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October 06, 2006

More on Royal Society’s Role in Political Debates

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science + Politics | The Honest Broker

In various comment threads I have sought to identify clear criteria that the Royal Society applied when deciding to target Exxon and its funding of advocacy groups. I have asserted that this decision was political. Several readers and Bob Ward have suggested that the decision was based solely an effort to police misrepresentations of science by Exxon and groups that it funds. In this lengthy comment I explore this issue a bit further. Please read on if you are interested.

Why does this issue matter? I have often made the case that there is absolutely no problem with interests organizing to advance their agendas. Organized interests are an important part of how democracy works. What I have frequently objected to is the hiding of political agendas behind the notion of scientific objectivity or facts. Such action leads to a pathological politicization of science where debates about "what should we do?" are transformed into "whose science is right?" losing sight of the first question. This is even more problematic when institutions like the Royal Society participate in such pathological politicization, because such institutions have a unique and valuable role to play as what I have called "honest brokers of policy options." Such honest brokering is jeopardized when institutions take on the characteristics and behavior of an interest group, like for instance, Exxon.

What do I mean by "political"? I mean that the Royal Society is acting in a manner that seeks to gain advantage over others in debates over what society should do about climate change. In my opinion, the Royal Society letter was about far more than policing (mis)representations of science in public debate. If the Royal Society was in fact interested in the misrepresentation of science, and not political action on climate change, then presumably it would have developed general, unambiguous criteria to identify how one knows a "misrepresentation of science" when one sees it and then applied these criteria indiscriminately across organizations and issue areas. From Mr. Ward’s letter it appears that he started with Exxon’s Annual Report, which suggests that the Royal Society decided to start with Exxon based on some other criteria, which I would assume resulted from identification of Exxon as a strong interest against action on climate change. Action that the Royal Society favors, and has openly said so, such as in its joint statement prior to the G8 last year.

Further evidence for the political nature of the Royal Society’s action appears in the substance of Mr. Ward’s identification of a misrepresentation by Exxon in one of its reports. As shown below, the alleged misrepresentation is pretty weak stuff and I don’t even think that it rises to the level of misrepresentation. Certainly Exxon has engaged in cherrypicking to advance its perceived self-interest. Would the Royal Society suggest that any organization that cherrypicks information should not receive funding? If so that would likely lead to the end all public debate on all subjects!

Let’s take a look at the complaint and examine whether it is in fact a misrepresentation of science. Here is what Mr. Ward wrote to Exxon (link):

Thank-you for your recent letter and accompanying copies of the 2005 ExxonMobil 'Corporate Citizenship Report' and the 'UK and Ireland Corporate Citizenship' brochure. I have read both with interest, but I am writing to express my disappointment at the inaccurate and misleading view of the science of climate change that these documents present.

In particular, I was very surprised to read the following passage from the section on Environmental performance under the sub-heading of 'Uncertainty and risk' (p.23) in the 'Corporate Citizenship Report':

"While assessments such as those of the IPCC have expressed growing confidence that recent warming can be attributed to increases in greenhouse gases, these conclusions rely on expert judgment rather than objective, reproducible statistical methods. Taken together, gaps in the scientific basis for theoretical climate models and the interplay of significant natural variability make it very difficult to determine objectively the extent to which recent climate changes might be the result of human actions."

These statements also appear, of course, in the Exxon Mobil document on 'Tomorrow’s Energy', which was published in February. As I mentioned during our meeting in July, these statements are very misleading. The "expert judgment" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was actually based on objective and quantitative analyses and methods, including advanced statistical appraisals, which carefully accounted for the interplay of natural variability, and which have been independently reproduced.

Furthermore, these statements in your documents are not consistent with the scientific literature that has been published on this issue.

Let’s take the claims one-by-one. For those interested in the original Exxon Mobil report itself, the relevant text cited in the Royal Society letter can be found here.

Does the IPCC rely on expert judgment?

Answer = YES.

According to the IPCC instructions for preparation of reports: "Be prepared to make expert judgments and explain those by providing a traceable account of the steps used to arrive at estimates of uncertainty or confidence for key findings . . ." (PDF)

Does the IPCC distinguish between expert judgment and objective methods?

Answer = YES

From an IPCC report on presentations of uncertainty in its reports: "The [IPCC] text should distinguish between confidence statements based on well-established, "objective" findings versus those based on subjective judgments."(PDF)

Does determination of the recent warming that can be attributed to increases in greenhouse gases require expert judgment?

Answer = YES

According to Real Climate:

In public discussions there is often an emphasis on seemingly simple questions (e.g. the percentage of the current greenhouse effect associated with water vapour) that, at first sight, appear to have profound importance to the question of human effects on climate change. In the scientific community however, discussions about these 'simple' questions are often not, and have subtleties that rarely get publicly addressed.

One such question is the percentage of 20th Century warming that can be attributed to CO2 increases. This appears straightforward, but it might be rather surprising to readers that this has neither an obvious definition, nor a precise answer. I will therefore try to explain why. . . In summary, I hope I've shown that there is too much ambiguity in any exact percentage attribution for it to be particularly relevant.

Thus, was there anything factually inaccurate or inconsistent with the IPCC in the Exxon statement objected to by the Royal Society?

Answer = NO

But let’s also not overlook the obvious, was Exxon selectively presenting information from the IPCC to imply that there are uncertainties in climate science in order to sow doubt about the need for action?


Is the Royal Society trying to exert influence in the political process to counter Exxon’s potential influence in the political process?


The Royal Society’s action is thus the very essence of political behavior. This leads to two final questions.

Should the actions of the Royal Society be characterized as political actions?


Should the Royal Society seek to "call out" Exxon for its cherrypicking?

Answer = This depends upon the role one sees for a science academy in public debate.

I personally believe that science academies should not seek to replicate the characteristics of organized interest groups for two reasons. One is that the special expertise and legitimacy of science academies give them unique potential to serve as honest brokers of policy alternatives, which are all too few in policy debates. The other is that science academies are typically funded almost entirely by public money and yet pretty much outside the political system of democratic accountability. Any particular decision on what issues to advocate for and against by such an institution will be warmly received by like-minded advocates, but in the end, such decisions represent the parochial interests of those in the organization and not necessarily reflective of broader interests. This then will have the effect of turning an institution that was meant to serve common interests into just another special interest group.

In closing, I do recognize that reasonable people can disagree on the role of science academies in public debate. But we should all be able to agree that hiding an advocacy agenda behind assertions of scientific purity is not good for either science or policy.

Posted on October 6, 2006 09:45 AM


I agree that the relevant question is "what should we do?". I don't see how we can answer that unless we can determine, to a reasonable approximation, "whose science is right". Science does not provide many absolute answers but it does provide consensus views, which provide in turn the most reliable basis for policy formation. The consensus view on climate change is clearly opposed to Exxon's interests, and the quoted report is equally clearly an attempt to muddy the waters of public debate and thereby make coherent action on global warning a political "poison pill".

On your view, then, what *should* the Royal Society have done?

Posted by: Bill Hooker at October 6, 2006 10:35 AM


Thanks for your comment.

There are plenty of examples where certainty or even consensus is not a prerequisite for action. There is a large literature on "decision making under uncertainty" which focuses on this subject.

As far as what the Royal Society should have done. I have a few suggestions;-)

1. First, they should acknowledge when they are acting as an interest in a political debate. My preference would be to not replicate interest group activity, but if they do, to be open about it.

2. A more constructive role than an interest group would be to help decision makers by offering new and innovative policy options on climate mitigation and adaptation that hold the promise of changing the current political dynamics. Sometimes, rather than taking sides it is useful to see how entrenched interests might organize around options not currently on the table.

Bottom line is that there are plenty of groups ready to take on Exxon, but very few able to do #2.


Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 6, 2006 02:47 PM

Philip Ball of Nature offers a somewhat different perspective, including what is the first labeling of me as a "controversialist" -- I'll have to look that up;-)

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 6, 2006 02:56 PM

>...determine, to a reasonable approximation, "whose science is right".

How can we have any confidence that the 'consensus view' is correct if we refuse to hear all sides of the debate?

I believe the scientific method requires having good answers to skeptical questions, not considering an authority, such as the IPCC, to be infallible as the Royal Society appears to be doing.

Posted by: Steve Gaalema at October 6, 2006 08:20 PM


I have attached a further comment on the quasi-totalitarian context in which the demonisation of dissenting scientists is taking place. Scepticism and dissent used to be regarded as core values and key symbols of liberal thought. Given the authoritarian track record of apocalyptic movements (whether religious, secular or environmental), it is not surprising that today's doomsday-brigade is targeting the very foundation of liberal society.

The German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky used to say: "Tolerance is the suspicion that the other person might be right after all." As long as climate dogmatics are unwilling to be tolerant of dissenting views and colleagues, their political attacks on free-thinkers will be regarded as a direct assult on liberal values.


Global warming: the chilling effect on free speech.

The demonisation of 'climate change denial' is an affront to open and rational debate.

Whoever thought that serious commentators would want it made illegal to have a row about the weather? One Australian columnist has proposed outlawing ‘climate change denial’. ‘David Irving is under arrest in Austria for Holocaust denial’, she wrote. ‘Perhaps there is a case for making climate change denial an offence. It is a crime against humanity, after all.’ (1) Others have suggested that climate change deniers should be put on trial in the future, Nuremberg-style, and made to account for their attempts to cover up the ‘global warming…Holocaust’ (2).

The message is clear: climate change deniers are scum. Their words are so wicked and dangerous that they must be silenced, or criminalised, or forced beyond the pale alongside those other crackpots who claim there was no Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. Perhaps climate change deniers should even be killed off, hanged like those evil men who were tried Nuremberg-style the first time around.

Whatever the truth about our warming planet, it is clear there is a tidal wave of intolerance in the debate about climate change which is eroding free speech and melting rational debate. There has been no decree from on high or piece of legislation outlawing climate change denial, and indeed there is no need to criminalise it, as the Australian columnist suggests. Because in recent months it has been turned into a taboo, chased out of polite society by a wink and a nod, letters of complaint, newspaper articles continually comparing climate change denial to Holocaust denial. An attitude of ‘You can’t say that!’ now surrounds debates about climate change, which in many ways is more powerful and pernicious than an outright ban. I am not a scientist or an expert on climate change, but I know what I don’t like - and this demonisation of certain words and ideas is an affront to freedom of speech and open, rational debate.....

Posted by: Benny Peiser [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 7, 2006 08:00 AM

Dr. Peiser:

You say that "As long as climate dogmatics are unwilling to be tolerant of dissenting views and colleagues, their political attacks on free-thinkers will be regarded as a direct assult on liberal values."

With all due respect, this is nonsense. Are the rejection of Newtonian physics in favor Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics, and creationism in favor of evolution, by the world`s scientific bodies "political attacks on free thinkers" that constitute a "direct assault on liberal values"? Why not?

Demonization is not needed to understand that it is part of the nature of human cognition that people have a difficulty in changing their minds, so that when paradigm shifts occur there are a great many who find it easier to defend their existing world view. Tribal behavior patterns also explain some of the unfortunate ostracism that may accompany these changes, but is there no accompanying element that some prefer to be iconoclasts and holdouts?

You also refer to a "quasi-totalitarian context in which the demonisation of dissenting scientists is taking place." How does this correspond to reality? Is there no large diversity of finding sources for climate change research, including such prominent skeptics as the US government and EXXON and its $100 million commitment to Stanford?

While it is quite clear that there is actual suppression of dissent within the Bush administration (which I presume you must also be decrying with equal vigor?), if iconoclast scientists cannot seem to get any funding, even from those anxious to disprove climate change, maybe that simply tells us that the market of INVESTORS is speaking rather clearly about what they believe about the current state of knowledge.

Maybe instead of this hand-wringing about what one`s peers seem to think, you and the signers of that letter to RS should go on the road, and start explaining to investors what wonderful opporunities there are to invest in proving that climate change is all a hoax. If these scientists are unwilling to take their case directly to investors, then all of their protests seem rather hollow.

But as far as that goes, why does it seem that fossil fuel interests and manufacturers seem quite willing to invest in public relations efforts dedicated to frustrating meaningful policy action, while their purses remain closed to dissenting scientists? It is unfair to conclude that these firms show by their own actions that they agree with the consensus that you so deride, and are simply investing in ways to manipulate the political debate?

If that`s the case, wouldn`t you be doing a big favor to those who REALLY care about liberal values by taking a stick to EXXON, and telling it to start putting its money where its mouth is?


Posted by: TokyoTom at October 7, 2006 09:55 AM


I think both your framing of what is "political" action by the RS and your conclusions are weak, unrealistic and unhelpful to your professed aims of minimizing the politicization of science and political deadlock.

The deadlock in climate change policy exists because parties that have an interest in the outcome of the political process realize that the complex nature of the science (and the limited time and ability of laymen and legislators to understand it) mean an effective way to achieve their political ends is to avoid direct political discussions by miscasting the science. The RS cannot change those incentives by trying to be an "honest broker" - all that the RS can try to do is to police the science, by using its authority as a spokesman for science.

I do not see the support for your conclusion that the RS is acting "politically" because it "is acting in a manner that seeks to gain advantage over others in debates over what society should do about climate change." Where in the RS letter does the RS even address what society should do about climate change?

You assert that in order to avoid being perceived as acting politically, the RS must have first "developed general, unambiguous criteria to identify how one knows a "misrepresentation of science" when one sees it and then applied these criteria indiscriminately across organizations and issue areas." Why is this so? Individuals and organizations all act when they believe cirtcumstances warrant, and don`t always create explicit criteria in advance. If the RS simply reacts when it feels appropriate, does that make the action "political" as opposed to merely "ad hoc"?

You also continue to muddle matters by wrongly and hyberbolically miscasting the RS letter. You ask, "Would the Royal Society suggest that any organization that cherrypicks information should not receive funding? If so that would likely lead to the end all public debate on all subjects!" As I have frequently pointed out, the RS has simply asked EXXON to clarify when it is that EXXON is speaking, even when it is using third parties - this would NOT put an end to any debate at all, but merely further inform it. If EXXON decided not to funnel money to certain organizations, EXXON remains unhindered in its abilities to speak directly, and those organizations that lose funding could of course continue to speak as they wish.

Thus I fail to find any firm support for your conclusion that "The Royal Society’s action is thus the very essence of political behavior." The RS is a scientific organization that is well-placed to say what it thinks the science is. I presume that you do not disagree with this, because this is precisely the role that the UK, US and other governments have asked their science academies to play.

All that is left is your apparent discomfort with the RS asking EXXON to clarify what institutions it pays to act as its spokesmen in the climate debate, since this is a signal to EXXON that the RS considers EXXON to be acting in a way that frustrates open political debate. Let us be clear that that action by the RS does not prejudge any debate on climate change policy, or even on climate change science. I would go further and say that it is ENTIRELY fair for any organization to try to point out EXXON`s tactics.

You have not explained why it undercuts the RS`s scientific authority to undertake this role.

I would also observe that, unless the RS was itself the source of this leak (unlikley, given that it was to an unsympathetic paper), then it seems rather clear that it is EXXON itself that is politicizing what was otherwise a private letter.

Further, I fail to understand your proposal about how the should be behaving in your comment to Bill Hooker. How is it that science academies would better protect their reputation as experts on scientific matters by trying to elbow their way into the political arena by proposing policies that will make it attractive to politicians and the various interested parties to agree to do something on climate change? Wouldn`t that itself politicize the academies? Isn`t it the job of politicians to figure out how to accommodate differing interests? Why is that something politicians or others would welcome? Even conceding your premises, if I was an interest group that had very effectively achieved the policy outcomes I desired, why would having an "honest broker" give me more options to choose from budge me from the option I`ve already found effective?

There are think takes and other groups quite busy proposing policy options; I fail to see how the RS is uniquely situated to start doing this as well.

Finally, while all representative democracies have problems in making sure that public expenditures of all kinds are committed in a politically accountable manner, clearly funds authorized for science academies are as much "inside" the political system of democratic accountability as any other expenditures (excluding expenditures for so-called "defense" and "intelligence"). Perhaps you could enlighten me, but I imagaine that the science academies are quite aware of where their funding comes from and are sensitive to the reactions of politicians to actions by their institutions. They are hardly running around and behaving recklessly.



Posted by: TokyoTom at October 7, 2006 11:23 AM

TT> Maybe instead of this hand-wringing about what one`s peers seem to think, you and the signers of that letter to RS should go on the road, and start explaining to investors what wonderful opporunities there are to invest in proving that climate change is all a hoax. If these scientists are unwilling to take their case directly to investors, then all of their protests seem rather hollow.

Can you explain what that is supposed to mean?

How can an investor make money proving AGW wrong?

How can it help a skeptical researcher to be attacked for having funding from the 'wrong source'?

Posted by: Steve Gaalema at October 7, 2006 06:08 PM

Steve, aren`t there governments and industries that would love more proof that everything is hunky-dory, and that so-called "climate change" is a scam and conspiracy involving the vast bulk of climate scientists, our closest allies, liberals (starting with Pappy Bush) and "enviros", with the intention of accelerating the Rature by rolling out world government, reining in the US economy and crippling capitalism?

These interests are happy to spend money on political strategies (see the Luntz memo) and on PR efforts to continue to benefit from political inaction - don`t you suppose they`d be interested in funding actual SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH that would show that climate change is impossible, possible but perfectly natural, party anthropogenic but nothing to be worried about, impossible to solve if it is a problem, easily solved if it is a problem, only a problem outside of the US, on net a benefit to the US, that we are nearing an ice age and NEED unintended climate change, that there are natural, deus ex machina lensing phenomena that will save us from any serious difficulties, or any or all of the above?

On can think of many, many different research strategies that if successful would prove that the fossil fuel producers, their main consumers and recalcitrant governments and political parties are not papering over a serious problem but are the REAL saviors of our global economic interests. Wouldn`t some of that research be worth the investment? Why is the investment only going to to political strategies, and into the near-"totalitarian" "consensus" decried by Dr. Peiser?

My suggestion is that actions speak louder than words.

Posted by: TokyoTom at October 9, 2006 08:55 AM

If there truly were as compelling a case for AGW as there is for relativity, there would be no need to demonize dissenters -- ridicule would suffice.

The substance and tone of the anti-debate movement bear an alarming resemblance to the Inquisition and its response to Galileo's assertion that the earth orbits the sun, with the RS -- among others -- assuming the position of the Church.

Posted by: Pops at October 9, 2006 12:51 PM

Dr Pielke

You are right to draw the distinction between Science and Advocacy (and to suggest that, in this, the Royal Society has crossed over from one to the other).

It is always interesting to see how some environmentalists alternatively spurn scientific 'consensus' (say in rejecting GM Foods) and embrace scientific 'consensus' (AGW) when the cause dictates. In short, they are advocates.

I wonder how the Royal Society would fare using the test of other issues. Would the Royal Society argue that scientists who see a strong link between global warming and hurricane activity be denied funding because they are currently a minority and their view is outside the scientific consensus?

In the past, the Royal Society pretty much understood that a scientific result does not imply a policy decision. After all, there are many people who believe in AGW but are dubious about the Kyoto treaty, believing (rightly or wrongly)in market innovation to solve the problem.

The Royal Society, by its recent actions, has not only embraced a view on the science, it has effectively allied itself with a political policy (namely global carbon caps, and widespread legislation, as opposed to more micro or market based solutions). The Guardian newspaper has strong views on policy and used the Royal Society letter appropriately. It is hard not to believe that political advocacy was not at least part of Royal Society's motivation.

Posted by: Michael Schewitz at October 9, 2006 05:25 PM

I think almost everyone is missing the forest for the trees.

Of course there are denialists.

Of course there are those who proclaim CO2 will be the end of mankind unless we all start walking everywhere tomorrow.

Of course there are people who want to keep selling oil.

Of course there are people who want to get in on the overhead of trading carbon credits.

And everywhere in between.

Isn't referencing some other peer-reviewed study just cherry picking too? There are hundreds of thousands of climate change papers out there. One can prove anything one wants.

As proof of fallibility, the IPCC picked many, many good scientists to develop a study - then they dissed them all by changing their words in a fabricated "Summary for Policymakers" and didn't give them a chance to verify the changes. When one talks about the IPCC, one must clarify - the scientists, or the people who wrote the SFP. They were different for the TAR. Quoting line and verse of the IPCC technical reports means nothing. It's the SFP that is alarmist, and is the hammer.

What about AR4??? Will the real scientists be able to verify *this one* or will the "high priests" just spin it up and spit it out too?

Posted by: Steve Hemphill [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 9, 2006 10:24 PM

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