Speaking out

Bill McGuire, who is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL, has written a post suggesting that climate scientists should speak out more and that they should

Come down off the fence and choose the path you know, in your heart of hearts, is the right one.

I must admit that when I started publicly discussing climate change – more than 8 years ago – I was a little surprised that more climate scientists weren’t speaking out. However, I think there are a number of reasons why this might be, many of which are quite reasonable.

I think scientists are naturally cautious about what they say publicly. The tendency is to say things for which there is substantial evidence and to avoid speculating about things that are very uncertain. There is also a tendency to avoid saying things that might sound like advocacy, especially when engaging in what might be regarded as reasonably formal science communication.

I do, though, agree with Bill McGuire that there is pressure to not sound alarmist. A consequence of this has been a tendency to focus on what is regarded as likely and to avoid talking about possible worst case scenarios. Again, this can be reasonable, but does run the risk of not making clear that things could end up much worse than what we regard as likely.

However, there is an additional complication. In a simple sense, the outcome depends on two somewhat independent factors: how much we end up emitting, and how sensitive the climate is to the resulting radiative perturbation. So, when considering worst case scenarios, are they worst case in the sense that the climate turns out to be very sensitive, or is it that we continue to increase our emissions, so that a worst case emerges even if climate sensitivity is not on the high end. Of course, the ultimate worst case would be that we continue to increase our emissions and climate sensitivity turns out to be high.

This does make science communication quite tricky, since we can still do things to limit how much we emit and, consequently, to avoid ultimate worst case scenarios. Consequently, there’s a balance between highlighting how bad things could get while also making clear that it’s still not too late to avoid some of the most severe outcomes. However, we also have the complication that even if we do limit our emissions, we could still experience impacts that are more severe than expected (e.g., the recent heatwaves and flooding).

So, I do think this is a pretty complex science communication environment and, in general, I think climate scientists have communicated very effectively (global governments have agreed to take action, even if they haven’t actually done much yet). I do think it would be good if more climate scientists were to speak out. However, I also think we have to be careful of generating a narrative that suggests that the problem is that climate scientists haven’t spoken out enough, rather than it being that others have mostly ignored what is being said.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Scientists | Tagged , , , , | 84 Comments

CO2 emission reductions

At the risk of sounding rather arrogant, I find myself getting more and more frustrated by people justifying their position on the basis of a flawed understanding of the scientific evidence. One that seems particularly prevalent at the moment is the idea that cuts in CO2 emissions will have no effect for many decades. This has been used to argue that we should focus on developing resilience, and that reducing methane emissions is important if we want to stabilise the climate faster.

There are two problems I have with this narrative. Firstly, even if it would take many decades to feel the effects of CO2 emission reductions, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be reducing these emissions now. CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere and how much we eventually warm depends on how much we eventually emit. If we don’t focus on CO2 emissions now, then either we’ll emit more than we otherwise could have (and will have to deal with the additional warming and resulting impacts) or we’ll have to make even more drastic emission cuts in the future. If the impact of these cuts would also not be felt for many decades, why would drastic emissions cuts in the future be more justified than doing so now?

The second problem I have is that it’s not actually correct. Recent work has demonstrated that peak warming from a pulse of CO2 emission occurs after about a decade. In fact, the paper that illustrates this, explicitly discusses the misconception that it would take many decades. So, if peak warming from a pulse of CO2 emission would take about a decade, the impact of emission cuts would also manifest on a similar timescale. In other words, the effects would be felt relatively quickly.

What’s important to recognise is that how much we warm in future depends mostly on how much we emit in the future. Since CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere, limiting how much we eventually warm depends primarily on limiting how much CO2 we emit. This doesn’t mean that we should not also focus on developing resilience and also aim to reduce emissions of short-lived greenhouse gases (like methane). However, we shouldn’t do so because we think CO2 emission cuts will have no short-term impact. Not only does this ignore that ultimately we need to limit the total amount of CO2 that we emit, it’s also wrong.

Posted in Climate change, Policy | Tagged , , , , | 60 Comments

John’s Audit

This June we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the best audit ever, a series of posts written by John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State climatologist. I call him NG because that’s how he signs his comments. The series starts with this entry on his Climate Abyss blog:

The Houston Chronicle revamped its website many times over the years. Each iteration made finding the series harder. So I compiled a list, with each entry archived:

  1. The first entry is archived here.
  2. Diary Entry: R Minus 5, archived here.
  3. Diary Entry: R Minus 4, archived here.
  4. Diary Entry: R Minus 3, archived here.
  5. Diary Entry: R Minus 2, archived here.
  6. Diary Entry: R Minus 1, archived here.
  7. Diary Entry: R-Day, Part 1, archived here.
  8. Diary Entry: R-Day, Part 2, archived here.
  9. Diary Entry: R Plus 1, archived here.
  10. Diary Entry: R Plus 2, archived here.
  11. Diary Entry: R Plus 3, archived here.
  12. Diary Entry: R Plus 5, archived here.
  13. Diary Entry: R Plus 15, archived here.
  14. Diary Entry: R Plus 20, archived here.
  15. Diary Entry: R plus n, archived here.
  16. Diary Entry: George Bomar’s Thoughts, archived here.
  17. Diary Entry: The Last Word, archived here.

Here’s what I like about the series. It shows how contrarians click: we’re on a quest to experience something nobody’s ever experienced before. It shows how a meteorologist thinks in situ. It also shows how business ventures rest both on trust and distrust, and how life can be fun even when nothing happens. And then there’s this gem:

If you wait long enough, it will rain anywhere

I might as well introduce NG to new Climateball players. In 2011, he received the Woody Guthrie award for a thinking blogger from Bart Verheggen. In his Thank You note he lists his favorite posts from his blog. No idea what happened to this award.

NG’s a top defenseman in my Fantasy Draft. His exchange with Senior is still worth reading. For some reason Tony classified him in the lukewarm category. His response reveals the elegance of his thought:

I think it likely that the eventual impact will be so severe as to reflect disgracefully upon the human race.

NG’s take on the AGW predicament

I took the opportunity to email John, asking him a few questions. He responded:

Q1. How’s life beyond Climateball?

We recently won the contract for the Southern Regional Climate Center, so I’m busy spinning that up.  It’s basically a state climate office on steroids, with actually enough external funding to be able to do a decent job.  We finished our first actual set of (very limited) climate change projections for Texas, based mostly on observed trends since people around here seem to trust those more:


I’ve pulled back from online and email climate change debates, since I have more than enough climate services work to do without also talking about climate change to people who are just asserting or defending a position.

Q2. If you are still Texas State Climatologist or still meet farming and business folks, do you feel that AGW is something they consider more nowadays?

After Harvey and Uri, I think people are tired of abstract discussions about whether climate change is real and have mostly moved on to actually doing something about all the bad weather.  Mitigation is still a political hot potato, but adaptation is something just about everyone can agree on, so that’s where the progress is being made. People are open to the possibility of many types of extreme weather being worse in the future than in the present (climate science says: Harvey yes, Uri no) as long as trends in extreme weather don’t threaten their political identities.

Q3. Any new project (or audit) you’d like to share with climate-oriented readers?

We did some work for the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) recently on extreme rainfall.  In addition to concerns about climate change, they wondered whether the official updated analysis of extreme rainfall probabilities had been unduly skewed by Harvey and other recent flooding events in the area.  I found that ordinarily they should be concerned about climate change, but the recent spate of extreme rainfall had affected the analysis so much that present-day risk for, say, 100-year rainfall amounts, was probably overestimated.  With climate change, the actual risk will probably allow reality to catch up with the overestimates by sometime around the middle of this century.  That’s good news for HCFCD, but bad news for just about everyone else, whose risk of present-day extreme rainfall is already underestimated, let alone future risk.

Q4. Any music suggestions? Anything you like would do, with a link to a video. You could tell the readers about the music you listened to most to go through our current plague.

Over the past year, I’ve focused pretty heavily on the Dave Matthews Band channel on Sirius XM.  I’m probably getting near to the end of that fetish, as I’ve started hearing DMB music spontaneously in my head.  My favorite song of theirs used to be Grey Street — I love the way the refrain expands with each repeat and how the drums nearly explode at the end.  But now I think I like Crush most of all, with its sense of wonder and excitement

NG’s suggestion to start learning the coriolis force.

Plus it’s a good teaching aid for when I want to get students started with the Coriolis Force.

Posted in We Are Science | Tagged | 24 Comments

Independent SAGE – Climate

Sir David King, who has been leading the Independent SAGE group, is planning to set up a similar group that will focus on climate change (H/T Doug McNeall). It will apparently have 14 experts, from 10 nations, and every continent. This include Johan Rockström, Fatih Birol, Nerilie Abram, and Mark Maslin. So far, this seems like a reasonable group.

Given that I’ve been writing a blog about climate for a good number of years, I clearly think this is an important topic and am generally supportive of attempts to make it more prominent. So, this group could make an important contribution.

However, I also think there are some reasons to be concerned. Although things have improved over the last few years, this is still a pretty complex communication environment. It can be easy to slip up, say something that’s easily criticised, and undermine what you’re tryng to do. There are lots of people who’ve been engaging publicly in this topic for a long time, some of whom I hope they include, or at least spend some time talking to.

Then there’s the make-up of the group. Those named so far seem reasonably sensible, but there are some prominent people who may not be good additions. So, it will be interesting to see who makes up the rest of the group.

Also, what will the focus be? I’m a scientist, so I do think it’s important to stress our scientific understanding, but science alone does not tell us how to deal with this issue, and convincing people of the significance of this issue involves more than just explaining the science. If, as the news article indicates, the remit will be to press for more urgency, how will they do this in a way that’s effective?

Finally, as Doug McNeall highlighted on Twitter, there was this somewhat concerning comment in the article:

“I’ve been amazed by the response to Independent Sage,” King said. “All 12 members have become media personalities. I hope we get the same level of interest for the climate group.”

Clearly, if you want your message to be heard, you do need to get media exposure. However, there is a difference between finding ways to get your message heard, and aiming to become a media personality. Becoming a media personality is probably pretty easy. Doing so while still remaining credible is probably less so (I will say, though, that I do think those on Independent SAGE who have become quite prominent in the media have generally done well.)

As usual, this has got too long, so I’ll stop here. I think this is an interesting idea and could make a positive contribution. However, this is not the first time that people have been trying to press for more urgency. I hope this group doesn’t think that they can simply step up and easily do what many others have tried before.

Posted in Climate change, Environmental change, Global warming, Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 32 Comments

How to Reason by Analogy

Issues echo one another. Unimaginativeness alone prevents us from connecting any two of them. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the usual Climateball ™ suspects voice Covidball (tm pending) concerns that sound familiar. While similarities may be infinite, tropes converge.

Take how contrarians connect the alleged collapse of the consensus over the origin of the virus with the consensus over Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). The subtext is loud and clear: the consensus over AGW should collapse too. Does the argument work?

§1. How Analogies Work

There are many ways to evaluate analogical arguments; cf. the Stanford entry for an overview. Borrowing from Mary Hesse, we can ask (a) if the analogy between the source and the target domains display observable properties, and (b) if each part of the analogy sports any causal efficacy {1}. Let’s see how the consensus collapse analogy meets these questions. Take Judy’s

What does all this mean for institutionalized climate science? Well the IPCC, along with supporting governments and industries, is much more entrenched as a knowledge monopoly and research cartel. But the Covid origins example illuminates the social, political and careerist motivations that are in play in attempts to prematurely canonize and enforce a scientific consensus.


The material condition is that the consensus around AGW is like the one over the origin of the COVID virus; the causal condition is that motivations “prematurely canonize and enforce a scientific consensus” in both cases. In diagram form:

Diagram of the Consensus Analogy

Because of this representation, researchers often say that the material condition is a horizontal relationship, and the causal condition a vertical one. Vertical relationships articulate each object of the analogy within its own domain. Horizontal relationships rule the transposition from the source to the target domain.

The analogy therefore makes on breaks if the following two claims can be supported:

(M) The consensus over the origin of the virus is similar to the AGW consensus;
(C) Motivations prematurely canonize and enforce a scientific consensus in both cases.

I suspect we could question every single part of these claims. We will dispute two.

Contra the first claim, labelled M because it represents a material condition, Freedom Fighters see consensus enforcement in one letter from individual scientists. This is far from unanimous statements on AGW by almost all scientific organizations in the world. Contra the second claim, it’s not clear what the establishment is enforcing regarding Covid. To that effect, the relevant paragraph of the Lancet letter is worth quoting in full:

The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens. This is further supported by a letter from the presidents of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and by the scientific communities they represent. Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. We support the call from the Director-General of WHO to promote scientific evidence and unity over misinformation and conjecture. We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus.

(Source: Lancet)

Institutions that stand against spreading fear, rumors, and prejudice should be welcome. Having witnessed the last Climateball decade should be enough to agree that toning down conspiracies indeed helps data sharing. When properly read, the letter does not forbid anyone to cry foul, as long as due diligence is paid to the evidence basis.

I simply don’t think scientists stay silent because of some Omertà. Alina crushed Peter on Twitter. Everybody moved on. He’s no megaphone for the epidemiological community.

§2. A Better Analogy

The analogy does not float. Could there be better ones? You bet. Let’s take the argument by David Relman, the author of the other letter:

Evidence favoring a natural spillover should prompt a wide variety of measures to minimize human contact with high-risk animal hosts. Evidence favoring a laboratory spillover should prompt intensified review and oversight of high-risk laboratory work and should strengthen efforts to improve laboratory safety. Both kinds of risk-mitigation efforts will be resource intensive, so it’s worth knowing which scenario is most likely.

Source: Stanford Medicine News Center

A similar argument can be seen in Climateball. It goes like this: unless we get to the bottom of some problem P linked to AGW, we risk wasting resources. The problem P could refer to many things: policies, regulations, technologies, etc. Versions of it should be compiled in the But Cost Bingo square. They all presume a false dichotomy.

Suppose you get burgled. This time the thief went through your window. Does that mean you should leave the door open until you spot him with your cameras? No. That’d be silly. In security matters, simplicity is key. Every layer adds risks. In the long run, our policies better be simple and cover for all the risks, otherwise both time and resources will be lost trying to save money. This applies even if we find eventually something conclusive.

The analogy clarifies how we manage risks by simplifying policies and diversifying resource allocation. The causal condition I underline dispels a false choice {2}. As to the material condition, how we view risks will impact how we deal with the two societal issues. There are differences (e.g. we may die from it whereas the real victims of AGW will be non-Western grandchildren), but our response should be guided by similar considerations.

§3. The Company You Keep

Scientists ought to be able to say whatever they please as long as it is supported by the evidence they can judge. That idea is so vague as to be compatible with almost anything, including a letter allegedly symbolizing consensus enforcement. It’s also not very realistic. As the main researcher who pursued the lab hypothesis admits, conspiracy theorists were spinning bioweapon fantasies, and Chan was loath to give them any ammunition.

We’re social animals. While we can’t be made responsible for our friends, we are still judged by the company we keep. That’s just the way it is.

Conspiracy fans cite scientific authorities as much as everyone else. Tune in on Alex Jones. Go on Twitter. They will recycle anything that confirms that the truth is out there, including misguided analogies by contrarian scientists who ought to know better. If Denizens want to entertain theories that can easily be turned into News Corp red meat, it is their responsibility to distance themselves from it. Victim playing won’t do.

So once again the COVID rubber meets the Climateball road. This disinformation problem isn’t the Denizens’ alone. We’re all in it together, some more than others {3}.

§4. Notes

{1} These two conditions should also reinforce the analogy more than the disanalogy. This subtlety can be ignored in what follows.

{2} Same for our energy portfolio. AGW is a Very Big problem. We need all the tools to fight it. Why waste time on wondering which technology is best?

{3} We sure can do things before being 100% sure on everything regarding climate science! There are other reasons to get to carbon zero. We can revamp our energy production for national security reasons. Public health reasons compel us to reduce pollution. Financial reasons to manage assets properly. The list goes on an on.

Posted in ClimateBall, Philosophy for Bloggers | 25 Comments

Some reflections on (corona) truth wars

I wrote this in response to a paper by Jaron Harambam called The Corona Truth Wars, published in a journal called Science and Technology Studies. I submitted it to this journal but it was (desk?) rejected because they felt that the comment represents STS in ways that (we) don’t recognize. In a sense, that was partly the point – maybe STS researchers should reflect on why others perceive them in ways they don’t themselves recognise? I then sent it to Dan Sarewitz as a possible article for Issues in Science and Technology. Dan felt that it wasn’t really a good fit, but sent some useful comments. However, instead of taking it any further, I thought I would just post it here. I should also add that I also received useful comments from two others researchers, who I would be happy to name, but am never sure if they’d be happy if I did so 🙂

Some reflections on (corona) truth wars[1]


The current coronavirus pandemic has illustrated how challenging it can sometimes be to assess what information to trust, and which experts to follow.  A recent paper has suggested that STS scholars are perfectly equipped to help us understand these complex dynamics, but also highlights that such scholars have been largely absent in the public and scientific debates.   This response provides some reflections from a non-STS scholar who has an interest in such issues, and who has tried to engage with, and understand, the relevant STS literature.  We present examples that suggest that STS may not be quite as perfectly equipped as claimed, and also reflect on why STS scholars may not be as prominent as might have been hoped.  We also suggest that presenting ideas as to how STS scholars could better exploit the available tools may make up for their apparent absence in current public, and scientific, debates.

Keywords: post-truth; consensus messaging; science communication; The Honest Broker; assessing expertise

1. Introduction

The current coronavirus pandemic has illustrated how it can be difficult to assess expertise, and information, when a topic is both complex and where potential decisions have significant societal implications. In a recent paper Harambam (2020) suggests that Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars are “perfectly equipped with concepts, theories and methods to help us understand these complex dynamics, and guide us through the fog of uncertainty and manipulation”, but also asks why they haven’t been more prominent.

Although I’m certainly not an STS scholar, I have spent a number of years engaged in public debates about climate change, another societally relevant topic where it can also sometimes be challenging to assess expertise and information. As such, I have tried to engage with, and understand, the relevant STS literature but have found it difficult to work out in what way it helps us to understand “what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust” (Harambam 2020).

This may, of course, be more my own failing than anything else, but I hope that some reflections from a non-STS scholar who has an interest in this general topic may be of interest to those STS scholars who do think that there is merit in trying to develop, and exploit, strategies that would help people to better understand what information, and which experts, to trust.  I also appreciate that some of what is presented may seem slightly provocative, but the intention is to provoke discussion rather than to be provocative simply for the sake of it. 

2. Post-truth

Harambam (2020) comments that the current corona “infodemic” is the “perfect post-truth crisis on which various STS’ers can shine their lights”. However, it has been suggested (Fuller 2016) that STS should “embrace its responsibility for the post-truth world” and that it has let loose four common post-truth tropes (Fuller 2017). Similarly, Collins et al. (2017) suggests that even if STS did not have a causal influence on the emergence of post-truth, there is clearly a resonance and that STS contributions have the potential to give comfort to those associated with post-truth.

Sismondo (2017), on the other hand, suggest that STS is not to blame for post-truth since embracing “epistemic democratization does not mean a wholesale cheapening of technoscientific knowledge”. Lynch (2017) claims that there is no obvious relation between STS and post-truth and that it is the “height of hubris to suggest that [STS] gave rise to, or is otherwise responsible for, the rhetorical means through which controversies have been ‘manufactured”’.

I’m not highlighting this to try and adjudicate between these two positions. However, given that there is debate within the STS community about whether or not STS has played a role in the emergence of post-truth might suggest that STS scholars should be cautious about how they engage with a post-truth crisis. It may also explain why there is some reluctance to turn to STS when thinking of how we might address such a crisis.

3. The Honest Broker

Harambam (2020) cites The Honest Broker (Pielke 2007) as an example of insightful work that describes the various ways in which scientists may provide policy advice. Although this work highlights a number of ways in which scientists may provide advice, it seems to suggest that the preferred role is that of the Honest Broker of policy alternatives. In this role, scientists would avoid being Issue Advocates and, instead, would aim to provide information that expands the range of policy options.

However, Jasanoff (2008) points out that “science does not always serve the public interest best by widening the scope of policy choice”, while others have pointed out that rather than expanding options, a broker typically narrows them (Rabett 2010).  Brown (2008) also points out that “[e]very definition of policy options involves the exercise of power, even those offered by Pielke’s Honest Brokers”. So, even this framework does not seem to be universally accepted, even within the STS community.

It was also surprising that Harambam (2021) suggested that “STS’ers could take the role now of the ‘honest broker’”.  STS’ers could certainly provide advice about how to integrate science advice with policy, but since they don’t have epidemiological, or public health, expertise, it’s hard to see how STS’ers could become the ‘honest brokers’ in this context.   

3.1 Stealth Issue Advocacy

As mentioned above, The Honest Broker (Pielke 2007) suggests that scientists should limit the politicisation of science by acting as Honest Brokers of Policy Alternatives, rather than as Issue Advocates.   It also suggests that a particularly problematic way in which scientists might engage is when they act as Stealth Issue Advocates. This is when someone hides their policy advocacy behind a veneer of science, effectively politicising science without making this clear. According to The Honest Broker, an example of this was the various responses to Bjorn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Lomborg 2001). The claim is that many of the scientists who responded to The Skeptical Environmentalist were acting as Stealth Issue Advocates; their political preferences were influencing their responses, and they weren’t being upfront about this.

However, there are clear arguments that the scholarship in The Skeptical Environmentalist was indeed problematic. Pimm & Harvey (2001) suggest that “it is a mass of poorly digested material, deeply flawed in its selection of examples and analysis”. In a series of essays in Scientific American (Rennie et al. 2002) scientists described how Lomborg’s work had misrepresented their fields. An analysis of the criticism and responses (van den Bergh 2010) concluded that “The Skeptical Environmentalist is not a reliable source of information and certainly not a work of science”.

Again, my goal isn’t to necessarily claim that the latter is the correct interpretation, but to suggest that the framing in The Honest Broker isn’t necessarily consistent with the suggestion by Harambam (2020) that STS has the tools that can helps us to determine which “information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust”.

The analysis presented in The Honest Broker would also seem to suggest that attempts to highlight poor scholarship can be framed as Stealth Issue Advocacy if the critic is not open about their political views, and as Issue Advocacy if they are. In both cases, this can be interpreted as politicising science. Rather than helping to determine what information is reliable, and which experts should be followed, this would seem to be making it more challenging to do so.

3.2 An Addendum

Harambam (2020) also highlights that although STS has not played a big role in the corona crisis, the author of The Honest Broker is one who has received funding to evaluate how science advice has influenced the response to the pandemic. It should be noted that the author has been prominent in the climate debate for many years. His contribution, however, has led to them being included in a list of individual climate deniers involved in the global warming denial industry (DeSmog 2021) and in a list of people regarded as contributing to Climate Misinformation (SkepticalScience 2021).

I’m not highlighting this to claim that the inclusion in these lists is justified, but to suggest that it is difficult to reconcile this with suggestions that STS scholars are “perfectly equipped with concepts, theories and methods to help us understand what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust” (Harambam 2020).

4. Science communication

STS scholars have, on occasion, critiqued science communication. For example, Hollin & Pearce (2015) claimed that the information presented at the press conference for the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report resulted in an “incoherent message” with respect to “what counts as scientific evidence for [anthropogenic global warming] AGW”.

However, rather than an incoherent message being presented, the issue was more that Hollin & Pearce (2015) misunderstood, and potentially mis-represented, what was presented at the press conference (Jacobs et al. 2015). This may imply that the communication could have been clearer, but that’s not the same as it being incoherent.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to critique science communication. However, one might hope that STS scholars would be cautious when critiquing the press conference for the release of a major scientific report, especially if STS regards itself as being perfectly suited to helping people determine which information to trust, and which experts to follow.

4.1 Consensus messaging

One science communication strategy that comes under particular STS scrutiny is consensus messaging. Underpinned by various consensus studies (Cook et al. 2013, 2016, Skuce et al. 2016) it is argued that consensus messaging can help to close the consensus gap (Hamilton 2016) and can act as a gateway belief (van der Linden et al. 2015, van der Linden et al. 2019). The idea being that the acceptance of a scientific consensus on an issue can then lead to changes in people’s attitudes and stronger support for public action.

Some STS scholars, however, argue that we should get beyond counting climate consensus[2]  and should instead “focus on genuinely controversial issues within climate policy debates where expertise might play a facilitating role” (Pearce et al. 2017). Cook (2017), however, suggests that this is a false dichotomy and that a “failure to address misconceptions about consensus enables the persistence of distractions that can delay substantive policy discussion”, while Oreskes (2017) points out that in a “political environment where contrarians have repeatedly mis-represented scientific consensus in a deliberate attempt to influence public policy, it is both reasonable and necessary for scholars to participate in attempting to clarify what scientists believe that they have established”.

In a debate between Cook and Pearce (Hulme 2021), Pearce argues that the consensus is strong but narrow, and that we should instead focus on issues that matter most for informing societal responses (Cook & Pearce 2021). Examples given were debates about carbon budgets and discount rates. However, these are both intricately linked to the consensus; a carbon budget provides information as to how much we can emit if we want to limit human-caused climate change, and discount rates relate to the future damages due to human-caused climate change, discounted to today.

What critics of consensus messaging have failed to explain is how it is possible to have discussions about these other important issues if there isn’t acceptance of the consensus that humans are causing climate change. My point here isn’t to re-litigate the debate about consensus messaging, but to suggest that this is an example where STS scholars have been critical of attempts to illustrate which information, and which experts, to trust, without really providing an alternative that would achieve a similar goal. This doesn’t seem consistent with the suggestion in Harambam (2020) that STS scholars are perfectly equipped with tools that will help us understand what information is reliable, and which experts to follow.

5. Conclusion

My motivation for writing this was not to revisit the science wars (Mermin 2008) or to even suggest that STS scholars do not have tools that would help us to assess what information to accept and which experts to trust. I’m well aware that even though I have an interest in this issue and have engaged with the STS literature for some time, I’m certainly not an expert and there are almost certainly aspects that I do not understand. I also agree with Harambam (2020) that this is important, that we should be thinking about how to address these issues, and that scholars who study the science/policy interface would seem to be ideally suited to providing suitable advice.

I also don’t want to suggest that the examples provided above are representative of all of STS; I appreciate that it’s a very diverse field with many different views. My intention was to provide examples that seem inconsistent with what is suggested in Harambam (2020) and that might illustrate why STS scholars may have been less prominent in the current debate than might have been hoped.

It’s also the case that STS scholars have not been entirely absent from the current debate.  For example, Parthasarathy (2021) has written about the vaccine crisis in Europe, Rayner and Sarewitz (2021) have written about policy making in the post-truth world and have included a discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic, and others have been prominent in the mainstream media.  Even though not directly related to the coronavirus crisis, STS scholars have also recently been appointed to prominent positions in the new US administration (Storrow 2021). 

I should also acknowledge that Harambam (2020) did indeed also highlight some of the potential issues with STS. For example, commenting that much STS work is inaccessible, making it difficult for the outside world to understand and implement. As I suspect many STS scholars would agree, it’s difficult to convincingly argue that STS is perfectly equipped with tools for addressing societally complex issues if it’s not possible to apply this in practice.

I don’t want to end with any suggestions, as I don’t think I’m really in a position to do so. I mostly wanted to provide reflections from someone who has an interest in this topic and that might be of interest to those who may be thinking about how to provide tools that can be used to assess what information is reliable, which experts to follow and what (epistemic) authorities to trust. Presenting ideas about how this might be achieved may also make up for the apparent absence of STS scholar voices in public and scientific debates.

6. References

Brown, M.B. (2008) Review of Roger S. Pielke, Jr., The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Minerva 46, 485-489.

Collins, H., Evans, R. & Weinel, M. (2017) STS as science or politics? Social Studies of Science 47(4), 580–586.

Cook, J. (2017) Response by Cook to “beyond counting climate consensus”. Environmental Communication 11(6), 733–735.

Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P. & Skuce, A. (2013), Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 8(2), 024024.

Cook, J., Oreskes, N., Doran, P. T., Anderegg, W. R. L., Verheggen, B., Maibach, E. W., Carlton, J. S., Lewandowsky, S., Skuce, A. G., Green, S. A., Nuccitelli, D., Jacobs, P., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R. & Rice, K. (2016) Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11(4), 048002.

Cook, J. & Pearce, W. (2021) Is emphasising consensus in climate science helpful for policymaking? In: Hulme M. (ed) Contemporary Climate Change Debates: A Student Primer.  London: Routledge, pp. 127-145

Global Warming Disinformation Database, In: DeSmog blog. Available at https://www.desmogblog.com/global-warming-denier-database (https://archive.is/Ybaqy) (accessed 22.2.2021)

Fuller, S. (2016), Embrace the inner fox: Post-truth as the STS symmetry principle universalized. Social Epistemology Review Reply Collective. Available at: https://social-epistemology.com/2016/12/25/embrace-the-inner-fox- post-truth-as-the-sts-symmetry-principle-universalized-steve-fuller/comments (accessed 22.2.2021)

Fuller, S. (2017) Is STS all talk and no walk? Social Epistemology Review Reply Collective.
Available at: https://social-epistemology.com/2017/04/26/is-sts-all-talk-and-no- walk-steve-fuller/ (accessed 22.2.2021)

Hamilton, L. C. (2016) Public awareness of the scientific consensus on climate. SAGE Open 6(4), 2158244016676296.

Harambam, J. (2020) The corona truth wars: Where have all the STS’ers gone when we need them most? Science & Technology Studies 33(4), 60–67.

Hollin, G. J. S. & Pearce, W. (2015) Tension between scientific certainty and meaning complicates communication of IPCC reports. Nature Climate Change 5(8), 753–756.

Hulme, M. (2021), Contemporary Climate Change Debates: A Student Primer. London: Routledge.

Jacobs, P., Cutting, H., Lewandowsky, S., O’Brien, M., Rice, K. & Verheggen, B. (2015) Clarity of meaning in IPCC press conference. Nature Climate Change 5(11), 961–962.

Jasanoff, S. (2008) Speaking honestly to power. American Scientist .
Available at: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/speaking-honestly-to-power

Lomborg, B. (2001) The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge University Press.

Lynch, M. (2017) STS symmetry and post-truth.  Social Studies of Science 47(4), 593–599.

Mermin, N. D. (2008) Science wars revisited. Nature 454(7202), 276–277.

Oreskes, N. (2017) Response by Oreskes to “beyond counting climate consensus”. Environmental Communication 11(6), 731–732.

Parthasarathy, S. (2021), The AstraZeneca Vaccine Crisis in Europe Isn’t About Science at All. Slate.  Available at:  https://slate.com/technology/2021/03/oxford-astrazeneca-vaccine-blood-clots-europe-trust.html

Pearce, W., Grundmann, R., Hulme, M., Raman, S., Kershaw, E. H. & Tsou- valis, J. (2017) Beyond counting climate consensus. Environmental Communication 11(6), 723–730.

Pielke, Jr, R. A. (2007), The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pimm, S. & Harvey, J. (2001) No need to worry about the future. Nature 414(6860), 149–150.

Rabett, E. (2010). The Honest Joker.  In: Rabett Run blog, 23 January. Available at: http://rabett.blogspot.com/2010/01/honest-joker.html (accessed 22.2.2021)

Rayner, S., Sarewitz, D. (2021) Policy Making in the Post-Truth World, Breakthrough Journal 13.  Available at: https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/no-13-winter-2021/policy-making-in-the-post-truth-world

Rennie, J., Schneider, S., Holdren, J. P., Bongaarts, J. & Lovejoy, T. (2002) Misleading math about the earth. Scientific American 286(1), 61–71.

Sismondo, S. (2017) Post-truth? Social Studies of Science 47(1), 3–6.

SkepticalScience (2021).                                                                                                      URL: https://skepticalscience.com/misinformers.php (https://archive.is/nz7F5)

Skuce, A. G., Cook, J., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Rice, K., Green, S. A., Jacobs, P. & Nuccitelli, D. (2016) Does it matter if the consensus on anthropogenic global warming is 97% or 99.99%? Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 36(3), 150–156.

[1] The use of wars in the title is largely to reflect that this was motivated by Harambam (2020)’s recent paper The Corona Truth Wars: Where Have All the STS’ers Gone When We Need Them Most?

[2] In this context, counting climate consensus refers to attempts to quantify the level of agreement, either amongst experts or within the published literature, about a particular consensus position.

Posted in advocacy, Climate change, Philosophy for Bloggers, Policy, Scientists, The scientific method | Tagged , , , , , | 57 Comments

Declaring a climate emergency?

Matthew Nisbet, Professor of Communication, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, has a new article called Manufacturing Consent: The dangerous campaign behind climate emergency declarations. It makes similar arguments to those made by Mike Hulme in an article called Climate Emergency Politics Is Dangerous.

The concern expressed by Nisbet and Hulme is that by declaring some kind of Climate Emergency you give governments an opportunity to impose all sorts of authoritarian policies under the guise of dealing with this climate emergency.

I do sympathise with the concerns; I think we should be careful of giving governments carte blanche to impose policies without some kind of democratic oversight. However, I didn’t really agree with the implication in Matthew Nisbet’s article that authoritarian policies were already being implimented in the name of dealing with the climate emergency. That an authoritarian government may pay lip service to climate change doesn’t necessarily imply that the climate emergency is a cover for authoritarian policies.

Also, neither Matthew Nisbet nor Mike Hulme seemed to provide some kind of viable alternative, at least not one that I could see. If we should avoid acknowledging a climate emergency, what should we do instead? How do we deal with a serious global problem in a way that is effective, but doesn’t provide cover for authoritarian policies?

Nisbet also criticised the science says this is an emergency type narrative. Of course, strictly speaking he’s correct; we can’t use science to determine if something is an emergency. However, I think that this narrative is mostly a shorthand for we’ve looked at the scientific evidence and, in our judgement, this is an emergency.

Additionally, under what conditions would it be acceptable to declare some kind of emergency? If changing the climate of the only planet on which we can live doesn’t qualify, what does? How would we determine when something justifies emergency status? In some sense, Nisbet and Hulme’s arguments against declaring a climate emergency are as much a personal judgement as the arguments of those in favour of doing so.

Anyway, this is getting rather long, and I need to get ready for a barbecue (braai, for those who know my origins). I do share some of the concerns of those who argue against climate emergency declarations, but I would have more sympathy if they were to present viable alternatives, rather than appearing to simply be arguing against this framing.

As I tried to explain in this post, I do think climate change is a different problem to almost anything else we face today and if we do want to limit the impact of climate change, I do think we need to take some fairly drastic action. I do agree that we should be aware of the possibility that governments could use this as a cover for implementing unpopular policies that have little to do with climate change, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t got to the point where climate change has become an emergency


Manufacturing Consent: The dangerous campaign behind climate emergency declarations – article by Matthew Nisbet.
Climate Emergency Politics is Dangerous – article by Mike Hulme
The benefits of acting now, rather than later – post I wrote about why climate change is different to the other problems we face.

Posted in Climate change, Philosophy for Bloggers, Policy, Politics, Science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 57 Comments

The Bingo Core

A few months ago I posted a Bingo Card. Thanks to feedback, more Climateball exchanges, with contrarians, and some vacation days, a clearer image has emerged. Here is the current version (1.1):

Climateball Bingo, v. 1.1

The up-to-date version will be found on the Climateball Bingo page. The image has been generated using a mindmapping tool. The one I use is called SimpleMind. Don’t you forget about that great band!

The central square features an acronym that stands for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. The C must not be interpreted as geological catastrophism, but as catastrophization. Which begs the question: how do contrarians know that potential catastrophes are a product of mere catastrophizing? Taking a stand on that question moves them away from skepticism.

The eight squares around the center (in blue) represent the core of the contrarian Bingo. The four corners (Science, the Press, Politics, and Evidence) orient most of the other squares into quadrants. The four squares between them (Advocacy, Costs, Bias, and Truth) tie the corners together like the Dude’s rug his room.

Finding the middle circle (in mustard yellow or light green) was the reason why I started the exercise in the first place: to reduce my 49-square Bingo to 25 squares. It represents what I’m tempted to call the limits of justified disingenuousness. Beyond it the silliness is harder to hide.

The outer circle (in yellow) contains mostly illustrative squares. For instance, “But Galileo” is subsumed under “But My Guru.” I suppose we could let go of them all, but I feel they have historical value. Besides, how fun can a Climateball exchange really be without any appeal to (say) the MWP, Da Paws, or hurricanes? Some of these squares also give you easy wins {1}: take them!

The core of the Bingo could apply to most policy-based arguments I’ve seen online, especially those around COVID. (By serendipity, many Climateball contrarians are also Covidball contrarians.) The middle circle might be generalized even more. Hard to tell what works best. So far it’s been useful to me.

All in all, I like the look of this version. It certainly could be clarified: “But Accelerate” and “But Damascus” rely on knowing Bible stories and weird online communities. There are many other connections between the squares than the ones presented. Classifiers made by hand integrate trade-offs. Lastly, bear in mind that the exercise should not be taken too seriously : I seek an artistic memory palace more than ultimate categories.

As always, comments and suggestions are most welcome.

{1}: Provided winning at Climateball is possible.

Posted in ClimateBall, ClimateBall Bingo | 37 Comments

The is-ought distinction

There was an interesting panel discussion, as part of Andy Revkin’s #SustainWhat webcast, involving Naomi Oreskes and Mike Hulme. Andy was highlighting it because of what Naomi Oreskes was saying about people staying in their lanes. There can be a tendency for scientists who are noted for having expertise in one field, thinking they can speak confidently about topics outside their immediate area of expertise. I think this was partly motivated by Steve Koonin’s latest foray into climate science.

Although I do agree that this is something to be cautious of, I don’t think we should immediately dismiss something because it’s being presented by someone who isn’t recognised as an expert in that field. People can clearly make contributions outside of the field in which they have expertise. However, I do think it’s important for people to acknowledge their expertise when speaking publicly.

However, as Gavin Schmidt pointed out, why is this so often targeted at scientists? It’s not as if scientists are the only people who ever speak confidently about topics outside their immediate area of expertise. Also, if you discourage those who know something from speaking broadly about related topics, there will be plenty of people who know nothing who will happily take their place.

After that rather lengthy introduction, what I actually wanted to highlight was what Naomi Oreskes says later about the is-ought issue. The is-ought issue is the idea is that we should distinguish between what is (scientific “facts”) and what we ought to do, given those scientific “facts”. Even though scientists claim to be clear about the distinction, they don’t always make this distinction clear when speaking publicly.

What I found interesting, though, was that Naomi Oreskes then suggested that the distinction isn’t always clear. In some sense, we can probably always distinguish between the scientific evidence, and what we should do given that evidence, but sometimes (given our morals and shared values) the scientific evidence very clearly indicates that we really should do something.

If a highly transmissible virus that could kill 1% of all who get infected starts spreading through the community, then we really should do something to limit the spread of the virus. If we discover our emission of gases into the atmosphere is changing the climate and that this could have severely negative impacts, then we really should do something to limit the emission of these gases.

If distinguishing between the is and the ought was straightforward, why is there a tendency for those who oppose some action to attack the science (dismissing the scientific evidence), rather than accepting the science and simply arguing against the action? That they attack the science, suggests that the science (the is) is, to a certain extent, defining what we should do (the ought).

So, maybe we should be careful of trying to constrain what scientists – or anyone – should say publicly. However, I do generally agree that people should be clear about whether or not they’re speaking within their area of expertise and should also try to distinguish between when they speaking as an expert, and when they’re speaking as a concerned citizen, even if their expertise does give them some relevant insights.

Posted in advocacy, Philosophy for Bloggers, physicists, Policy, Scientists, The philosophy of science | Tagged , , , , , , | 55 Comments

The Last Glacial Maximum

There’s an interesting paper by Seltzer et al. called [w]idespread six degrees Celsius cooling on land during the Last Glacial Maximum, which I became aware of through a Twitter thread by Werner Aeschbach. The reason it’s interesting is that it uses noble gases in groundwater to estimate the cooling over land in low-to-mid latitudes during the last glacial maximum (LGM). They find that it cooled by 5.8 ± 0.6oC.

Credit: Seltzer et al., Nature, 2021.

As the figure on the right illustrates, this is somewhat cooler than other estimates and potentially resolves a slight discrepancy between climate sensitivity estimates based on LGM cooling, and other estimates. Although they have typically been consistent, estimates based on LGM cooling have tended to suggest that the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) may be on the low side of the range.

This new estimate of LGM cooling, however, suggests as ECS of around 3.4oC (not sure of the uncertainty), potentially rules out the lowest part of the range and is somewhat more consistent with other ECS estimates. It also probably rules out some of the very high ECS estimates coming from some of the CMIP6 models.

Of course, this is just one study, so it would be interesting to know what others think of this. It does, though, seem to be a very useful update to our understanding of the last glacial maximum and what this might imply with regards to climate sensitivity.

Posted in Climate change, Climate sensitivity, Global warming, Research | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments