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Stanford Report, May 9, 2001
Should scientists advocate public policy? Stephen Schneider ponders the ethics

BY KATIE GREENE

Climate policy is a product of unlikely bedfellows. On one hand are scientists, who speak of probabilities and trends and whose world view shifts with peer discussion and new data. On the other hand are politicians, who speak in bottom lines, budgets and sound bites. Both cultures regard with some suspicion scientists who take positions on policy.

"Is the 'scientific advocate' an oxymoron?" asked climate scientist Stephen Schneider at a May 4 "Ethics at Noon" seminar. "Twenty years ago, the answer would have been a resounding 'yes.' " Now, he says, there is more tolerance -- but only up to a point.

Schneider, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and at the Institute for International Studies and, by courtesy, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has written popular magazine articles, op-ed pieces and books about climate change. He has appeared hundreds of times on television and dozens of times before Congress to discuss its implications and advocate solutions.

"Being an advocate is not cost free," Schneider said. "Many members of the political world assume that you are doing what they do: deliberately suppressing countervailing evidence. The world will assume that what you say colors the fact side of the argument: the very scientific work you do."

Politicians depend on scientific advocates to translate complex, technical information into the layperson's language so they can get their points across in debates, presentations, briefs and other fast-paced communications. Politicians have to hope that the scientists' figures are stable enough to bear the weight of decisive action.

Advocates also make the scientific community uneasy. Scientists strive to be objective. Value judgments make them uncomfortable, Schneider said. "Ideally, we want an infinite set of replicable experiments. But what if the 'experiment' is the atmospheric composition in 2100?" he asked. "There can be no objective data on 2100 for 99 years."

Because climate policy relies on predictions, deciding what action to take will require subjective judgments. How much damage are we willing to risk? What are we willing to pay to lower the risk? Who should pay? How should the money be spent?

"You have to address the money question, because the money could be used in other ways: to advance housing, education, infrastructure and so on," Schneider said. "Resources are limited."

Knowledge from climate experts can help point out which pieces of science are relevant to these value judgments. But if scientists refuse to make judgment calls, the decisions are left to people less familiar with the science, Schneider said. "I trust the value system of most people," Schneider said. "But I'm afraid of their ignorance and fears."

Joining the climate debate requires adopting some aspects of political culture. "What happens when you only get five minutes to give an opening statement before Congress -- where members typically want a sound bite?" Schneider asked. "If you don't talk in sound bites, you don't get heard."

Climate debates often are polarized. Positions are painted in black and white, and people are loath to acknowledge weaknesses in their views. Schneider labels this as "courtroom epistemology: It is not my job to make my opponent's case."

Although this attitude permeates politics, it is unacceptable in science, Schneider said. In fact, it is the reason many scientists refuse to participate in the public process. "What such 'purist' scientists forget, is that if we don't try to explain what is going on in our fields in the necessary brevity to be heard, someone else -- often less qualified -- will just do it for us," Schneider said.

Schneider acknowledged that being an advocate might bias the way a scientist presents information. To prevent this, Schneider proposed three rules for the "responsible scientific advocate."

First, the researcher must become conscious of his or her value positions. "You haven't a prayer of fixing some bias you can't see," Schneider said. "You become conscious from the community, by continuously interacting with colleagues and getting their criticism and support. When you're in a bad relationship, and you can't see it, who is it that tells you?" Schneider asked. "Your friends."

Second, the researcher must present information explicitly, with concrete numbers, relative probabilities and speculations labeled as such. People need to be told what might happen, what is the probability of it happening and how the researcher made the prediction.

Finally, the researcher should not hype the information. People may be more likely to act if they are scared, but fear shouldn't be a part of the researcher's toolbox, Schneider said.

"Ethics at Noon" is a weekly seminar series sponsored by the Ethics in Society program in the Department of Philosophy. The next seminar will take place on Friday, May 18, from noon to 1 p.m. in Building 100, Room 101K. Associate Professor of Medicine David Relman of the Department of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine will speak on "A Brave New World: Bioterrorism, Biotechnology and Ethics Considerations." For details about future seminars, see http://www.stanford.edu/dept/EIS/noon.htm .


Stephen Schneider.
photo: L.A. Cicero