Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

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Climate policy is a question of values as much as it is a question of science

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how climate scientists should engage with climate policy, sparked mostly by Tamsin Edwards’ post on the Guardian’s Political Science blog. I didn’t intend on jumping in because I’m not sure I have much new to add, but perhaps I should put it on the record anyway.

Stick to what you know

I would encourage scientists to speak out on what they know (i.e. science). The claims of climate ‘sceptics’ who deny basic greenhouse theory are easy to refute, and we should be doing that. In fact, by and large we are doing that.

But it’s really not clear to me why a climate scientist should use their position of authority to argue for specific policies. Policy is a democratic process. Scientists shouldn’t abuse their position to give their values the loudest voice. Those on the left who call for them to do so might not always like what they hear. What if a climate scientist proposes using natural gas from fracking as a bridge fuel? What if they come out in support of market-driven responses to climate change, like a cap and trade system? These are views they are entitled to have, of course, but they are outside their area of expertise. They are views partly based on values.

The question of what should be done about climate change is a policy question and should be debated as such. Of course, ‘what should be done’ is influenced by what we think we know about future climate, but that is by no means the only influence. The response to climate change encompasses so many other factors, each as important as the physics of the climate system: engineering and technology, spending and taxation choices, international diplomacy, and democratic representation of values and priorities of the population.

A question of values

The fact is, it is not obvious what to do about climate change. Assuming we have a finite pot of money to spend on a range of policies, it’s not obvious that climate change is top of the list. What about improving energy access to the billions without it? Even if we assume climate change is top of the list, how do we go about reducing our emissions? Taxation, perhaps? How should that tax be designed? How progressive should that tax be? What kind of ‘energy mix’ should that taxation system be striving towards?

These are all important questions which have little to do with climate science, and everything to do with value judgements. In an ideal world we decide on a policy through a mix of democratic discussion (including everyone) and expert input (recognising that some people know more about policy options than others). Most climate scientists cannot claim to be policy experts. As citizens it is their right to engage in the discussion about what should be done, but it’s irresponsible to place themselves as experts when they’re not. It helps no-one.

A crystal-clear separation of science and policy would prevent them from hiding behind ‘but the science isn’t settled’ and force dissenters to articulate why they actually object.

Some object because they perceive calls for climate action as a critique of their wasteful, consumption-based way of life, and they simply can’t handle that critique. Some object because they see climate policy as something which can only be driven by the State, which they mistrust. There may be a way to deal with these objections and move forward with good climate policy, but only once we remove the scientific veil and address why they really object.

What kind of world do you want?

For advocacy groups, the science is somewhat irrelevant. They know what kind of world they want to live in already. The Taxpayers’ Alliance knows what kind of world it wants to live in. Greenpeace know what kind of world it wants to live in. Neither of their conceptions of the world is determined by climate science. They will inevitably use scientific conclusions to back up their pre-conceived notions of how the world should be.

For example, an overzealous left might institute climate policy which is inconsistent with the science. Perhaps they assume climate change is reversible (on near-term timescales it just isn’t). Perhaps they waste public money compensating people for extreme weather events despite plenty of scientific uncertainty about the link between climate change and weather extremes. I don’t know what they might do, but it’s important that everyone gets the correct scientific information, because otherwise everyone will just twist what little science they know to fit with how they want the world to be. If scientific errors are highlighted, it is up to the policymaker to justify their choices in other ways. The left could justify by talking about their particular values, but once again, that’s not to do with science.

Policy options are as much a matter of values as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Scientists aren’t policy experts, and shouldn’t pretend to be. If they pretend, they enable dissenters to set up a strawman and dismiss both the particular policy they are pushing and the generality of the science. If scientists (in their professional capacities) stick to describing the consequences of certain policies their credibility as honest brokers is strengthened. Policymakers can then make policy choices based on credible facts and the values and preferences of the citizenry. Climate scientists are free to hold and express policy views, but in my opinion they should be very careful about doing so when they are speaking in a professional capacity.

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Scientists as informers of public policy

I have just come out of the EGU session on geoethics and jotted down a couple of thoughts in my notepad. One of the speakers told us about placements their organisation (Geology for Global Development) coordinates help scientists learn about social and ethical issues and how they relate to their research.

He specifically mentioned teaching of participatory decision-making.

I feel that the concept of participatory decision-making is tricky for scientists. Science, as a method of inquiry, is based on the idea that there is a single result, a clear truth to be uncovered.

So then, scientists might have a natural tendency to think that experts would always make the best decisions, and that these decisions can be improved by increasing knowledge.

In the reality of public policy, on scales from family units to nations to the global community, there is no objective best policy. The consequences of each policy are dependent on the set of values and.opinions through which it is viewed. Essentially, people make things complicated. The natural world can be shown to behave according to certain laws. Approaches using game theory attempt to do the same with humans, but it is clear that social and cultural differences among humans affect their decision-making preferences. Essentially, as a wealthy white male living in the UK I am not in a position to define how the life of a woman in a drought-afflicted African country would be best improved.

In reality there is no ‘best’ policy, only consequences affecting different people in different ways. We need to map out these consequences (making use of scientific information, of course) to make an informed decision in a democratic fashion. This is why we need participatory decision-making.

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FameLab: ‘the science take on American Idol’

In my habitual Friday-afternoon wanderings around the Internet I came across an interesting workshop being run at the AGU Fall Meeting next week. It’s called FameLab: Exploring Earth and Beyond. The AGU session page is very brief. It says:

Come listen as young scientists aspiring to be the next Jane Goodall or Neil deGrasse Tyson share their passion for science in three minutes or less at ‘FameLab: Exploring Earth & Beyond.’ This science take on “American Idol” has 10 performers giving PowerPoint-free talks meant to engage all audiences.

FameLab in the USA is a joint venture from NASA and National Geographic. After a bit of Googling I discovered that it’s essentially a national heat for an international competition. It turns out FameLab is an established project which has been running since 2007, encouraging young scientists to develop and use their communication skills to connect with the rest of society.

Initially I was rather sceptical of this project. The name made it sound like an outlet for those seeking validation for their inflated egos. I asked myself whether that would appeal to real scientists. I quickly scotched this train of thought. Scientists are just people. Some people crave fame more than others. It’s a very human thing to seek recognition, though some go to greater lengths than others, and some deserve it more than others. The FameLab website describes some ‘performances’:

Some played it straight, some were slick and a few were downright eccentric. One contestant waved around tennis balls dressed in colourful wigs to highlight his point about polymer chemistry. Another jumped on a chair and performed pirouettes to animate his arcane research on spinning electrons. A third confessed that her props had been confiscated by customs and went on to threaten me with a gun that fires needles (“Yes, it could have been disastrous” she confessed afterwards).

I was drawn in. FameLab seems to be a fine way to encourage innovation in science communication. Some people are well-suited to the role of the entertainer-scientist (or, as I referred to them in a previous post, the celebrity scientist). Others are not, and I think it’s a mistake to think that every scientist can make their work fun and accessible for everyone. Some science is very hard to make appealing to a non-technical audience. Nevertheless, when an energetic and empathetic person combines with an interesting and relevant subject, an entertainer-scientist can result.

I think these people are entertainers first and foremost. They might have scientific credentials, but their primary role is to get non-technical audiences to listen to them, and sometimes that requires quite ruthless abstractions of the science. Brian Cox, Britain’s foremost entertainer-scientist, made this quite clear in a comment about the use of loud music during his TV programmes:

It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture…it [music] lends a lot of emotion and more depth

Here he is not speaking as a scientist. In that guise he wouldn’t allow himself to include the word ’emotion’. He is speaking as a communicator of science. He recognises the importance of ’emotion’ in the way most people think, most of the time. FameLab looks like a fine initiative to bring at least some of the great discoveries of science to the widest audience possible.

If I had one complaint, it’s that this approach to science communication focuses a little too much on the ‘wonder’ and the ‘mystery’ of it all. This is understandable, because these are emotionally appealing concepts. But a real strength of science is its critical, sceptical approach. Science teaches the ability to analyse claims, seek for evidence, test claims against available evidence, and modify opinions accordingly. I think there is a tremendous social benefit to getting people to acknowledge the cultural filters which remove ‘inconvenient’ facts and attempt to circumvent them. Imagine the attitude of a critcally-thinking public to the inherently biased journalism we face every day. People will start to check multiple sources to examine stories through different cultural ‘lenses’ and attempt to get at the facts behind the story, filtering out the noise and the ideologies of those who claim to be presenting the truth. ‘Rationality’ isn’t some kind of panacea for social problems, but I think the scientific approach applied to other areas of life could be very beneficial.

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(In)effective counter-arguments

BBC3’s ‘Free Speech’ presenter Jake Humphreys. (C) BBC

Watching BBC3’s Free Speech programme tonight, I noticed an excellent example of a hollow debate in which two sides argue two completely different issues. Their positions reflect their cultural biases. The discussion was about a campaign asking the editor of the Sun newspaper to stop printing pictures of topless women (the infamous ‘Page 3’). The two sides can be (very roughly) summarised thus:

Position 1: The Sun is a mainstream newspaper and printing photographs of topless women perpetuates a culture in which women are measured against their physical attributes. Looking good naked is inconsequential and women should be valued for their intellectual achievements.

Position 2: Women are free to make money selling photographs of themselves in whatever state of undress they like. If some people do not like this, they can express their disapproval by simply not buying the newspaper.

These two positions are clearly in opposition, but one is not a counter-argument to the other. In the programme these two viewpoints were expressed repeatedly and yet no one directly addressed either argument.

Nothing is ever debated

Position 1 argues that the cultural message of printing these pictures in a mainstream newspaper is not one we want to encourage. It does not argue that erotic photographs are wrong, or women who pose for these photographs are exploited victims. To rebut this argument one must argue against the contention that these images foster gender-discriminatory attitudes that have no place in our society.

Position 2 takes a classic ‘freedom’ stance: women should be free to do what they like, as should the newspaper-buying public. To rebut this argument one must either rebut the case for this type of freedom (quite a difficult task) or rebut the contention that Page 3 is a problem because people take offence (easier). Position 1 nearly does it. It points out that Page 3 can be damaging to people who never even pick up a copy of the Sun, because it perpetuates attitudes towards women which contribute to continued gender inequality (highly visible in the gender pay gap).

By my analysis, one can rebut Position 2 by identifying the values behind the argument. Those who subscribe to Position 2 are likely to think their opponents are against personal freedom, whereas it is clear from Position 1 that that is not what their opponents are arguing. Those arguing from Position 1 should Position 2 and explain that, though nothing in the argument is incorrect, there are other reasons why we should campaign to stop the printing of images of nude women in a mainstream newspaper.

Climate science debates are climate policy debates in disguise

This may seem tangential to the main theme of this blog, but I see parallels here with ‘debates’ on climate change and climate policy. Many who argue irrationally against the basic physical science of climate change do so because of their cultural biases against climate policies. Those who value industry, consumer goods and wealth are unlikely to accept necessarily anti-consumptive policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. People take positions on one topic but in fact argue from deeply entrenched but irrelevant positions on another. In order to understand arguments one must understand the underlying cultural biases.

Understanding cultural bias both helps people to construct stronger arguments and helps people to rebut them. In other words, it makes debate more robust, and (hopefully) helps us converge on an appropriate course of action. And yet people seem completely unaware of the values systems underlying different arguments on climate, include their own. Dan Kahan makes this point eloquently in his paper as part of the Cultural Cognition Project.