

    Neither the public or primary media sources are willing to supply the time and/or talent for public education. When was the last time you actually saw a modern broadcast production that attempted a broad, continuing education on any subject? When has the public embraced such a thing well enough to keep it funded?

    But the moment that scientists accept this barrier’s limitations, and instead descend into the “fray” of charismatic broadcast debate formats with quips and counter-quips ruling, they LOSE the one very powerful thing they actually have that the other sides do not have — sound reasoning from experimental result and theory. Once that is given up, because no one in the media or public will actually seriously engage at that level, they lose all their most powerful force and effect and must instead roll around in the mud that the rest of the pigs wallow in — which is just charisma and landing a few good punches. Entertainment isn’t education. But it is what people expect and are given.

    So scientists will fail if they try and argue at a factual level or to educate and stay on a plane they respect and value. And scientists will still fail if they slum around and do what everyone else is doing — push propaganda, try and land some punchy quips on the other side, etc. The public is pretty good at recognizing when they are being propagandized. And they expect it, too. Almost embrace it. But they also realize that it just boils down to picking sides, and so they do. But on this poor level, nothing permanent is built, foundations crumble, and everything is ephemeral and fadish.

    But for the public, they expect that if there is “a side” then that “side” will enter the arena and sling mud. If they don’t engage the free-for-all, then the public assumes they give up by default. “Obviously, they don’t care enough. So why should I care?” They do NOT viscerally (in their bones) understand scientific distance and dispassion and probably never will. The simple fact that they don’t /see/ climate scientists coming out of their ivory towers for a round of fisticuffs strongly suggests to them that it’s not yet that important to worry about.

    For scientists, it’s “heads I win, tails you lose” rules, with the other side setting up the rules. There’s no way to win this. Everything slides downhill to the lowest level of debate and it takes immense work to struggle any higher.

  20. 20
    Edward Greisch says:

    5 rabbit: I am saying:
    1. [edit – beyond what is permissible]
    2. The government is not going to do anything about GW until 2050. There needs to be something new in the Constitution to deal with this kind of situation. There can’t be under English common law. So are we to wait until we are dead to do something?

    3. “how badly things can go askew”: Nothing can go more askew than to wait for a global famine to start. If you read up on what has happened to former civilizations when agriculture collapsed, you will find that you would rather die. Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. No semblance of civilization remains within hours of the moment the food runs out. It isn’t a question of retaining democracy at that point. ANY central authority would be better than none, but if there is no food, nobody will go to work. They just wander off looking for food and killing anybody/everybody to get food. Cannibalism happens. All edible species will be hunted to extinction. Typically, one person in 10,000 survives if the famine is local.

    13 SecularAnimist: James Hansen is qualified to choose the correct non-fossil fuel energy source because of his PhD in physics, his obvious ability and experience that are well beyond most PhDs, and because climate science does have a lot to say about renewable energy. [edit – please try and converse civilly]

  21. 21
    Edward Greisch says:

    17 prokaryotes: Take your sales pitch to BraveNewClimate. You have been told many times why you are wrong about energy and that RC is not the right place to discuss them. But you never bother to read the URLs I give you and you do not do the required calculations. [edit – please refrain from accusations]

    I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in the nuclear power industry. My only interest is in stopping Global Warming. My only income is from the US civil service retirement system.

    I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in the electric utility industry, except that I buy electricity from the local utility.

    I do have a B.S. in physics from Carnegie-Mellon University and a lot of grad courses in physics and engineering. I am retired from US government service as a scientist and engineer.

  22. 22
    Susan Anderson says:

    I loved the speech. So vital. Favorite quotes (among others):

    “Without honesty, to ourselves, to our audience, to our science, there is no possibility of being effective in a sustainable and responsible way.”

    and Gavin’s final slide from Nobelist Sherwood Rowland:

    “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

  23. 23
  24. 24
    Keith Woollard says:

    I think Robert @ #6 has inadvertently shown the whole problem. The passengers don’t expect the lookout to tell the crew what to do. The lookout gives the information and it is up to the captain to make a decision based on that information as well as other information. If the lookout thought the solution was to turn to port and there was a reef there, or another vessel, then that would be the wrong thing. The correct solution may have been to turn to starboard, or all engines astern. Science is never binary, and public policy less so.
    Our job, as lookouts, is to provide the most accurate information

  25. 25
    rabbit says:

    [stop name-calling and stay substantive]

  26. 26
    rabbit says:

    Well I got moderated. Fair enough, Greisch got moderated too.

    Greisch, any suggestions that undercut liberal democracy will only convince the public that those advocating for climate change action are crazed radicals whose views can safely be dismissed.

    You want to convince the public? You’ll have to do it on their ground, not yours. No excessive alarmism, no witch hunts for those that disagree with you, no suggestions of “rule by scientists”.

    Any other approach will condemn climate change advocates to irrelevancy.

  27. 27
    Kip Hansen says:

    Dr. Schmidt ==> Maybe I misunderstood your apparent self-reference above “For instance, if you consider that we all have a vested interest in the existence of the planet, would you conclude that no-one (however well-informed) could ever advocate for an asteroid-impact defense system should a threat be detected? I think you (and I) would rather that the people who know most about the issue should be assigned to the problem right away.”

    [Response: I know nothing about asteroid defenses. And I would rather people were chosen to deal with it who knew what they were talking about (whoever they might be). How is that controversial? – gavin]

    It is possible, I suppose, that you are not referring to you and yours when you say “rather than the blanket injunction for people who know things to cede the discourse to those who don’t.”, though I am fairly sure you were not referring to you and yours as “those who don’t”.

    [Response: As you know, there is a lot of unmitigated nonsense talked about when climate science comes up in discussion – that Greenland used to be green, that greenhouse gases don’t warm the planet, that the anthropogenic rise in CO2 and CH4 is caused by the fairies, that the greenhouse effect violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics, that weather prediction is the same as climate prediction etc. These are all nonsense, and every time the discourse is given over to arguing about the sphericity (or not) of the Earth, it is just wasted time for all concerned – and, especially for those just tuning in, misleading. If you are happy for peddlers of nonsense and fallacies to dominate the airwaves, I suppose I can’t change your mind, but it isn’t my choice. – gavin]

    Dr. Schmidt, my “I am sure that you are sure that your viewpoint about Climate Change, your own field, is absolutely correct” is far better than those who accuse some Climate Scientists of presenting some exaggerated versions of Climate Science. “I don’t deliberately say things that are wrong”, well, of course you don’t. That’s exactly what I am saying. There are those who would not grant you that much.

    [Response: But why are the only two options assumed to be that I am a liar or omniscient? How about being someone who is just trying their best with the limited information they have, fully cognizant that they don’t know everything? Pretty much like everyone, all the time. – gavin]

    As for this “Perhaps you’d like to find any quotes of mine that support your characterization? “, in your AGU address, you specifically dismiss Richard Lindzen, for one, with the “Don’t waste your time” quip — with the implied same for a whole class of others, who should be your colleagues in unraveling this climate problem, with your blanket your dismissal of all those, in YOUR opinion, “who don’t” know. Who would this be? Freeman Dyson? Judith Curry? Muller? Christy? Pielke Sr.? Pielke Jr.? How many other professional climate scientists, physicists, meteorologists and geologists do you include on that dismissal list? And why?

    [Response: The question was whether a scientist should go out of their way to have a media ‘debate’ with Lindzen. I think this is a waste of their time because the format of such ‘debates’ are expressly designed to not be conducive to rational discussion – favoring instead the Gish Gallop and the making of spurious points that take much longer to debunk than to say. There are perhaps circumstances or set ups when it wouldn’t be, but it has nothing to do with a dismissal of a person or an idea, rather it is far more to do with how one should use limited time and resources effectively. In either case it has nothing to do with your previous claim that I don’t discuss issues with those I disagree with. – gavin]

    It’s possible that I have entirely misunderstood your points above. If so, you have my apologies.

    But you might think about how someone could misconstrue what you have written and said. (As you know, I am not the only one in the blogsphere with the same misunderstandings, if that is what they are.)

    [Response: I long ago learned that there are people who will think the worst of you under any circumstances as a function of a perceived position on some ‘hot’ topic. It no longer bothers me, and when I see people misinterpret statements over and again, even over the simplest things, I tend to just make a mental note not to bother with them any more. You can take a commenter to science, but you cannot make them think. – gavin]

  28. 28
    Hank Roberts says:

    Bzzzt. Kip Hansen has his example backwards. See his WUWT guest blogging for more.

    “Nutritional supplements” is a classification invented to allow sellers to avoid all the public health precautions developed this past century. Read the history.

    Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA):
    The manufacturer of a dietary supplement or dietary ingredient is responsible for ensuring that the product is safe before it is marketed.
    FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.

    It’s pure ‘ibertarian: the public can’t take precautions by having this stuff checked like food or medicine, it’s legally exempt. The knowledgeable scientists and doctors saw it coming. The industry seeing profits aplenty pushed their exemption through anyhow.

  29. 29
    Hank Roberts says:

    Nutritional supplements — the history, much discussed recently:"nutritional+supplements"

  30. 30
    Steve Fish says:

    I would caution any comparisons between physicians and scientists because, except for the small number of physician scientists at university hospitals, they have little knowledge of the process of science and their basic science training consists of survey courses. Further they don’t often keep up with the fast moving areas of medical science, especially the many new treatments that are based on cell and molecular biology. There is a lot of concern at the highest levels of the profession about the dependence of front line physicians on brochures, free goodies, and presentations provided by drug and medical device companies.


  31. 31
    prokaryotes says:

    It no longer bothers me, and when I see people misinterpret statements over and again, even over the simplest things, I tend to just make a mental note not to bother with them any more.

    Not only you, do not bother to waste more time on people who are debunked already and lost credibility. And the best way is to ignore them or even ban them, since their arguments are invalid.

  32. 32
    Eli Rabett says:

    Gavin, Eli quite enjoyed your talk. As you know the Bunny’s POV is that there are a bunch of people out there trying to convince scientists that they should not partake in public conversations, because, well, pancakes.

    If you look at those pushing that fallacy, you see that either they want to be the gatekeepers, or more sinisterly, they want to completely separate the science from the conversation because the science threatens their worldview or the science strongly implies that BAU will be damaging.

    So, scientists must use their voices in public discussions that their science impacts. If not you, who then. OTOH, and you have been very good at this, scientists must avoid Dunning Kruger claims on things where their knowledge runs thin. Be sure to isolate expertise from idle thoughts. HOWEVER, that does not mean that careful study, thought and talks with those whose specialty is in other areas precludes having opinions in those other areas, just that they should not be strongly weighted by the public or the speaker.

  33. 33
    doug says:

    These questions are often best answered from imagining how you would view them 30 years hence. In other words, try to imagine you thirty years from now, and what you’ll say looking back at these questions. Given that the State of the climate will almost certainly be worse thirty years from now, you’ll probably think it silly that this was even discussed. You’ll say, “of course we should have advocated for what we believed in”!

    Imagining your future self, will often lead one to wise decisions.

  34. 34
    SecularAnimist says:

    Bringing up the “debate” over dietary supplements is a clever move to distract attention from the real subject of this thread.

    The issues around the benefits, risks, and/or lack thereof from consuming vitamins, minerals, herbs and other so-called “dietary supplements”, and around the question of whether and how they should be regulated, are entirely different from those around anthropogenic global warming, and there are really no parallels that can usefully inform this discussion about advocacy on climate policy by climate scientists.

    However, the “dietary supplement debate” is quite a hot button issue, on which many people have committed themselves to emotionally-charged, if poorly informed, positions, which they are ready to vehemently propound and defend.

    So it’s a great thing to throw into the discussion if you want to get people confused and riled up and send them chasing down an unrelated and unenlightening rabbit hole.

  35. 35

    This is so great and timely.

    Seemingly unrelated news reports of two academic studies this week: one on quantifying the money used to fund climate change counter-movement organizations – and the other concerns a simple mathematical formula used to define and predict human struggles.

    “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations”
    “…an analysis of the financial resource mobilization of the organizations that make up the climate change counter-movement (CCCM) in the United States…”

    Secret funding helped build vast network of climate denial think tanks

    Simple Mathematical Formula Describes Human Struggles
    “identification of a critical threshold for spreading a message or idea among perpetrators;”

    Connecting these two studies – one could surmise that the best way to suppress mass dissatisfaction for carbon fuel is to keep the number of politically involved well below a critical threshold. A billion dollars a year should do it (researcher say there could be much more in hidden money). Spent for lobbying, PR, political funding, advertising, etc.

    I link these two studies by plausibility – because anyone spending a billion dollars a year might require a well defined strategy to reach their targeted outcome. And if a political or commercial sector wanted to avoid a critical threshold of political action for climate issues – well, it seems that investing in such opinion and political manipulation would be the smartest way to do it.

    I have no idea if this is valid. But it seems more plausible because of what often appears to be organized suppression of climate science.

  36. 36
    Edward Greisch says:

    26 rabbit: You are on ignore for intentional misinterpretation and probable provoking.

    For everybody else: Gavin’s idea that we should state our values first:

    I value democracy as the least bad form of government. I believe in the US Constitution, but other forms of democracy also have their good points. I despise the corruption of democracy by money.

    I value the continued existence of the species Homo Sapiens above any form of government. Governments, no matter how good, are unlikely to last for ever. Any threat to the continued existence of the species Homo Sapiens is too great of a threat. GW is the greatest and most immediate threat we face because of the problems GW poses for agriculture. Saving the species does not mean saving every individual, or even most, as that seems to be impossible.

    I value the continued existence of my own descendants.

  37. 37
    Sou says:

    Gavin, thanks very much for posting this video here. The talk you gave was excellent. It has given me (and I’m obviously not alone in this) a lot of food for thought – and right in time for the annual reflection, too, with the New Year in sight :)

    As importantly, the discussion here has added a heap of value as well.

    What I see is that there are many different audiences, many different voices, many different listeners (and sometimes all in the one person). The points you touched on are equally relevant to climate scientists, climate communicators and “climate hawks” and to people in other fields.

    It’s a noisy world out there. Working out the most effective approach will be different for everyone. I take to heart your suggestion to listen and learn.

    Much to mull over and I will be replaying this video in the months ahead. I expect each time something different will resonate. Stephen Schneider couldn’t have asked for better. Thank you.

  38. 38

    The medical field keeps popping up. Here’s an example. A previous South African president, Thabo Mbeki, somehow picked up the AIDS denial message, and insisted on taking it seriously despite scant evidence to support these claims. As a result, an effective anti-retrovirals program was delayed by years, causing at least 300-thousand unnecessary deaths.

    As a medical researcher, what would you do in that situation? Say that is in the political domain so I say nothing? What actually happened was activists took on the president and forced him to back down. Many of these activists were HIV-infected or their supporters, but the medical and research communities took an active part.

    In a situation where bogus claims are being made to stall government intervention to prevent harm and you know better, whether you are active in the field or not, don’t you have an obligation to speak out? In fact if you are an expert, don’t you have even more of an obligation to speak out?

  39. 39

    Kip Hansen: what is your evidence that all these other people with different views should be treated as having an equally valid position?

    I would really like the mainstream to be wrong because the evidence is that an industry-funded attack on science can hold progress back by decades, and, as I understand the mainstream, we don’t have decades. I’ve tried reading the contrarian stuff and it has no substance. First, all short-term variability was down to the sun. Then it was cosmic rays. Then, it was ENSO and volcanoes. None of this stuff stands up – even to non-expert debunking.

    Science is not a matter of opinion. You may want some alternative viewpoint to be correct because or your personal ideological view (e.g., that all government economic interventions are bad) but nature doesn’t give a damn about your preferences. Either the theory stands up to testing against evidence or it doesn’t.

    The only question we should seriously be discussing is how to cut emissions. Until the “other side” comes up with substance. And it hasn’t so far – all it has done is stall the day when the fossil fuel business ceases to be profitable.

  40. 40
    John Mashey says:

    Sorry to have missed the talk, that day was crazy @ AGU. I’ll watch the video.
    I repeat my usual advice to down-in-the-dumps climate scientists thinking they should do something else:

    1) You scientists have to do the science, the rest of us can’t.

    2) All need to get enough media training not to put foot in mouth.

    3) Some need to be doing some outreach (and plenty do).

    4) A very few, with the talent and experience, will spend a lot of time doing that, testifying to Congress, etc, etc … coincidentally thinking of Steve Schneider, who was truly marvelous in being able to explain to a wide variety of audiences, and even harder, to audiences that had wide ranges of expertise.
    Of course, I was told by a reliable source that Steve came out of the womb talking to anyone who would listen. :-) Anyone interested in communication/advoacy should read Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate.

    5) And it’s up to some of the rest of us, with different skillsets, to help get other people off your backs.

    Before somebody gets into advocacy much, they at least have to get to 2) first, and not everybody is suited for 3), and not many for 4). If somebody can’t do those well, I’d rather they stick to doing good science. Of course, some fine scientists have sometimes been dragged into the fray and had to step up to efforts that may not have felt very comfortable.

    Of course, if people want to use medical analogies, a close one is that of the medical researchers who established cigarette/disease links. When Surgeon General Luther Terry was putting together the panel that did the 1964 report, the tobacco companies had a veto on the panel membership and ~50% were smokers. (Well, they started as smokers. By the end, most had quit.) Think of that as the equivalent of a science assessment report, and it was an uphill battle.

  41. 41
    MARodger says:

    Reading the comments presented @11, @18 & @27 and it occurred to me that it would all sound reasonably sensible if Kip Hansen were addressing Richard Lindzen. And then, as I read, hey ho, Lindzen gets a mention.

    Lindzen has featured large in the public debate in AGW for decades. How does his method of advocacy bear up? Rather badly, I would suggest. The science has been lost to him. So his advocacy as a climatologist has a distinct Lindzen-style.
    I did pay close attention to one of his presentations (last year? at Palace of Westminster) and he certainly wasn’t to bothered by the climate science or indeed the practice of of science itself. (Highlights – At one stage he was actually presenting evidence of a lack-of-trend using 4 one-year DMI graphs and he had actually shuffled them up so they weren’t in date order!! At another he is very strongly implying global surface temperature is an irrelevance to climate outside the arrival of a Snowball Earth or its opposite number Steam-Doughnut Earth!!)
    To me this suggests a caveat to the ‘no debate with Lindzen’ proposal. Do not attempt to debate with him about climate science because Dick Lindzen no longer does science. But that does not prevent a debate with Lindzen about the veracity of Lindzen’s message. The noise, when it is allegedly of a scientific nature, surely cannot be allowed to go without a direct rebuttal.

  42. 42
    DIOGENES says:

    The posts on this thread, the Failure in Communicating thread, and the Unforced Variations thread have a strong focus on how to communicate the seriousness of the situation to a broad spectrum of laypeople. Unfortunately, they overlook one key deficiency: THERE IS NO MESSAGE!

    The deniers have a consistent message that is clear and simple, and understandable by large numbers of people. It is distorted, anti-scientific, and basically incorrect, but it is clear and simple. By contrast, we the advocates do not have a unified message, but rather have many messages that tend to be complex and laden with caveats, and are many times at odds with each other. We don’t agree on the levels of temperatures to expect in mid-end century, and agree even less on what life would be like under those temperatures, or if there would even be any (human) life under those temperatures. We don’t agree on what temperature ceilings should not be exceeded in the interim transition period: should it be the 2 C on which the mainstream focuses, the 4 C that some experts say is all but inevitable now and to which we will have to adapt, the 1 C that Hansen and Anderson advocate, or the less than 1 C that McPherson believes we have already exceeded. Finally, we don’t agree on the required solutions to prevent disaster, partly because the effectiveness of these solutions depends on the temperature ceilings and timeframes required. The posters include: a Renewables contingent that believes prosperity is possible along with saving the climate if only the introduction of renewables can be accelerated; a Nuclear contingent that believes our problems can be solved with accelerated introduction of nuclear; a Demand contingent that believes only a strong reduction of demand in the near-term can save us from disaster; and other contingents as well.
    If we can’t agree among ourselves what the appropriate message should be, how in the world are we going to convince the large numbers of laypeople who need to be convinced? So, while style, format, advocacy, and all the other peripherals that are addressed in the posts on this site have some importance, they pale before the reality that we have no clear and simple message that will rally the troops that need to be rallied.

  43. 43
    Michael Sweet says:

    Your leadership on this issue has always been strong and well thought out. I read carefully what you advise and try to implement it when I speak with others. Keep up the good work.

    It is difficult to be the one who stands in the front and gets all the pot shots sent their way. (see examples from Kip above). Thank you for your strong contributions.

  44. 44
    Susan Anderson says:

    What Eli (@~32) said.

    Certain people who have been appointed to author in various locations have assumed to themselves the task of taking down reality, but it won’t work. Reality will prevail.

  45. 45
    James Cross says:

    #18 Gavin’s comment

    Check out the Wikipedia article about AMA and IPCC:

    A selected quote:

    “The AMA has one of the largest political lobbying budgets of any organization in the United States.[6] Its political positions throughout its history have often been controversial. In the 1930s, the AMA attempted to prohibit its members from working for the then-primitive health maintenance organizations that had sprung up during the Great Depression, which violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and resulted in a conviction ultimately affirmed by the US Supreme Court.[7] The AMA’s vehement campaign against Medicare in the 1950s and 1960s included the Operation Coffee Cup supported by Ronald Reagan. ”

    So are you saying we should think of the IPCC like the AMA for scientific assessments?

    [Response: Fair point – and no. Think more like the Surgeon General reports. – gavin]

  46. 46
    mitch says:

    One of the more cogent arguments for advocacy is the complete failure of recent congresses to attempt to ferret out true information about climate change. Perhaps we should encourage senators and congress people to contact the universities in their states to get the facts from hometowners.

  47. 47
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Thank you Kip Hansen for providing comic relief. I particularly enjoy your use of a high-speed computer and Internet technology to claim that science doesn’t work. This is enhanced by your utter misunderstanding of the scientific method. Rather than discuss details of how scientific consensus works, I will just ask you how many peer-reviewed publications in climate science your “experts” have had in, say, the past 10 years.

  48. 48
    Jim Eager says:

    “Who would this be?”

    Dyson? No training or experience in climate science what so ever.

    Curry? Threw her lot with the outright science deniers long ago.

    Muller? No, he has demonstrated that he has a positive learning curve.

    Christy? Two words: Cornwall Alliance.

    Pielke Sr.? Someone who should know better.

    Pielke Jr.? You do know that he’s a political scientist, right?

  49. 49

    Turning the point on its head, here is a very interesting story in this context. Turns out that the main changes in climate denial funding are 1) growth of spending (probably); and 2) growing anonymity:

    Here’s a new study looking into the matter:

    Here’s a news story summarizing it:

    Organizations that actively block efforts to address climate change are funded by a large network of conservative donors to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year, according to the first in-depth study into the dark money that fuels the denial effort.

    The study, published Friday in the journal Climatic Change, analyzed the income of 91 think tanks, advocacy groups, and industry associations, funded by 140 different foundations, that work to oppose action on climate change. The study’s author, Robert Brulle, refers to these organizations as the climate change counter-movement, and concludes that their outsized influence “has not only played a major role in confounding public understanding of climate science, but also successfully delayed meaningful government policy actions to address the issue.”

    “It is not just a couple of rogue individuals doing this,” Brulle told the Guardian. “This is a large-scale political effort.”

    That would be ‘irresponsible advocacy’ writ large, by Gavin’s lights, and for a couple of reasons. The story concludes with an advocacy statement by Brulle:

    “Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible,” said Brulle. “Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square. Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts.”

  50. 50
    Kip Hansen says:

    Brief reply to Hank and Steve on the Vitamin/Supplement issue: This is just a parallel/other scientific field example in which a huge scientific following was generated based on real science findings that looked extremely promising when the field was young. The research field was overwhelmed by those so convinced that they became advocates. For twenty years, the advocates ruled the research, generating an industry 28 billion dollars strong, which used its might to protect itself by law from pesky naysayers in the FDA. Then the advocates convinced the FDA/NIH to get on board and fund definitive studies. The results are represented in the Annals of Internal Medicine this month. It is a cautionary tale, not an accusation.

    The claim that nutritional supplements did not have a consensus can only come from those who do not read the health and living section of the newspaper, visit his doctor, or look at the labels that have been forced onto every food product. Nearly every general medical now has a obligatory “nutritional consultant”.