Who Has Authority in Political Debates involving Science? From Roger Pielke, Jr.’s blog

Check out Roger Pielke, Jr.’s blog post here.

Roger links to Jan Paul van Soest’s blog here.

The body of knowledge in Earth System Sciences in the broadest sense, is impressive. Yet, most scientists at Planet under Pressure feel their knowledge is hardly translated into actions. Below the surface, frustrations can easily be sensed. Frustration may provoke scientists to even stronger formulate their messages, and choose words that fit better in the realm of societal and political discussions than in the scientific domain: ‘We must’, ‘we should’, ‘an imperative to act’, ‘we can no longer afford waiting’ and comparable phrases are frequently used to mask frustrations.

However understandable, these expressions are unlikely to be effective. The audience may think that the scientist using these terms have a political agenda. This perception undermines the scientific credibility, whether the scientist in question has a political agenda indeed or not. My take is: they don’t; most scientist don’t even really understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes. And to the extend they do, they are doing a lousy job in terms of lobbying and influencing the public and policy debate. Otherwise, more scientists would realise that overstating is not really effective in getting the message across.


The risk of being perceived as someone pursuing a political agenda is one pitfall, a second one is reinforcing communication efforts without changing the nature of the communication. “We should communicate more/better”, is quite often heard. Underlying assumption is that giving more and better information will lead to better listening and different choices. However, if you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got. People just don’t change their convictions and belief systems, let alone their decisions and actions, on the basis of more information. Interesting enough, some psychologists and sociologists gave exactly that message at the Planet under Pressure conference, in a couple of parallel sessions, such as the one chaired by prof. Heinz Gutscher. Co-operation and collective action builds on trust, said Gutscher, and if that is lacking, giving ever more information has zero or even counterproductive effects.

Imperatives or options

The third pitfall may even be more problematic: communicating science in terms of imperatives actually undermines the politicians’ sense of responsibility. Although some politicians may be risk averse, the key role of politicians is to choose, not to blindly follow someone else’s view. Who would need politicians if science would automatically lead to policies? It doesn’t. Therefore, imperatives can easily be laid aside, and are likely ineffective. They disempower politicians, instead of addressing them in their key role and responsibility: choosing and negotiating options.

There were some good examples of presenting the science in a more open way, in terms of a variety of options and their consequences, and including the scientific uncertainties. A subsession on fisheries and oceanic ecosystem governance demonstrated that: a science-based mapping of goals, options, timing and uncertainties made clear what the actual choices are, and helps making progress in decision-making, even in a situation where governance is still ruled by the 1609 pamphlet Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) by the Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius.

The best and most effective ways of communicating science therefore seem to be those that separate knowledge from decision, that provide policy-makers with options instead of imperatives, and with ‘what if’ instead of ‘will happen inevitably’.

It could be enlightening to get more information on the subsession on fisheries and how it was structured.

7 thoughts on “Who Has Authority in Political Debates involving Science? From Roger Pielke, Jr.’s blog”

  1. On the other hand, lacking any credible political leadership on climate change, perhaps climate scientists feel a moral imperative to speak out based on the facts they have at hand. I, for one, am glad that scientists like Michael Mann and James Hansen are willing to stick their necks out, because nobody else is … and there’s too much at stake to stay silent.

  2. I personally think Mann and Hansen have done more damage than good in regards to climate science. The next 15 years will show if thier predictions of doom and gloom are true. I believe thier political activism has tainted the science. And apparently they are losing the public opinion as well, as support for it has declined. I guess we can blame it on big oil and coal company propoganda. Or actually look at the skeptics objections to the consensus science rather than just label them as deniers and shills of big oil.

    Consensus is a political process. The differences between advocacy and science has become a gray area to the detriment of science. Any time an advocacy group does thier own science, I am very suspicious of thier results.

    • I understand what you mean about the gray area between advocacy and science. But I don’t believe all science done by advocacy groups is tainted. There’s good science being done by groups like Pew, and bad science being done non-advocacy research institutions — and vice versa. Saying that science is bad just because it’s being done by an advocacy group doesn’t make sense to me, though I can understand how some would be suspicious of the results. I think the key difference to me is that many of the climate scientists who are advocating for action did their research first and were moved to action by the results. They didn’t start with a political agenda, then look for science to support their goals.

      • Bob- the science says the climate is warming. But what science can’t tell us (or at least not climate scientists) is “what are the “best” policy interventions to stop it?”. Different countries have tried different approaches, I don’t think that any tried have been major successes.

        There are many political questions.. who are the winners, who are the losers for any policy intervention? “Best” in what respects? To whom?

    • OK. Not to nitpick, but when is a group not “an advocacy group”? Every group I can think advocates for something.

      … And remember this, from here:

      The terrible danger — one that has been brewing for years — is that the invaluable role science should play in informing policy and politics will be irrevocably undermined, as citizens come to see science as nothing more than a tool for partisans of all stripes.

      Central to this disaster has been scientists’ insistence that they are unsullied providers of truth in an otherwise corrupt and indecipherable world. It was never so. …

      • The Girl Scouts, is a group. It may advocate for itself, but it’s not what I would call an “advocacy group.” We are a group of bloggers, but we would be hard pressed to find something we would agree enough on to jointly advocate for… I think that makes us a group but not an advocacy group.

        • In a way, the Forest Service — with all it’s specialists, many times warring one specialty with another — doesn’t agree on much either. But the Forest Service, like most organizations, has policy and leaders who do so advocate. And the leaders have ways to keep the warring within bounds, often with the effect that moral suffers. There was a time when the Forest Service’s advocacy was much easier to understand, and control. That is why David Clary could make such a case for the Forest Service’s timber bias for so many years. And during much of the Post WWII era, the Engineering bias was at work, i.e. “building roads into lovely country,” often so that timber could flow back across the roads. Now folks (at least some) believe the Forest Service’s advocacy is influenced too much by fire program ideology/objectives. Other folks believe that the Forest Service advocates too much for Recreation, in its crass, commercial form. And some believe that the Forest Service, down-deep wants to return to the practice of forestry, whatever that might mean. Finally I believe that the Forest Service advocates for “doing something,” and “on the ground” in too many cases, rather than doing nothing, i.e. letting Nature takes its course. So much to advocate for, so little time.

          PS.. When I penned my earlier comment, I was thinking of groups like fire ecologists, conservation biologists, silviculturists, and more.

          PSS. Yes, our little band of bloggers is pretty much all over the map. Each of us advocates in our own ways, but there is no consistent thread of advocacy. The blog I liked best, now defunct, was a political science/philosophy blog called “Left to Right.” I loved their interchanges. But they tired of their endeavor just about two years into the blog. I haven’t seen anything like it since. I wonder when we will tire of our little chat?


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