SAN FRANCISCO, CA., DEC. 12, 2013 — Gavin Schmidt, the NASA scientist and climate science blogger at the website RealClimate, had the late Stephen Schneider behind his left shoulder for much of his talk at the AGU meeting today.

They were video clips from Schneider’s lectures over decades. The Stanford University climate scientist was a passionate advocate for sober and reasoned discourse on the globe’s changing climate, and he often spoke out against dishonesty in the public sphere — whether by opinion-makers, politicians, fossil fuel interests, or news personalities.

“I realized that everything I wanted to say was said 20, 25 years ago by Steve,” said Schmidt, a researcher at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

During his talk, “What should a climate scientist advocate for?” Schmidt offered fellow scientists a framework for how to think about being more public — or public at all — as an advocate for science and, most of all, integrity.

He began with the story of Schneider taking a stand against a column by Eugene Guccione in 1971 that misrepresented climate science. In a letter to the Times, Schneider fact-checked the column and then ended with a personal argument that more research was needed in climate science. “That’s advocacy!” Schmidt said.

Schmidt went on to show a list of activities and asked audience members to raise their hands if they considered a given activity advocacy to avoid. Among them:

“Scientists should communicate more about what they do and find.”

“Funding for scientific research should be a higher priority.”

“People should understand the basics of the greenhouse effect.”

“Global warming should be in the high school science curriculum.”

“Geoengineering should be seriously considered.”

As fewer hands went up, Schmidt declared, “All of these statements are normative.” In other words, they are expressions of advocacy.

Whether or not scientists should speak out on policy matters related to their fields continues to be controversial. Just this year, UK climate scientist Tamsin Edwards wrote in the Guardian that climate scientists should not advocate at all, Schmidt said.

Why is that?

Part of the answer, Schmidt said, is that scientists fear that advocating for a policy — related to climate change, for example — is a threat to the public perception of their objectivity. The truth is, everyone comes to the table with their own perspectives, and scientific advocacy at its simplest is an argument for what we should do in the face of scientific facts, Schmidt said.

In today’s political and cultural climate, science gets politicized when scientific results appear to impact a vested political, ethical or moral interest, Schmidt said. (I would add to this short list: “economic.”)

In that respect, scientific results are regarded in the public realm only to the extent that they project onto some political, ethical, moral — and economic — question.

Another important dimension to today’s political climate is that politics often becomes what Schmidt called “scientized.”

“Politics gets ‘scientized’ when advocates appear to debate the science in order to avoid debating the values that underlie their positions,” Schmidt said. The subsequent discourse has nothing to do with real scientific debate, and “sciency-ness” is used to make a case, not find a truth.

There are both good and bad consequences to this, in Schmidt’s view. Among the consequences that some people might see as positive:

  • Scientific papers that project onto the perceived debate are easier to get into the high-profile academic journals Nature and Science.
  • Scientists can get more media interest in their work.
  • If a scientist fills a niche in the popular discourse, he or she can get invited to testify in Congress, write op-eds and be profiled in the media.

While some consequences may have their upsides for individual researchers, there are often clear negatives. These might include:

  • Scientific papers are frequently quoted out of context.
  • Political forums are generally not as civil as scientific ones.
  • Scientists who enter public debates are under much more public scrutiny.
  • Media reports, in Schmidt’s view, are generally not accurate. They pursue a “false balance” while striving for sensationalism and an over-interpretation of results.
  • Scientists can find themselves embroiled in debates over irrelevant issues.

Schmidt went on to review the changing media landscape — the well-documented decline of traditional media (foremost newspapers) and the rise of online sources of information both good and bad.

So, the question for science communicators is: “Why do it?”

Maybe, Schmidt said, it’s because you’re sick of Hollywood getting the science completely wrong (“The Day After Tomorrow“), maybe it’s that error-ridden op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, maybe it’s books like Michael Crichton’s State of Fear.

Scientists who choose to communicate widely cannot avoid advocacy, Schmidt said. “You can’t be a science communicator and pretend you have no values. What instead you need to do is accept them.” If scientists don’t, people will choose for them what values they hold, he said. “You’re much better off owning that, and telling people what you’re advocating for.”

Scientists must be careful, however, and follow a handful of rules of engagement that will protect their integrity as a scientist as well as their rights as a citizen. Responsible advocacy is characterized by a handful of principles, Schmidt said. The individual should:

  • communicate his/her values fairly and truthfully;
  • make the connections between his/her values and policy choices explicit;
  • make sure to distinguish his/her personal conclusions from the scientific consensus;
  • acknowledge that people with different values would have different policy choices; and
  • be aware of how his/her values might impact objectivity, and be vigilant.

Irresponsible advocacy, on the other hand, can be recognized through a handful of clues. Among these:

  • Individuals misrepresent and hide their values.
  • The basis of their policy choices is unclear.
  • There’s an untested presumption that the individual’s personal scientific conclusions are widely held.

Scientists should have the right to advocate for anything they want, as long as it’s absolutely clear that they speak for themselves. They also have the right not to advocate for anything at all.

Schmidt reiterated that scientists should be explicit about their values, and not assume that others hold them. They should examine how their values might be shaping their assumptions, and they should make it absolutely clear that they don’t speak for their agency or community unless it wants them to. Finally, Schmidt advised scientists to be good listeners.

During his talk, he flashed a great quote on the screen, which sums up much of the talk: “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” — Aristotle

As he wrapped up, Schmidt offered some encouragement. More and more scientists are “sticking their heads above the parapet,” and the people taking potshots at them are not as numerous as scientists might think.

For scientists to sustain a credible and effective presence in the public sphere, they must, above all, be honest — to their science and to their values. The political discourse over climate change will continue for decades, and so scientists should be prepared for the long haul.

Schmidt ended his talk with another great quote, this one from the late climate scientist and Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland: “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

During a Q&A session after his talk, Schmidt offered a few more words of wisdom for researchers thinking about becoming more vocal about their science and their personal views. Among his more memorable remarks were:

“It’s important for people who know things not to give up the public sphere to people who don’t know things.”

“There are forums in which you can have a serious conversation, and there are forums in which it’s impossible. … Talking over each other …. solves no one’s purpose.”

When asked to appear on Fox News, Schmidt told the producers: “I’m not here to make good TV for you. I’m not interested in adding to the noise.”

When asked where to engage the public, Schmidt said: “You have to be tactical and find places where you can be heard. … avoid comment threads of most major newspapers.”

“You can create spaces online that are not noise-free and not discussion-free but are abuse-free. And I think we should create spaces like that.”

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...