Grant McDermott bio photo

Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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The latest furore to erupt in the climate blogosphere concerns whether climate scientists undermine their credibility by engaging in advocacy? (For some responses, see James Annan, Gretchen Goldman and HB&H.)

As it happens, I recently wrote a term-paper on this exact issue for my philosophy of science class. I've decided to make it available here for those who are interested in this debate!

To summarise, I don't see anything inherently wrong with scientists engaging in political advocacy, as long as they are explicit in their intentions... and the scope of their expertise. (E.g. I often see physical scientists make strong pronouncements about economic matters and that makes me uncomfortable.) One climate scientist whom I feel always struck a good balance on these issues and quote in my term-paper is the late Stephen Schneider. To channel Schneider: Our response to climate change must be underpinned by scientific facts, but it should ultimately also be reflective of society's value judgements \(-\) including those of our scientists.

Some brief points/caveats:
  • This was a “pass/fail” essay, aimed at gaining admission to sit the exam, and I hope that you’ll evaluate the material accordingly. That said, the emphasis on citations and quotations probably means that it provides a good overview of the issues.
  • Apart from scientists working on the physical basis for climate change, I also tried to pay special attention to the role of economists. The Stern Review, which many people regard as the archetypal blend of economics and advocacy, therefore comes in for special attention.
Click to read the term-paper.

UPDATE: I've just finished listening to a very interesting discussion between the climate scientists, Gavin Schmidt, Richard Betts and Judith Curry, on this precise topic. I am again struck by something that was very clear to me whilst researching my essay: The various sides all seem to agree on the principles (i.e. being open about one’s area of expertise and clear on your value judgements when advocating for policy). The real sticking point appears to be one of application.