A Few Things Ill Considered

A layman's take on the science of Global Warming featuring a guide on How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

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Policy advocate, or human being?

Roger Pielke Jr has another posting complaing about how the IPCC is not policy neutral despite its stated objectives, and therefore not an "honest broker" of the science of climate change. He offers this quote as support:
I hope this [forthcoming IPCC] report will shock people, governments into taking more serious action as you really can't get a more authentic and a more credible piece of scientific work.

from Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC director.

I commented over there that his accusations of some sort of hypocrisy rest entirely on the assumption that everyone shares his definitions and I do not think that most people consider statements like "we should take serious action" to be advocating a policy at all.

Quite rightly Roger asked me how I would define "policy neutral". So, because I wrote a lengthy reply to that and would like to keep it handy, I thought I would reproduce it here. ("You" refers to Roger, of course)

I daresay "policy neutral" is one of those concepts where the only possible comprehensive definitions for it in its most abstract meaning render it a useless term. That is to say, the purest definition - having no preferences for any policy over any other and even no preference for any goals or set of goals over any other - is one that no living breathing human being could conceivably subscribe to. It requires having no values, no aspirations, no ethics.

So to avoid defining such a term out of a useful existence, policy neutral can only have meaning within a specific context. For example, if you are sitting at a meeting and there are five proposed policy options on the table and you have no preference of one over any other, you are policy neutral within this context.Now, of coures, the five that were on the table must have come from somewhere, but to be policy neutral, and human, you must already be looking at a limited set of options.

So let me try to bring this into its specific context here. I believe that one can be policy neutral even though they believe that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be dealt with. Someone could be policy neutral because they have no particular convictions about how addressing climate change should be done: nuclear energy, CO2 sequestration, drastic lifestyle changes, combinations of approaches, etc.

I believe that I am not alone in thinking this way, and in fact it is you who need to "come to grips" with what others mean by policy neutral. The way you have defined and use this term (I have no doubt that it is consistent with your field's usage btw) means that the simple desire to avoid large scale human suffering makes you a policy advocate.

This is really splitting semantic horsehairs while the fossil fuels burn.

I am sure I will be following up on that over there...

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  • At January 26, 2007 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    When you look at Roger's CV, you find few if any peer-reviewed articles. It's mostly a litany of opinion pieces and newspaper articles.

    He seems to spend most of his time blogging, in the hopes that he might catch the attention of a journalist. And one of his ploys to try and reduce any scientist of note into an "advocate" so that the scientist will then have to compete on Roger's terrain.

  • At January 26, 2007 12:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well, RP Jr. is a political scientist and so his only relevant peer-reviewed work is on hurricane damage trends. All that business about scientization (completely unavoidable IMHO) and honest breakage is designed by science policy academics to give themselves a reason to be in the limelight. Can a science policy expert who advocates honest breakage for climate scientists himself avoid "policyization" when speaking about the implications of climate science? I'm only half-kidding about that. Let's also not forget that the term "honest broker" as used by the RP Jr.'s of the world is highly pejorative, and not by accident.

    In any case, while far from every climate scientist is expert in the policy implications of climate science, so long as there are people like Jim Hansen and Andrew Dessler available it makes no sense for the media or policy makers to resort to getting advice from science policy academics.

  • At January 26, 2007 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I should add that of course the IPCC was brought into existence specifically to advise political institutions as to whether action is needed, which is very precisely the role that Pachauri is playing. Anyone who thinks that those who created the IPCC had something else in mind wasn't paying attention. Consider that the alternative would be the policy makers themselves deciding when the science had gotten to the point of compelling action. Oh, yeah, that'd work really well.

  • At January 26, 2007 5:51 PM, Blogger EliRabett said…

    Well, Eli's not allowed within the Boulder city limits, so I have to comment over here. IPCC is a governmental body. Why should it be policy neutral if the facts recommend a policy? Remember that the panels are advisory to the IPCC, not the IPCC. That the panel of experts is policy neutral (at least WGI and WGII , WGIII on what should be done is another kettle of fish entirely) is reasonable.

  • At January 26, 2007 6:17 PM, Blogger coby said…

    There is also the consideration that the Director of the IPCC is not always equivalent to the IPCC. The reference that Roger offered in response to one of my comments was a blog entry that spoke of how such quotes from IPCC officials left the IPCC *open to the accusations* that it is political advocacy pretending to be science. Why this means the accusation must be made is left unexplained.

  • At January 27, 2007 8:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coby: "The reference that Roger offered in response to one of my comments was a blog entry..."

    Roger Pielke Jr. citing himself to support himself is the highest form of Pielkeism.

    The guy spends about a third of the time on his blog chasing his own tail.

  • At January 27, 2007 1:50 PM, Blogger David said…

    With some trepidation I offer a comment!
    As an ordinary member of the public today I joined an open day visit to the UK's Met Office which includes the Hadley Centre. We had a presentation on their work generally, including climate change. We viewed their computor rooms and saw staff working at their desks in a very calm and professional atmosphere, as they do 24 hours a day ,7 days a week.
    We ended up in their extensive library and I noted two items.A book by Callendar.G.S. on the artificial production of carbon dioxide and its influence on temperature, written in 1938 and a paper from much earlier by Tyndall, J. "On the absorbtion of heat by gaseous matter" written in 1862, thats right 1862. How is it that nearly 150 years later we have economists such as Richard Toll trying to rubbish Nicholas Stern and journalist such as Charles Moore in the UK Saturday Telegraph trying to compare the Stern Report to the Iraq dossiers and generally rubish the whole of the IPCC report before it is even issued.
    I much prefer reading the reports of the Hadley Centre and urging my Govt to act to bring about a reduction in production of Carbon Dioxide. Haggling over the definition of words doesnt seem very important.

  • At January 27, 2007 3:47 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Hi David, thanks for posting through your trepidation!

    I agree, it is very frustrating to hear talk about how we must practice "sustainable science" and shoudl the IPCC be policy neutral or not while such a pervasive problem continues unabated at such a critical time.

    About the history of climate change science, you might find this website very informative.

  • At January 27, 2007 9:04 PM, Blogger EliRabett said…

    Let me take another run at this. Policy neutral means that all policies are the same. Nonsense.

  • At January 27, 2007 9:16 PM, Blogger coby said…

    IMO Roger professed disagrement yet completely conceded my whole point by saying a) no table is large enough to have truly *all* options on it and b) qualifying all of his example of policy neutrality with "within this framing".

    That was my whole point. "Policy neutrality" is either meaningless except in the abstract mathematical sense or it exists only within a framework.

  • At January 28, 2007 2:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Roger's whole "policy neutrality" kick is just another rendition of his "nonskeptic heretic" or whatever that was.

    It's dressed up rhetorical nonsense designed to snare some passing journalist who is perusing the blogs.

    Kevin Vranes is now engaging in the same behavior and with the IPCC soon to come out, they are both making sure that they lay out enough lures for the press.

  • At January 31, 2007 8:01 PM, Blogger Cinefreak said…

    And should it suprise anyone that Margaret Wente of all people caught the bait? Who didn't see that coming?

  • At February 18, 2007 7:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Having lost the science debate (again), Pielke wants to switch rules or cry 'foul'. Remind him that Dr. Robert Watson did a fine job as chairman of IPCC but was ousted by the Bush Administration.

    Dr. Pachauri has a background in technology, business and energy and he wasn't expected to take an activist role. Exxon-Mobile suggested he was their best choice for chairman. They informed the White House of that and surprise, surprise, guess who the Bush Administration worked to elect? Dr. Pachauri

    Watson out, Pachauri in

    Now he's a problem? Too bad. Their problem is this - it is now clear that Pachauri has more integrity and sense than those who appointed him.


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