Putting the Science Police to Better Use

Public rejection might just be part of the journey to knowledge's acceptance.

Not everyone is on the same page.

Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

In scientific fields that bear on contentious public issues such as endangered species and climate change, writes journalist Keith Kloor in the latest Issues in Science and Technology, self-appointed “sheriffs of scientific literature and public debate” are taking it upon themselves to shut down discussion of inconvenient views and findings. Kloor writes:

On one extreme end of the policing spectrum sit people whose reputations have been shredded. Elsewhere along this continuum are those who have been blacklisted from academic meetings, bullied on social media, and slimed in the blogosphere.

The article doesn’t quite back up that ominous tone. The opening anecdote is about a paper on rising species diversity in some local ecosystems that was rejected by the journal Nature after a peer reviewer worried that the media might interpret it the wrong way -- but was published soon afterward in the almost-as-prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Most of the rest focuses on Roger Pielke Jr., a longtime environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado who is on board with the consensus view that carbon emissions are warming the planet but has endured ferocious public criticism for his oft-expressed observation that warming doesn’t seem to be bringing more hurricanes or other major weather disasters. 1

Pielke already detailed his travails in a December op-ed in the Wall Street Journal headlined “My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic,” in which he complained that with all the criticism, “studying and engaging on climate change had become decidedly less fun.” And in fact he switched his academic focus last year to sports governance, but he’s certainly still engaging on climate change. He’ll be speaking to Sir Nigel Lawson’s “lukewarmist” Global Warming Policy Foundation in London next month, in fact, on “Climate Politics as Manichean Paranoia.” So, make of Pielke’s story what you will. I generally enjoy his writings, and find many of the criticisms of them overwrought, but I can see how his lamenting being controversial while actively courting controversy might drive some peers crazy.

Still, it’s hard not to hear the ring of truth in this, from the introduction 2 to a forthcoming Oxford University Press essay collection, “Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma,” that Kloor cites in his article:

Working as editors for some of the major journals in our field, we have seen first-hand reviewers worrying as much about the political fallout and potential misinterpretation by the public as they do about the validity and rigor of the science.

There was ample evidence of such worries in the infamous stash of emails stolen from the server of the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia and posted online in 2009. And yes, the political reaction to their release more or less confirmed the worries. As the Associated Press wrote after an exhaustive perusal of the emails:

Republican congressmen and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin have called for either independent investigations, a delay in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases or outright boycotts of the Copenhagen international climate talks. They cited a "culture of corruption" that the e-mails appeared to show.

That is not what the AP found. There were signs of trying to present the data as convincingly as possible.

It's a vicious circle. Because they knew that messy findings would be seized upon by foes of limits on carbon emissions, the scientists tried to clean them up a little -- only to see their efforts seized upon by foes of limits on carbon emissions. Given the huge quantities of invective and misinformation thrown at climate scientists over the years by global-warming skeptics, this tendency to circle the wagons is understandable. But is it ... working?

In some ways, yes: A Gallup poll earlier this year found that 45 percent of Americans worry a "great deal" about global warming or climate change -- a new record -- while a Quinnipiac poll found that 43 percent were "very concerned" about it. But as I wrote in a column in March, these views have jumped around a lot over the years, and very few people mention climate change when pollsters ask them to list their top concerns. Views on climate change in the U.S. still seem to reflect what the legendary public-opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich dubs "mass opinion," by which he means that it is "poor-quality public opinion as defined by the defects of inconsistency, volatility, and nonresponsibility."

That's from Yankelovich's "Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World," a 1991 book that a reader of my March column recommended that I check out. "Public judgment," in Yankelovich's telling, is a much more durable, considered, desirable thing:

To say that public judgment has been reached on an issue does not imply that people comprehend all of the relevant facts or that they agree with the views of elites. It does imply that people have struggled with the issue, thought about it in their own terms, and formed a judgment they are willing to stand by. 

How do we get there? That's the hard part. As Yankelovich notes, it took centuries for Western nations to come to the public judgment that slavery was unacceptable. Getting to public judgment is an unpredictable, on occasion interminable journey. He is pretty sure how not to get there, though: by presenting an expert consensus to the public and just expecting them to accept it. 3

The transmission of information from educators, journalists, and experts is a relatively minor part of this process. The personal struggle of millions of individuals to bring their beliefs into line with their basic values is the major part of it.

Again, that doesn't sound easy, or straightforward! (The book is a little maddening that way, I'll admit.) It does make it seem, though, that "political fallout and potential misinterpretation by the public" might actually be an inevitable part of the process, not something the science police should be striving so hard to prevent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. "There have been more heat waves and intense precipitation," Pielke wrote in the 2014 FiveThirtyEight piece that I link to above, "but these phenomena are not significant drivers of disaster costs." 

  2. By editors Peter Kareiva of the University of California at Los Angeles and Michelle Marvier of Santa Clara University.

  3. This also seems to be the message of some just-published research on communication strategies for reducing climate change skepticism.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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