Bye, Bye Ivory Tower. Scientists Pledge To Speak Out

Michael Nelson
department of fisheries and wildlife, Lyman Briggs College
professor of environmental ethics and philosophy, Michigan State University
East Lansing, Mich.

J. Michael Scott
senior scientist, U.S. Geological Survey
professor, department of fish and wildlife resources, University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

Kevin Trenberth
head, climate analysis section, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

This week, a group of scientists called the "rapid response team" has promised to speak up about climate change and take skeptics head-on, even if that means participating in political debates. But does this verge on advocacy? And is that a problem? Ira Flatow and guests discuss.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

On our very first broadcast of SCIENCE FRIDAY, it was 20 years ago this month. We had a scientist on the program warning us about how humans were causing global climate change. Hard to believe, 20 years ago, he said sea levels would rise, temperatures would rise, and it could be hard for us to adapt to those changes. You know, it sounds like this conversation could have happened yesterday, and some climatologists are frankly fed up. That's the words they use. They're fed up.

This week, a group of scientists announced they are de-camping from the ivory tower to speak out on climate change. Scott Mandia, a co-founder of the group told the Chicago Tribune: "We need to take bold measures to not only communicate science, but also to aggressively engage the denialists and the politicians who attack climate science and its scientists. We are taking the fight to them because we are tired of taking the hits," unquote.

And there will be no shortage of opportunities to fight back. One survey estimated that half of incoming GOP representatives deny the existence of man-made climate change.

But is fighting back the right role for scientists? Or does this veer into the realm of advocacy? Does it, or is it? If so, is there anything wrong with that?

That's what we'll be talking about for the rest of the hour. Let me introduce my guests, Michael Nelson, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy. He has a joint appointment in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Lyman Briggs College and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor MICHAEL NELSON (Fisheries and Wildlife, Lyman Briggs College; Philosophy, Michigan State University): Thank you.

FLATOW: J. Michael Scott is senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor J. MICHAEL SCOTT (Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, University of Idaho; Senior Scientist, U.S. Geological Survey): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Kevin Trenberth is the head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder (unintellgible). Welcome back to the program, Dr. Trenberth.

Dr. KEVIN TRENBERTH (Climate Analysis Section, National Center for Atmospheric Research): Thank you very much, and good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: We also invited the Republican Congressman Darrel Ica and James Sensenbrenner to come and debate this, but we - they have declined. And we will continue to ask some of the conservative Republicans about their views on climate change, and we hope someone will come and talk about it on SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll continue.

Let me ask you, Kevin, what's the mission of this group, this new group of scientist who are speaking out on climate change?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Yes, well, I didn't set up the group, but I was asked to be a member of it. And it is certainly a group that is trying to act as a focal point for any kind of enquiries that the media may have, and to be ready, certainly, to respond to any topic of the day, what we might call teaching moments, related to weather and climate.

FLATOW: Do any of your colleagues seem wary this, this approach of a rapid response team?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Oh, certainly. That's the reaction when the report came out in the L.A. Times, and so on. I got a certain amount of kickback from several colleagues to, you know, indeed, to be very wary about crossing over into advocacy and how to walk that line.

FLATOW: Mike Scott, would you agree with that philosophy?

Prof. SCOTT: Oh, what I think it's a basic, a fundamental question in front of all of us is how can we increase the ability of science, scientists and professional societies to be effective in ongoing discussions about the policy and management and practices that affect natural resources? I think that's our challenge. How can we be more effective?

FLATOW: And Michael Nelson, what is your - you're not so much among the advocates, are you?

Prof. NELSON: I don't actually think this, and from everything I've heard so far, I don't actually think this counts as advocacy. I think we're being a bit - we're leery about something that doesn't exist. I think this is active and targeted communication. I think this is - these are scientists doing really good scientific work.

FLATOW: And you're not in favor of being out there?

Prof. NELSON: Oh, I'm very much in favor of being out there. I actually think scientists have an obligation to advocate.

FLATOW: And so Mike Scott, I'm mistaking you for Mike Nelson. You're the one who thinks that this may be going a little bit too far?

Prof. SCOTT: I think that what our, you know, defining advocacy as active or covert, in support of a particular policy or class of policies, I think is going too far. But I don't think we're going too far when we go beyond our comfort zone, and that's generally conducting, you know, policy management, relevant research and reporting that out in refereed journals. But taking the next step and then stipulating what the results of our work have to say about the effects of different policies and different management practices on natural resources, I think, is something that we need to do to inform the process, not stipulate a preferred policy option.

FLATOW: So you think that you - I mean you, your role as a citizen and a member of a democracy, as someone who might want to do that stipulation has to take a step backwards because you're a scientist?

Prof. SCOTT: No, I don't think you have to take a step backward. What I think you have to do is become very involved and make sure that you're conducting research that is relevant to society's needs, and then take that information and make it available to the full spectrum of society. I think as scientists, frequently we're guilty of just speaking to a certain segment or providing -sharing information with a certain segment of the interested parties on any of these issues. And I think our challenge is to help create a more informed public dialogue on these issues by sharing the information about the implications of different policies on natural resources with a full spectrum of interests - not only defenders of wildlife, say, but also the National Cattleman's Association, National Homebuilders and The Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation, the full spectrum of interests.

FLATOW: Mike Nelson, are you more fed up than that? Do you want to take on the issue a little bit more head on?

Prof. NELSON: I don't know if I'm fed up, but I think the worry that I have is that we - we're unclear on what counts as advocacy, and I think we've already seen that. And so I think there's a great risk here, that just because scientists, climate scientists are now going to actively and - have targeted communication, without being clear on what counts as advocacy, they're going to get labeled as advocates. I don't think this counts as advocacy. I don't even think it's close to what we would want to consider to be advocacy.

Prof. SCOTT: I would agree with that.

FLATOW: Well, where do you stand Kevin Trenberth? Do you expect that science may be put on trial by congressional committees?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, that's certainly one of the threats. And, of course, climate science has become very politicized, and that was especially the case at the Copenhagen meeting last year. And coming up, there's the follow-up meeting in Cancun in early December. And there was the so-called Climategate hacking incident at the University of East Anglia, which hacked a number of my emails, among others, that really, in retrospect, was clearly a political event and very much designed to influence the outcome - and probably did influence the outcome, even though there was really no basis for it in terms of what it meant in terms of the science.

So I fall probably slightly in the middle. I think with regard to climate science, that we have to be strong advocates for the science. And perhaps the issue here relates to what a scientist's comfort zone is. And many scientists are experts in relatively narrow areas. And as I get further on in my career, I've become broader and more general and more comfortable talking about other aspects. And so when one talks about a particular result and particular finding, you know, dealing with the implications of that and the ramifications of it and what happens if you do take certain kinds of actions in terms of the expectations and also if you don't, being able to talk about all of those kinds of things is perhaps - falls down to a relatively limited number of people.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Brian in Stuart, Florida. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BRIAN (Caller): Yeah, great. Thanks for having me on. Tell you what, I'm going to ask a question that kind of spun off of an author which I've just recently picked up the book, Sam Harris' book, "Using Science as a Form of Morals". The previous person before, you know, was talking about how is science, I guess, promoted, or what's the political power that it has to express itself, because it seems like it's always under the gun. And as much as most people don't like to know it, but religion is not necessarily so critical. But it's so critical on something that's proven, such as science. And I guess I was just kind of wondering, where's the political power that allows science to speak for itself?

FLATOW: Anybody want to answer that question? Take that up?

Prof. SCOTT: I guess I'll take a crack at it...

FLATOW: Okay...

Prof. SCOTT: ...in the sense that I think what scientists bring to the table is the quality of the - the high quality and integrity of the research that we conduct. And those are our credentials. And our credentials are enhanced to the extent that we are conducting research on issues that are relevant to the well-being - the health and well-being of society.

FLATOW: Well, why is it, Kevin, why is there such a gap between the public discourse and the science discourse on something like climate change? Why is there such a difference in what the public believe and what the - believes and what the general science community believes about it?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well, of course, the neat thing about science is that we do deal with a lot of facts and evidence, and we have good physical principles that we can fall back on. And so who was it that said - Carl Sagan was it that said, you know, you can have your own opinions but you can't have your own facts? And, unfortunately, a number of the incoming Congress seem to want to have their own facts as well. And so that is a real problem that scientists, I think, do need to step up and address, when things that are stated that are clearly wrong and something not a matter of opinion - where were we going with that?

FLATOW: No, I was asking why the public, you know - has there been a P.R. campaign or the media not being able to express what scientists are saying? Or are scientists not out front enough with what they'd like to say?

Dr. TRENBERTH: Yeah. So the Climategate incident was an example, I suppose, where things were highlighted, and the news media love that kind of thing. The problem - one of the problems with climate change is that the message has been more or less the same for the last 10 years, that, you know, climate change is a real problem and we need to do something about it or else suffer the consequences, and you know, we should plan for those consequences if we can.

And so in many respects a lot of it is not news. There are aspects of it that happened on a day-to-day basis that are news, but the news media are really much more interested in controversy or things that really are news, and so those are the things that seem to get emphasized. And so the news media haven't been very helpful in this regard, and to the extent that there are a number of vested interests, and we've seen that in recent times, for instance, especially in California, where - what was it, Proposition 23 was being debated with regard to climate change and there was huge amounts of money that came in from vested interests trying to defeat that particular measure. And we've seen it also across the nation with advertisements from the American Petroleum Institute and various other vested interests that are, you know, verging on half-truths at best and sometimes actually telling lies about some of these kinds of things.

We've seen that unfortunately too much in all of the political advertising that's gone on just before this past election. And so a lot of the basic science and the facts and the understanding that we have somehow gets lost in all of these.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about science advocacy this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Ryan in Nashville. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

RYAN: I just wanted to encourage the scientific folks there to get really in these people's faces. You have to find a cross between Carl Sagan and Karl Rove and get him out there because for, what, five, seven hundred years of our history, all science was heresy, and imagine where we'd be if that hadn't taken place.

FLATOW: Let me ask Michael. Michael Nelson, how will, in practical terms, this advocacy operate? Can you get in, quote, "people's faces" like he wants to?

Prof. NELSON: I mean, I like that idea, but I think we have to ask really hard questions about what does it actually mean to get in somebody's face. We have to ask questions about why it is that people believe or don't believe the facts. It's not just that they're stupid or that they're resistant. I mean, sometimes we don't believe facts, or we do believe facts depending on how they line up with certain values that we hold. So if you really want to get people to do something, if you want to prescribe a certain course of action or policy, it's not enough to just to deliver facts, no matter how clearly you deliver them. You have to deal with these underlined value issues as well.

FLATOW: But if you don't want to believe, if you have an emotional or a political viewpoint that doesn't align with the facts, can you present anybody with any facts that's going to make them change their mind?

Prof. NELSON: I don't know if it's the facts by themselves that will do it, but I think it's tragic that we would think that we couldn't actually have rational discourse about values or about ethics, and that we couldn't remedy that situation. We can have that kind of conversation. We don't often have that kind of conversation, but we can.

FLATOW: And where would you have those conversations?

Prof. NELSON: Well, you know, traditionally these are the conversations we had in families and even, believe it or not, in universities. We've given up that quite a bit. So I think it's something that we would have to grab back in our public discourse.

FLATOW: Because we see the conversation so polarized now.

Prof. NELSON: We do that and we kind of have this preconceived idea that you can't actually have conversations and change your mind about ethics. And we don't know how to deal with basic critical thinking skills, and that's the real tragedy here.

Dr. TRENBERTH: Well...

FLATOW: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

Dr. TRENBERTH: Yeah. I think one of our challenges is how can we identify the venues where these conversations are taking place and then how as we - how can we as scientists participate in that discourse by providing the information, you know, the factual information behind...

FLATOW: Can you...

Dr. TRENBERTH: ...(unintelligible) being discussed...

FLATOW: Can you...

Dr. TRENBERTH: ...and the implications of the findings for, you know, the conduct - the implementation of particular policy or management activity.

FLATOW: And where would you suggest a venue?

Dr. TRENBERTH: I think that there are multiple venues. There are advocacy groups scattered throughout the United States, and I think speaking to those groups is important - as scientists, bringing information to the conversation. I think that shows like these are another venue. I think as scientists, we haven't even began to explore the wonderful, you know, the wonderful world of Tweeter(ph), of tweeting and things like that. But there are - we're not very good about communicating the information. We do it in dry journal format when sometimes a picture will suffice and be much more effective at communicating an idea.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you all for taking time to join us, and we'll be watching to see how well you are able to communicate those ideas, especially if Congress hold hearings and has invited you folks to come up there. Maybe you can tell them what - instead of them talking to you, what you think about science.

Michael Nelson, professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at - and the department of philosophy at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He's also at Lyman Briggs College. J. Michael Scott, senior scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at NCAR in Boulder.

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