I wanted to comment briefly on a recent paper which concludes that
recommendations made by climate researchers are followed when they practice what they preach.
This seems pretty obvious to me; if you’re going to make specific suggestions, then people are more likely to take you seriously if you appear to practice what you preach. The problem, though, is that a vast majority of climate scientists do no such thing. They are simply people who carry out research to understand different aspects of our climate. Only a small fraction actually advocate for anything specific, such as emission reductions.
That’s why I think that the way in which this research was highlighted was poor. The headline in the press release (see Update at the bottom of the post) is
Climate scientists are more credible when they practice what they preach
which is clearly not what the research indicates. The research says nothing about their credibility as climate scientists; it simply discusses the perceived credibility of climate scientists who also advocate for action.
Although I obviously agree that people should practice what they preach, I think the framing of this is unfortunate. Most climate scientists do not advocate, and are simply researchers studying our climate. Expecting them to set some kind of example, because their research indicates that maybe we should take some action, is – IMO – wrong. The only thing they should be obliged to do is to present their research honestly and clearly, and to make it possible for the public and policy makers to be informed by the research that is done. In fact, there is something rather ironic about this. Those who advocate publicly are regarded, by some, as no longer scientifically credible, while those who don’t set some kind of public example, are regarded by some as hypocrites. It almost seems as though they simply can’t win.
Of course, I have no problem with climate scientists taking a public stance and, those that do, should indeed practice what they preach. In general, however, climate scientists are not public figures and are not responsible for whether or not we (society) take action on the basis of their research. In fact, that we should be considering taking action is really based on the collection of all climate research, not on the basis of any research done by any individuals. That’s why I think Anthony Watts posting images of climate scientists’ houses, showing that they don’t have solar panels, is wrong; even if he didn’t post their actual address. They are not elected officials and they do not – typically – benefit from their public profile, and so have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
So, I do think that people who advocate should practice what they preach, but the suggestion that this should be true for climate scientists in general is – in my view – unhelpful. They’re not responsible for whether or not we decide to take action to reduce the risks associated with climate change, and I think it’s important that this is made clear. If, in the future, we decide that we took insufficient action to address climate change, it’s not going to be the fault of climate scientists who didn’t put solar panels on their roofs.
Update: Springer have changed the headline for their press release to now say:
Climate scientists are perceived as more credible when they practice what they preach
This is mainly – I think – because I emailed them to point out that the headline was somewhat misleading. I still think the update is not quite right, since the paper refers to climate scientists who advocate, not climate scientists in general, but a willingness to make a change should be applauded. The Indiana University press release is still unchanged, though.