To follow on from the authors session on Wednesday morning, Michael Oppenheimer, from Princeton, gave the inaugural Stephen Schneider Global Change Lecture, with a talk entitled “Scientists, Expert Judgment, and Public Policy: What is Our Proper Role?” (see the webcast here)

Michael’s theme was about how (and when) scientists should engage in broader communication in the public arena. His aim was to address three issues: the doubts that scientists often have about engaging in public communication, strategies for people who aren’t Carl Sagans (or Stephen Schneiders), and some cautionary tales about the difficulties.

First some context. There is a substantial literature on the relationship between scientists and broader communities, going at least back to CP Snow, and through Naomi Oreskes. CP Snow provides a good starting point. In the two cultures talk, Snow launched a diatribe against Britain’s educated elite. Strip away the critique of class structures, and you get an analysis of the difficulty most political leaders have of comprehending the science that sheds light on how the world is. There have been some changes since then – in particular, the culture of political leaders is no longer as highbrow as it used to be. Snow argued that industrial revolution was a mixed bag, that brought huge inequalities. He saw scientists as wiser, more ethical, and more likely to act in the interest of society than others. But he also saw that they were poor at explaining their own work, making their role in public education problematic. One cannot prove that the world has taken a better path because of the intervention of scientists, but one can clearly show that scientists have raised the level of public discourse.

But science communication is hard to do. Messages are easily misunderstood, and it’s not clear who is listening to us, and when, or even whether anyone is listening at all. So why get involved? Michael began by answering the standard objections:

It takes time. Are we as a community obligated to do this? Can’t we stay in our labs while the policymakers get on with it? Answer: If we don’t engage, we leave congress (for example) with the option of seeking advice from people who are less competent to provide it.

Can we minimize involvement just by issuing reports and leaving it at that? Answer: reports need to be interpreted. For example, the statement “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” was used in the IPCC AR4. But what does this mean? A reasonably intelligent person could ask all sorts of questions about what it means. In this case, the IPCC did not intend to say that both the fact of warming, and the fact of human attribution of that warming, are unequivocal. But last week at COP Cancun, that double meaning was widely used.

Well someone has to do the dirty work, but I’m not so good at it, so I’ll let others do it. Answer: we may no longer have this choice. Ask the people who were at the centre of climategate, many of whom were swept up in the story whether they liked it or not (and some of the people swept up in it were no more than recipients of some of the emails). We’re now at the centre of a contentious public debate, and it’s not up to the institutions, but to the people who make up those institutions to participate.

Do we have an obligation? Answer: Public money funds much of our work, including our salaries. Because of this, we have an obligation not just to publish, but to think about how others might use our research. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the scientific context in which our findings will be understood and used.

So like it or not, we cannot avoid the responsibility to communicate our science to broader audiences. But in doing this, our organisations need to be able to distinguish fair criticism from outside, where responding to them will strengthen our institutions, from unsupported attacks, which are usually met with silence.

What are our options?

Take a partisan position (for a candidate or a policy) that is tied to your judgement on the science. Probably this is not to everyone’s taste. People worry that being seen as partisan will damage science. But visible participation by scientists in political process does not damage in any way the collective reputation of science and the scientific community. Problems occur when scientific credentials are used to support a political position that has nothing to do with the science. (Michael cited the example of Bill Frisk using his credentials to make medical pronouncements for political reasons, on a case he wasn’t qualified to comment on). Make sure you are comfortable in your scientific skin if you go the political route.

Take sides publicly about the policy implications of your research (e.g. blog about it, write letters, talk to your congressperson, etc). This is a political act, and is based both on science and on other considerations. The further from your own expertise you go in making pronouncements, the shakier ground you are on. For example, it is far outside the expertise of most people in the room to judge viability of different policy options on climate change. But if we’re clear what kind of value judgements we’re making, and how they relate to our expertise, then its okay.

Can we stop speaking as experts when we talk about value issues? The problem is that people wander over the line all the time without worrying about it, and the media can be lazy about doing due diligence on finding people with appropriate expertise. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the opportunity to fix this. If you become concerned about an issue and want to speak out on it, do take the time to understand the relevant literature. Half-truths taken out of context can be the most damaging thing of all. And it’s intoxicating being asked to give expert opinions. So we need to keep our heads about us and be careful. For example make use of scripts provided by assessment reports.

We should not be reticent about expressing value judgements that border on our areas of expertise, but we should be clear that those value judgements don’t necessarily carry more weight than other people’s value judgements.

Participate in community activities such as the IPCC, NAS, panels, AGU outreach, etc. The emphasis we place on these implies some judgement. As more of us speak in public, there will be more open disagreement about the details (for example, different scientific opinions about likelihood of ice sheets melting this century). The IPCC doesn’t disparage divergent views, but it doesn’t tolerate people who don’t accept evidence-based assessments.

Avoid all of it (but is this even possible?). Even if you avoid sitting on panels where implications of the research will be discussed, or refuse to discuss applied aspects of your work, you’re still not safe, as the CRU email issue showed.

Above all, we all have a citizen’s right to express an opinion, and some citizens might think our opinions carry special weight because of our expertise. But we have no right to throw a temper tantrum because the policy choices don’t go the way we would like. Scientists are held in higher regard than most professional communities (although there isn’t much competition here). But we also need to be psychologically ready for when there are media stories about areas we are expert in, and nobody comes to seek our opinion.

We’re not a priesthood, we are fallible. We can contribute to the public debate, but we don’t automatically get a privileged role.

So some advice:

  • Don’t be rushed. Our first answer might not be our best answer – we often need to reflect. Michael pointed out the smartest response he ever gave a reporter was “I’ll call you back”.
  • Think about your audience in advance, and be prepared for people who don’t want to listen to or hear you. People tend to pick surrogates for expertise, usually ones who reflect their own worldview. E.g. Al Gore was well received among progressives, but on the right, people were attuned to other surrogates. Discordent threads often aren’t accommodated, they tend to be ignored. You could try putting aside moral principles while serving up the science, if your audience has different ideological view to you. For example, if you disagree with the Wall Street Journal editorial stance on science, then adjust your message when speaking to people who read them – cocktail parties might be more important than universities for education.
  • Expect to be vilified, but don’t return the favour (Michael read out some of the hate mails he has received at this point). You might even be subjected to legal moves and complaints of misconduct. E.g. Inhofe’s list of scientists who he claimed were implicated in the CRU emails, and for whom he recommended investigation. His criteria seems to have been anyone involved in IPCC processes who ever received any of the CRU emails (even if they never replied). Some people on the list have never spoken out publicly about climate change.
  • Don’t hide your biases, think them over and lay them out in advance. For example, Michael once asked a senior colleague why he believed climate sensitivity was around 1.5°C. rather than being in the 2 to 4.5°C range assessed by the national academies. He replied that he just didn’t think that humans could have that much impact on the climate. This is a belief though, rather than an evidence-based thing, and this should be clear up front, not hidden in the weeds.
  • Keep it civil. Michael has broken this rule in the past (e.g. getting into food fights on TV). But the worst outcome would be to let this divide us, whereas we’re all bound together by the same principles and ethics that underpin science.

And finally, to repeat Stephen Schneider’s standard advice: The truth is bad enough; Our integrity should never be compromised; Don’t be afraid of metaphors; and distinguish when speaking about values and when speaking as an expert.


  1. Very well said, Steve.

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  3. Love it! Wish I had already published my MSc Paper.

  4. For example, Michael once asked a senior colleague why he believed climate sensitivity was around 1.5°C. rather than the 4-5°C assessed by the national academies.

    Isn’t climate sensitivity commonly estimated at 2 – 4.5°C (or “around” 3°C)? Better change that before James A sees it.

    [Oops. Fixed. Thanks! – Steve]

  5. Pingback: Facts + Values = Action | Serendipity

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