onsdag 28 januari 2015

Concerned world citizen

    Concerned world citizen and professor of mathematical statistics (in that order)
So reads my motto on Twitter. There is a lot to be concerned about in the world. Two well-known global catastrophic risks are global warming and nuclear war. Another, less well-known but perhaps as serious, is the possibility of an uncontrolled AI breakthrough. But the main message I wish to convey with the motto is, despite the parentheses, contained in the last three words: in that order. Mathematics and science is very important, but a prosperous and happy future for humanity is, IMHO, even more important. Therefore I refuse, contra a not uncommon piece of advice, to keep quiet about my political views on science-related issues. The well-meaning concern - voiced by, e.g., climate scientist Tamsin Edwards in her blog post Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies1 - stems from the idea that if scientists express political ideas, then the credibility of their research risks being hurt, because it may raise suspicion about ideological contamination. I think that argument is not entirely without merit, and every scientist working in policy-relevant areas has her own choice to make on whether to take it to heart and act upon it, but to me personally it is overtrumped by an argument made by another climate scientist, James Hansen:
    Fourteen months later I gave another public talk - connecting the dots from global warming to policy implications to criticisms of the fossil fuel industry for promoting misinformation. This time my grandchildren provided rationalisation for a talk likely to draw ire from the administration. I explained that I did not want [them] to look back and say: "Opa understood what was happening, but he never made it clear."
In the opening paragraphs of their paper Science and policy: Crossing the boundary in the latest issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dale Jamieson, Naomi Oreskes and Michael Oppenheimer make a point similar to Hansen's:
    Consider the case of the late F. Sherwood Rowland, who, along with fellow chemist Mario J. Molina, first recognized the threat that chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) posed to stratospheric ozone and potentially to life on Earth. (Rowland and Molina later won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work, along with Paul J. Crutzen.) Some of Rowland’s colleagues criticized him for publicly stating that CFCs should be phased out. Although he did not advocate a specific policy instrument, these colleagues felt that by calling for a policy goal Rowland was illicitly stepping out of the world of science into the world of policy in which he did not belong.

    Imagine, however, that Rowland and Molina had published their research in a peer-reviewed journal and that, like most scientific work, it had then been largely ignored. Decades later, dermatologists and oncologists would have begun to notice an unexplained increase in rates of skin cancer. Epidemiologists would have analyzed the available data and concluded that there was in fact an epidemic of skin cancers around the globe, especially severe in Australia, southern Chile, and among white Africans. Meanwhile, plant pathologists would have noticed increased ultraviolet damage in agricultural crops; veterinarians would have noted increased rates of cataracts in farm animals. Scientists would then have searched for an explanation for this strange association of human, animal, and plant pathology. Eventually, someone would have come across Rowland’s work, connected the dots, and understood what was happening. Programs would then have been quickly put in place to measure stratospheric ozone, demonstrating that the ozone layer had been massively depleted. [...]

    This thought experiment, while counterfactual, is not fantastic. It is essentially what happened with asbestos and tobacco, and it could easily have been the case with chlorinated fluorocarbons as well.

Read the full paper by Jamieson et al here!

That same issue of the Bulletin is amazingly full-packed with wise and interesting discussions concerning the troublesome interface between science and politics. See for instance Gavin Schmidt's What should climate scientists advocate for from the same issue. I offer the following snapshots from that paper:
    Scientists and philosophers have long distinguished between descriptions of what "is" (derived from scientific investigations of the real world), what "ought" to be (based on one’s value system), and suggestions for what one "should" do in the face of this knowledge [...]. Despite this careful distinction between advocacy and facts, the term "advocate" is regularly used pejoratively in scientific circles and is frequently associated with the cherry-picking of science to support a preconceived idea. In order to avoid these connotations, scientists often go to great lengths to deny being advocates for specific policies.


    In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.


    Responsible advocates are up-front about what is being advocated for and how the intersection of values and science led to that position. On the other hand, it is irresponsible to proclaim that there are no values involved, or to misrepresent what values are involved. Responsible advocacy must acknowledge that the same scientific conclusions may not lead everyone to the same policies (because values may differ). Assuming that one’s own personal values are universal, or that disagreement on policy can be solved by recourse to facts alone, is a common mistake.

Read Schmidt's full paper here!


1) I've commented on Edwards' blog post elsewhere.

2) He makes the same statement in his book Stoms of My Grandchildren, which I reviewed a few years ago.

1 kommentar:

  1. En av de bästa böcker om miljö/energi som jag läst på senare år är David MacKays Sustainable Energy without the hot air (http://www.withouthotair.com/). Boken tar diskussionen långt bortom en enkel fact/value distinktion. En smula eftertanke visar att det finns många nivåer mellan redovisning av fakta och direkta rekommendationer, exempelvis:

    1. Redovisa alternativa scenarier med konsekvensanalyser. Konsekvenserna selekteras och analyseras i ljuset av värderingar.
    2. Som 1 men att man därtill också argumenterar pro et contra för de olika alternativen. Vid pro et contra har man alltså fortfarande lämnat det öppet vilka värderingar som slutligen kommer att fälla avgörandet.
    3. Som 2 plus att man redovisar bästa val, givet vissa värderingar. DMK visar exempelvis att i UK gäller att om (OM!) ekonomi spelar en roll, så är kol eller kärnkraft svåra att undvika.
    4. Som 3 men att man fixerar vilka värderingar man själv hyser och därtill själv drar slutsatser av argumentationen.

    Själv har jag svårt att se att 4 ger allmänheten något väsentligt intellektuellt bidrag utöver 3. Visst kan det vara biografiskt intressant att få veta var forskaren själv står värderingsmässigt. Men om 1-3 är väl utförda rent logiskt och om de är pedagogiskt tydliga, så ser jag inte vilket kognitivt eller i övrigt klargörande bidrag en forskare lämnar genom att gå från steg 3 till steg 4.

    Är det något viktigt jag missat? Eller är det så att OH vill hoppa direkt till att dra värderande slutsatser utan att ha genomfört eller redovisat mellanstegen i resonemanget?