April 08, 2005
Response to the RealClimate Guys
Posted to Climate Change
The folks at RealClimate have offered a set of thoughtful responses in the comments to an earlier post of mine seeking to classify the various political camps of the climate debate. Let me offer a few responses here in the main part of Prometheus because I think (perhaps wrongly!) that this discussion is worth sharing with the broader community. Let me emphasize that I respect the ambitions of RealClimate and I appreciate Gavin, William, Stefan and Eric's willingness to engage on these issues.
1. William Connolley offers three points. First he suggests that I am using the term "honest broker" in different ways, he quotes me and then responds: "Firstly, there is "the honest broker who seeks to expand (or at least clarify) the scope of choice". RC does this, of course, by analysing the science. But later on, your defintion of HB has shifted: now suddenly "an honest broker for decision makers and the public on the climate issue, then it should openly discuss policy options". Why? Within the science arena, one can discuss the science."
I don't see any distinction here because I equate "scope of choice" with "openly discuss policy options." I cannot see how it is that RealClimate can claim to clarify or expand the scope of choice (i.e., policy options) on climate change without explicitly discussing such options. And I just disagree that science either implicitly implies or points to certain options. So my point is that if you indeed want to clarify policy options then the obvious course of action is to actually discuss policy.
Second William (and Eric below) wonders why I differentiate between RealClimate and Journal of Climate. I would think that this should be obvious in a number of dimensions. Most obviously is the fact that JOC seeks to present new science under the institutional structures of a journal with an editorial board, under a professional society (AMS) and the (imperfect, yes) process of peer review. RealClimate, like Prometheus, is a commentary forum for a very few people to express their views. Obviously, we think that weblogs are import, but I wouldn't conflate Prometheus with the journal "Policy Sciences".
Third, William asks for a response to Gavin's complaint about being "lumped in" with "policy-driven pseudo-scientists." My response is simply that the category referred to is called "scientizers" and not "scientists" and would include people far outside the scientific community (e.g., Rush Limbaugh and Ross Gelbspan). My interpretation of the RealClimate blog is that prevailing opinion there is that the political debate on climate centers on science, and see my response to Eric below for further discussion of this point. (Dan Sarewitz, Naomi Oreskes, Steven Bocking, Sheila Jasanoff, Peter Wiengart and others have written thoughtful pieces on how political debates become "scientized" and expand beyond the credentialed or mainstream scientific community.)
2. Stefan Ramstorf writes that Real Climate, "is a forum where working scientists attempt to explain and discuss the science in their field in a way understandable for a wider audience. This has nothing to do with policy options - you could have a site just like this discussing new results from astrophysics for a wider audience. Whether a new estimate of climate sensitivity "narrows" or "widens" policy options is not what we want to discuss on RealClimate - whether it is based on reliable data and sound physical reasoning is."
I have written on my interpretation of Real Climate's focus in a post of late last year,
"[RealClimate] claims to be "restricted to scientific topics and will not get involved in any political or economic implications of the science." This is a noble but futile ambition. The site's focus has been exclusively on attacking those who invoke science as the basis for their opposition to action on climate change, folks such as George Will, Senator James Inhofe, Michael Crichton, McIntyre and McKitrick, Fox News, and Myron Ebell. Whether intended or not, the site has clearly aligned itself squarely with one political position on climate change." And to this I'd add that the comment section of RealClimate (moderated in some way?) is mostly about politics and policy, not science.
But consider also this example: Stefan asks on RealClimate, "What if the hockey stick were wrong?" and then answers, "Surely, then we wouldn't need to worry about global warming, and the world could hold off with the Kyoto protocol? Unfortunately, that also doesn't follow." This seems to me to be quite obviously a discussion of the implications of science for policy and politics. I in fact agree strongly with Stefan that the "Hockey Stick" is not relevant to decisions about Kyoto. In fact, I'd make the stronger statement that the scientific debate over the "Hockey Stick" (i.e., its scientific correctness or incorrectness) is not relevant to any climate policy. But the "Hockey Stick" is for better or worse a political symbol and support for it or attacks on it are both unavoidably caught up in a political (again, not policy) debate. Whatever RealClimate's motivations for entering this debate, surely RealClimate must be aware of the political significance of their role. And this is why a comparison of climate science to astrophysics doesn't really work because astrophysics lacks the important context of a highly political debate taking place in the guise of science.
3. Eric Steig takes issue with my claim that RealClimate sees the climate debate as being about science and calls my categorizing a "best guess." Well, yes it is a guess. If the folks at RealClimate think that the political debate about climate is in fact not about science then I'd be happy to be corrected. But as I wrote here, "It would be wonderful if opponents to action on climate change would stop hiding behind science. But the efforts of those scientists who take them on the basis of science are what allow then to hide in plain sight. The way out of this situation is not to engage in endless debate about climate science, but to question whether science is in fact the right battleground for this political conflict."
A question in response to Eric is, why does RealClimate think that public, policy makers, journalist education on climate science matters enough to warrant a weblog, if not for reasons of coming to more informed judgments (i.e., decisions, policies) on climate? In other words, if RealClimate is all about science they why would you even care about responding to "agenda-driven commentary"?
Eric also writes, "With respect to RealClimate, in particular, you clearly differentiative between them and the scientific journals. On what grounds? What are the journals supposedly doing (or not doing) that makes them different from RealClimate? You can't appeal to peer review here, because peer review is imperfect, and the reviews are done by scientists, most of whom probably disagree with your viewpoint on RealClimate! So if RealClimate is "biased" then so are the journals! That puts us in the wonderful position of having no purely scientific basis for the study of climate. Is that really the intellectual position you wish to take?"
If Eric is suggesting that RealClimate and peer-reviewed scientific journals are one and the same then I admit to being baffled. Elsewhere RealClimate posts the following statements, among many there which defend peer review,
"It is essential that the papers be published in scientific quality journals in order to ensure the credibility of the results." (here)
"... even when it initially breaks down, the process of peer-review does usually work in the end." (here)
Yes peer review is flawed, but (for reasons also discussed above) I am not ready to equate science journals with weblogs.
RealClimate is an important experiment. And it would seem to me that from close attention to this experiment we can learn a lot about whether or not there is a role on the web for commentary on science, policy and politics that goes beyond what is already in plentiful supply from interest-group advocates, mainstream journalism or the traditional peer-reviewed journals.Posted on April 8, 2005 10:48 AM
What you said was that you "... believe that there is plenty of discussion of climate science with no extra-scientific context. Just look at the Journal of Climate ...." So you are making the claim that the journals are somehow free of the intellectual dishonesty which you accuse RealClimate of having. I'm not saying the journals are intellectually dishonest, but nor do I believe that RealClimate is. Again, I ask you what substantive argument you have that RealClimate crosses some threshold that the journals supposedly do not cross? Please don't repeat your claim that "The site's focus has been exclusively on attacking those who invoke science as the basis for their opposition to action on climate change." This is simply innaccurate. See for example: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=115, and http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=87
P.S. Too bad we didn't meet up in Seattle. This discussion is probably better had over dinner and beer.
Posted by: eric at April 9, 2005 10:43 AM
I think that it is important to discuss the subject regarding the relationship between science and politics. But I also think that it is important to realize that politics in the US is a different creature to that in other parts of the world. I also think it's important to be humble and assume that we do not understand other people's motivation or their standing. After having lived in the US for three years, I realized that I do not understand the very basic logical platform of the US, since the set of 'core beliefs' in Norway (social democratic) is very different to that of the US (one example: in we are liberal about Norway fireworks but not guns; in the US it's opposite, and so on...). I also came to the conclusion that it is very important to respect other people, even if you don't understand exactly what they stand for. To make an example that Americans can relate to: it's important that republicans and democrats can respect each other, even if they think the other is dead wrong. I want to take this point a bit further, and relate it to this discussion. I can understand the temptation that Roger Pielke makes between our motivation behind RC and politics, but want to remind hime that we RC-guys are a diverse group (that also goes for the climate community) who happen to think that climate science is distorted through the media and people who do not believe that global warming is important. I have taken a turn here in Norway to try to the best of my abilities to correct the impressions about climate science - note, we do not have the same political divide with regards to the notion of global warming (just one populist far-right party, and we have a bunch of political parties, not merely two!!!). I see it more that it's my duty to try to disseminate the most correct picture of the climate science to our community, as I have a responsibility to the tax payers who pay my salary. I expect that any state employed persion in my country to do the same, i.e. inform the tax payers about the right state-of-affairs regarding their field of speciality. Yes, we do not know the 'truth', but we can certainly exclude some statements that prove to be wrong (in the spirit of Carl Popper). For instance, there have been people who exclude important facts, or claim that solar activity is warming up the world and not discussing the fact that there are no evidence that the level of solar activity has systematically since the 1950s, or people who claim that the temperature trends are caused be economic activity, and manage to do the analysis wrong. It's therefore my responsibility to tell the tax payers (the people who pay my salary) that I think that these people are wrong and to explain why (the latter is extremely important). Therefore, to me, it's not a question about politics, but about ethics and science. These kind of debates are important for science. Why have I got involved in a 'blog' which is international? Because the claims first appear in the US, and are then relayed here in Norway a while later. Why not share my thoughts at an earlier stage and to the whole world? I don't know what is the right thing to do, but I think that Pielke is right that RC is an imporant experiment. But I disagree that my motivations are politically motivated. I hope you accept that we think very differently and that we most likely have a different base-set of beliefs.
Posted by: rasmus at April 9, 2005 12:25 PM
Thanks for your comments. To be clear, I haven't made any claim of "intellectual dishonesty". Clearly the creators of RealClimate thought that there was a difference between a blog and the journals or else they wouldn't have set it up, right? Peer-reviewed journals are for a discussion of science among specialists. As I understand it RealClimate has positioned itself as explaining science and its significance not to other scientists but to journalists, decision makers and the public. This would seem to be a big difference from what the journals do. And I agree with you that peer-reviewed journals, in varying degrees, often do go well beyond science (maybe not JOC so much, but arguably Science and Nature, and there are extreme examples like Energy and Environment). And your two examples show that RealClimate has not focused its attention exclusively on one side, so my apologies for repeating that claim (which was accurate at the time). In the future I'll use the term "mostly";-) And just to remind any readers about what the basic debate is about -- RealClimate claims to focus only on scientific issues. I am convinced that the evidence suggests otherwise, specifically that RealClimate is couching political advocacy in the guise of science. From my perspective this debate matters because if I am correct then despite the noble amitions of RealClimate its claims to focus only on science may do more to politicize science than integrate science with policy.
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 9, 2005 12:44 PM
Thanks much for your very thoughtful comments. My claims about RealClimate are based empirically, i.e., based upon what I read on the site. I'll admit to treating the authorship as a single entity (i.e., RealClimate) in my critiques, though I accept your point that there is likely a diversity of views among its contributors. When I read the site, from the main posts to the many comments, I do not see the center of discussion or selction of topics to be on science (as one might expect on such a highly politicized subject, contrary to astrophysics, but not unlike stem cell research). And as I've written elsewhere, I don't think that such efforts should try to be about only science, because any effort to explain the significance of science to the public, journalists or policy makers is a political act (and that is a good thing!). But in my view the only way to serve as an honest broker on science is not to pretend that you are focused only on science, but to openly discuss the significance of science for action.
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 9, 2005 12:58 PM
Like the others, I disagreed rather strongly with your post: my response is here: http://mustelid.blogspot.com/2005/04/honest-broker.html
Posted by: William at April 9, 2005 02:36 PM
I agree that to get involved in a public discussion is by definition a "political act", and there is nothing wrong with that - to the contrary, without citizens getting involved, no democracy can work.
But what I do strongly object to are your stated or insinuated further steps: from the "political act" you go on to suggesting we have a "political agenda", and next you go on to suggest that we therefore are not "honest brokers". This can very easily be read as you suggesting we are dishonest, and I would like you to very clearly state that this is not what you are suggesting.
Let's clarify the issue with a simple example. I walk along a street and discover a house fire that has not been noticed yet. So I ring the fire brigade. That is the point where I get involved (the "political act") rather than being just an observer (a "scientist"). My hope and intention would of course be that the fire brigade comes - but this is not an "agenda". I do not have any extraneous or prior "agenda" to call the fire brigade, other than the fact that I see a fire and do the only decent and responsible thing.
Now, there could be other people who do have a prior agenda - let's say a loony who loves fire brigades and wants to see one. Such a person with an agenda might deliberately exaggerate the fire - perhaps it's just a harmless one that's already going out by itself, but he tells the fire brigade that he sees big flames coming out of the roof. That would be dishonest and irresponsible, and the fire brigade should rightly be sceptical about the description that such a person gives of the fire.
The problem with your column is: you are clearly suggesting that we at RealClimate are in the latter categorie. We supposedly have some extraneous "agenda" (though what would that be?) to call for greenhouse gas reduction, hence we are prone to exaggerate the risk of climate change, we are not honest brokers, and our statements about the science should be mistrusted.
I'd like to tell you that I simply do not have any "agenda" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, other than the scientific evidence that I openly discuss. If climate change turned out to be harmless after all, I'd be relieved that we don't need to reduce emissions. Climate is not an argument that I conveniently use to push some other political agenda of mine. I see myself in the first category of person: I see a fire and I describe it as well as I can to the fire brigade. I have no reason to exaggerate, and the fire brigade has no reason to distrust my information.
If you think that I have moved into the second category, the category of people who might distort information to suit their agenda, the people who may not be fully honest and should not be trusted - then please give the specific evidence for this. This would be a very serious allegation indeed, it would undermine my public credibility, and I would treat this as a very serious issue if you were making such a public allegation about me. I think you owe me a clarification here.
Final point: you claim that RealClimate exlusively focusses on rebutting the arguments of climate contrarians. That is not the case; see e.g. the post I cowrote with Gavin: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=115 "11ºC warming, climate crisis in 10 years?" which rebuts some alarmist media reports. It is true, however, that by far the most (and most systematic and deliberate) distortion of the scientific facts comes from "contrarians".
Posted by: Stefan Rahmstorf at April 11, 2005 05:10 AM
Thanks for these thoughtful comments, which I think go some way toward reconciling our different perspectives. Let me take your comments one-by-one. My comments about RealClimate are motivated by RealClimate’s claim to be focusing on science, and not on policy or politics. When challenged on this point RealClimate has offered a passionate defense of a strict separation. I am interested in such claims of separation from both an academic and pragmatic perspective because the field that I am from has conducted considerable research to suggest that such separation just isn’t possible in practice. It is clear that the term “honest broker” raises some hackles (and now that I see this reaction from you, I apologize for the miscommunication). Let me be clear -- The term “honest broker” is academic jargon and is not intended to be pejorative in any fashion. I use it in the sense recommended by Dan Sarewitz in the concluding section of his excellent 1996 book, Frontiers of Illusion (Temple University Press). The “honest broker” on policy seeks to expand the scope of choice, as contrasted to the “issue advocate” who works to reduce the scope of choice (as described in my 2003 Nature essay, Policy, Politics and Perspective). Both roles are important in a democracy, and both roles can be fulfilled by persons of the utmost integrity. But let me be clear about one point, one cannot serve as an “honest broker” (expanding choice) and “issue advocate” (reducing choice) at the same time. And once a scientist engages in public dialogue on a topic like climate change (or the house fire in your analogy) one necessarily takes on one of these roles (i.e., there is simply no hiding behind science). As I said in my response to Eric, no where have I suggested that RealClimate is being dishonest or anything other than sincere. (Again, let me be clear, to say that RealClimate is not acting as an honest broker is not at all the same as saying that RealClimate is dishonest, it means that RealClimate’s actions constrain the scope of choice on climate change. In the coming days I’ll post a definition of “honest broker” on the main Prometheus site – thanks for showing me that this is very much needed.) If RealClimate has some preexisting “agenda” I’d have no idea what it is, but I’ve certainly made no such claims. That is a red herring. Given the collected credentials of the RealClimate crew I’d be surprised if the information presented there wasn’t of the utmost quality -- there have been no claims from me about distorting information. Your fire analogy is a good one, and nicely illustrates some of the very points I have been making. Once scientists go from studying the dynamics of fire behavior to alerting the fire brigade, it opens up important questions of the connections of science and action, specifically, honest broker or issue advocate (there is no alternative!)? My point in this dialogue with RealClimate is simply that if you are calling for the fire brigade, then good for you (say that), just don’t pretend to equate this with studying the dynamics of fire. Thanks again!
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 11, 2005 06:33 AM
Stefan- On your point about "exclusively focus", you are correct and I acknowledged this in my comment above to Eric of April 9, 12:44PM. Thanks.
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 11, 2005 06:35 AM
I have been watching both RealClimate and Prometheus since late January. Both are good sources of information and insights to me.
(Let me take a case within science for comparison. There is no clear boundary between climate and weather. It is inevitable that discussion on science of climate is contaminated with some elements of science of weather. But it does not mean that we always need to include the whole subject of weather in our discussion of science of climate.)
In Yokohama (sometimes in Fujisawa), Japan
Posted by: K. Masuda at April 11, 2005 07:02 AM
after your post I have no clue any more what an "honest broker" is supposed to mean, nor what "widening policy options" is supposed to mean.
If I ring the fire brigade and tell them about a fire: do I widen or narrow their options?
I also have a problem with your phrasing: "working to reduce the scope of choice" - it implies I have such an intention, but really I'm just ringing those guys to tell them what I see. I don't even know whether that widens or narrows their choices.
Maybe I narrow their options: it becomes less viable for them to sit around drinking tea and doing nothing. Or perhaps I widen them: after all they now have more information than before, based on which they can make their decision whether to drink tea or get in the car (or how many cars and firemen to send). I would say: I simply help them to make a better, more informed choice. They can still stay home drinking tea but they have a better idea about the consequences.
To get back to climate: if some new results from paleoclimate suggest that climate sensitivity is very likely in the range 3-4 ºC, rather than 2-4 ºC as previously thought, does this information narrow or widen policy options? And if the result suggested that the range is 2-3 ºC? And that's just the scientific paper itself. Now we go out at RealClimate and explain that result in popular language: does this narrow or widen policy options? My hope would simply be that the public makes a more informed choice.
I look forward to your explanation.
Posted by: stefan at April 11, 2005 10:52 AM