Friday, September 16, 2016

Personal Reflections on Advocacy

I am often asked why I am not more actively involved in advocacy regarding climate change.  This is a complicated issue and I'd like to share some personal perspectives.

I think it is important for scientists to share their knowledge, understanding, and perspectives with the public.  In doing so, striving to describe what we know as accurately as possible is paramount.  As Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once said:
"The only way to have real success in science is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be (my emphasis)."
This doesn't mean that scientists need to be dispassionate or lack political views and perspectives.  I write and give talks on climate change and sometimes express strong viewpoints.

It also doesn't mean that scientists are infallible.  Science is a human endeavor and errors and mistakes occur.   Commitment to the truth means that results are checked and triple-checked and that retractions and corrections are made when errors and mistakes are discovered.   It means doing your best when writing and speaking to be accurate.

Finally it doesn't mean that scientific communication is unbiased.  Even Mr. Spock was biased.  Watch a few Star Trek episodes and this will become clear, although you can hardly fault him.  He was half human.   Human interpretation is affected by personal experience and knowledge.  I strive to be impartial, but anything I write or say will reflect my experience and understanding.  One reason why panels and committees are are often used to summarize of scientific knowledge is to limit the influence of personal biases.

So, my goal in science communication is to be an entertaining version of Mr. Spock, describe what we know as accurately as possible, and limit the influence of personal bias.

That being said, what I write and say on this blog, in my book, or during talks is a form of advocacy.  The Wikipedia definition of advocacy is "an activity by an individual or group which aims to influence decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions" and yes, I do hope to influence your decision making.  Knowledge is power and after learning about weather and climate, I hope that you use it.

I am, however, reluctant to advocate for a specific climate policy or in areas outside my scientific expertise.  Actually, I think I do advocate for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.  What I try to avoid is public endorsement of a specific policy option (e.g., carbon tax or cap-and-trade), attendance at political rallies, or alignment with specific political groups.

There are a number of reasons for this.  The first is that my background is weather and climate, not public policy, economics, or business.  My views on topics like carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, free-market economics, regulatory policy, and the like are not based on critical analysis.  When I discuss options such as these, I usually try to make it clear that my views are personal and not based on expert knowledge.

The second is that I wish to be a resource for individuals and groups regardless of political persuasion, even those who might strongly dispute my scientific reasoning and conclusions.

The third is, as Groucho Marx said, that "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member."  When it comes to climate, the last thing I want to be is a member of a club.  I value my independence.  I like to question everything and I doubt there is a political group that I could strongly endorse.  Finally, I like to attack problems, not people.

My views on these subjects are, however, constantly evolving.  In addition, I'm no saint and I'm sure I'm sometimes hypocritical of the views shared above.  Sometimes it's hard to be human.


  1. Nice comment Jim.I'm no skier, but your weather info is always whet I start my daily weather perusing.

  2. Well said.
    But I would add that today's climate discussion has been hijacked from the smartest and brightest, by the loudest and least scientific groups, whose main agenda is economical (in defense of the energy industry), and also political, because the fossil fuel industry financially supports certain political groups to in turn PREVENT any change in public policy.

    While it is admirable that you've avoided the public policy realm, that one also has to be guided by those in the atmospheric scientific community. Would an "X" percent drop in CO2 in "Y" amount of years, slow or stop the effects of our current warming?

    However, its hard for the "smartest people in the room" to have a meaningful discussion, when they are often drowned out by "the loudest and scientifically dumbest" in the room, who continue to loudly shout such ridiculousness as "Any warming ended in 1998" and "CO2 cannot cause runaway warming because its found naturally and only makes up a few percent of the atmosphere". That is when serious sources in climate should confront the "scientifically debunked" crowd head on, with the science, and let them know how ridiculous their claims are.

    It is most unfortunate that this became such a political issue. In the past, all sides could agree that pollution was bad and needed to be addressed and regulated, hence the EPA, started under Nixon. But today's political polarization is so toxic, than even some in the meteorological community who personally understand the implications of AGW, will at times in the next breath say something contrary, because they don't want to be perceived as supporting a political group they don't like. I've personally seen this.

    But I think you have done a great job on your blog occasionally commenting on climate, such as a few months ago when you predicted that some would use the normal cooling trend off of an El Nino to claim that the climate is in a longer term cooling trend again. Or correctly telling everyone that last years strong El Nino would have little to do with a better ski season in the Wasatch. :)