August Open Thread

The promising young scientist Tamsin Edwards has the internet abuzz with her claim that “climate scientists must not advocate particular policies”. Various rebuttals have appeared. Others support her. Conversation has been active on Twitter as well, with Schmidt, Gleick, and Mann among those speaking in opposition. What do you think?


  1. Unfortunately, I've become less complementary about Tamsin's views as time's gone by. I had a Twitter discussion with Tamsin yesterday in which Tamsin responded to one of my tweets by saying "noooooo scientists should spend *more* time helping ppl understand sci!", followed by a rather condescending suggestion that I repeat this N times. Never a huge fan of people being condescending, but I guess there's nothing fundamentally wrong with it. The issue I have though is that her first response comes across as a strawman argument. It's suggesting that scientists advocating policies means that they're no longer helping people understand science. This just seems absurd to me. Noone's suggesting that scientists should not be doing their best to engage, scientifically, with the public and with policy makers. The argument is simply that prohibiting scientists from expressing an opinion on a subject about with they expert knowledge just seems wrong. Noone's suggesting that scientists should be given a special platform to do so or that their views about policy should be taken more seriously than other people's views. Not all scientists should be expected to do so, either. They should simply have the right to do so if they so choose.

    It's possible that Tamsin's view is that advocating for certain policies undermines trust (as suggested in her article) and hence makes it difficult for scientists to then engage, scientifically, with the public and with policy makers. The issue I have with this is that there seems to be more evidence that a luck of trust (if it exists) is because certain media outlets keep telling the public that climate scientists can't be trusted, rather than the public deciding this independently because they've become aware of advocacy by climate scientists (see Dana's Guardian article today, for example). In a sense, I was quite disappointed that an active climate scientist actually suggested that climate scientists should work to regain trust. It suggests that Tamsin thinks the lack of trust might be justified when, it seems to me at least, that there's no evidence to suggest that this is true.

  2. My central comment is that Tamsin's approach demonstrably doesn't work. IPCC was scrupulous in avoiding policy recommendations, certainly before Pachauri's leadership. Yet people attacked it as partisan and untrustworthy.

    On the other hand, we do see a few scientists spinning evidence to support themselves. Shakhova and Wadhams in particular come to mind as expressing excessive worry; there are other less extreme cases. On the other hand, there are those like Spencer and de Freitas who systematically understate risks. This sort of advocacy is indeed problematic.

    The question is whether scientists (or science writers) put their preferred policy outcome ahead of conveying a balanced impression of truth. Those who do indeed put us all at risk.

    But active spin is different from engaging in policy discussions. To say that scientists should scrupulously avoid such discussions makes no sense. First of all, they'll be accused of meddling anyway, as the IPCC experience shows. Secondly, important expertise would be left out of the discussion.

    Edwards gives too much credence to Roger Pielke Jr.'s confused "Honest Broker" talk. It's true that there is a role for informed intermediaries - this website aims to be one of those. But "informed" is key. A person or institution that is not well-informed on the substance cannot provide the "brokerage" that is needed.

  3. Have a look. I'm still absorbing, and think this is very useful if gagworthy in some parts. I have to assume that Dr. Schmidt thought it was important enough to attend with JC. (Side note: there are two Richard Betts - this is Richard A. from the Hadley Center):

  4. John Rennie responds to Tasmin E:

    From the larger blogosphere, this item from Andrew Sullivan appears relevant:

  5. I really liked John Rennie's straightforward response. Here are his headers with one addition (parens):

    Politics isn’t a dirty word.
    The prohibition is asymmetrical.
    Avoiding political involvement is a losing strategy in politics.
    Even a semblance of policy neutrality is impossible to maintain to those who demand it. (.Look at how the views of climatologists are commonly caricatured.)
    Scientists commenting on policy doesn’t seem to have much effect in any case.
    The climate debate was politicized long before scientists came to it.

    That would be Tamsin Edwards (sp)
    I am always tempted to respond to Ross Douthat because it's so easy, like shooting fish in a barrel. But it prompted me to do some digging, because I remember being annoyed with Steven Pinker. I found this from Walter Lifton and others in response.

    Some local violence in South Boston ("Southie") touched next door, and reminded me that how localized perception can be. This is a problem with the level of destruction from climate disasters nationwide too. Walter Lifton and his colleagues talk about the objectification of mass violence elsewhere amidst Pinker's claims that individual violence and "civilized" habits have improved. My New Yorker talks about the problem with empathy when our culture lavishes care on individuals they hear about or know but ignores bigger unpromoted problems, another take on individual versus statistics.

  6. David Roberts weighs in on Tamsinism.

    I like where he says

    I’ve been through this debate so many times that I’ve come to disagree with just about everything everyone says about it, which probably means I should take a vacation.

    Makes me feel better about myself. Of course, I disagree with David on his very next sentence, where he asserts it doesn't matter what scientists say or how we say it.

  7. It's worthy of note that Tamsin's manifesto has not only focused the conversation for a week or two, but has raised the quality of thought all around the internet. I think she's completely wrong.

    In a sense she is also right.

    I've always said that Roger Pielke asks a good question when he asks what the role of science is in the public discourse, but I could not bring myself to credit much of his answer. But Tamsin defends a piece of Roger's stance eloquently.

    In doing so, she is, at least arguably, expressing the scientific ethic: the role of the pure scientist is to speak very carefully and precisely and in measured fashion. I think there is definitely a role that is properly called "pure scientist". But the scientific ethic is not the only ethical principle at work.

    If the scientist perceives that the political/social world is working in ways that reveal dangerous confusion about the physical world, a social obligation is also incumbent on the scientist.

    At least that's how I see it. In a sense, in times of need, some among the pure scientists sometimes should become applied scientists or engineers. In those cases, the role is different from the aloof "it's in the journal, and it's even in the IPCC reports, here's chapter and verse, so I am done. You figure it out from here."

    The ethic of the engineer is to solve the problem at hand.

  8. Anyone finding all these words a little daunting can go and celebrate the confluence of Neven and Abraham:

    I found it heartseasing ...

  9. If all the words seem a bit much, one can go celebrate the meeting of Abraham and Neven, the best of the best:

    I found it very relaxing.

    (forgot to log in, so this may eventually be a duplicate; changed the link to Neven instead of the Guardian)

  10. Can someone tell me where online I might find a good, succinct, & ideally evidence-based writeup about why/whether a focus on "complexity" when communicating climate change&policy tends to nudge the reader toward paralysis?

  11. I'm with Eli:

    Having opined on Richard Tol elsewhere, quite rudely even for me, I will leave it to any interested parties to take a look. Rabett has an inimitable way with nonsense. Shutting up the experts and listening to professional obfuscators is not a solution to anything.

  12. "a focus on “complexity” when communicating climate change&policy tends to nudge the reader toward paralysis?"

    I'll keep it in my inexpert mind and if I find anything, will bring it here. Meanwhile, I strongly support your point about reader paralysis.

  13. Yes.
    "One obvious way of moving forward is to ask for examples of this advocacy that has apparently cause so much trouble. What does this actually mean in practice?" ... [AGU position statement...]

    From the comments:
    I am reminded of the plane crash of a Colombian aircraft near Kennedy International airport because the pilots failed to communicate the urgency of their situation to air traffic controllers. They ran out of fuel and crashed. The subsequent investigation found that the pilots should have used clearer language when communicating with air traffic controllers like using the word "emergency". They knew they had no fuel left and instead they said "I think we need priority"...

  14. Complexity is what keeps Life going and stable. Complexity is beautiful and miraculous. Complexity transcendends linear causality and the tertium non datur.

    But nobody is seriously interested in real Life. We have our artificial worlds, our heavens and gods, our money, our black-white linear causal cleverness, etc. - who needs real reality then? Beauty outside our own creation? The purpose of the outside world is to masturbate our Ego.

    Nobody seriously wants to ponder the wrong-doings we perpetrate upon Life at large and future generations of humanity, dwarfing Auschwitz, Rwanda, etc. etc. etc. We have pride in ourselves, after all. Brain paralysis is the natural result. I've seen it with elderly Germans (most now dead) and their children.

    Now brain paralysis raises again, stronger than ever.

  15. Deniers will also move the goalposts on the definition of a "specific policy". A reasonable view is that scientists can speak with authority on the science and with some authority about what goals the science very strongly implies, while only having the same say as any other citizen on specific policies. But the deniers will take any broad goal like "we must decarbonize the economy fast enough to stay under 450 ppm" and call it a specific policy and claim that the scientist has no special authority. That's bullshit of course - the specific policies would be a carbon tax, emissions trading, renewable subsidies, etc. But it's one more reason not cede any rhetorical ground.

  16. Good reporting in NYTimes magazine on reporter Laura Poitras who has been harrassed almost beyond belief for her reporting, which recently helped break the Snowden story:

    (h/t Tenney Naumer, again)

  17. I didn't have time for this, but watched anyway.

    The problem is that Curry is an advocate in that she wants advocates that aren't upfront nor advocate responsibly to be taken just as seriously as everyone else. She also isn't upfront about this advocacy of hers, but keeps everything clouded in vagueness and superficial cliches. That's not responsible, because what it leads to is inaction. And inaction is irresponsible from a risk management perspective, given what we know and don't know connected to climate change caused by global warming.

    She's probably not aware of this because her ego is too big.

  18. I thought Horatio had the mot juste on this. (Sorry, I agree you have more important things to do; I was interested in what Gavin had to say.) I wasted almost an entire day confirming that nothing has changed about her, since I make it my business to answer some of these spurious claims on DotEarth, a waste of time most likely. Unfortunately, she's a darling of the climate snollygosters (Dad found this word and we're going to use it):

    Horatio Algeranon says:
    (August 22, 2013 at 7:25 pm)

    “Currying the Flame”
    – by Horatio Algeranon

    Curry the flame
    Is what she does
    For “skeptic” fame
    And blogging buzz

  19. climate snollygosters

    Lovely wørd!


    “a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy”.
    Columbus Dispatch, Ohio, 28 Oct. 1895.

    But an American dictionary fifty years earlier had defined it simply as a shyster.

    See also:


    I prefer fee + partial dividend. The balance is used to pay for means to remove the excess CO2.

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