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2013 December - The Leading Edge

AGU talk on science and advocacy: by Gavin Schmidt
2013 December - The Leading Edge

Gavin Schmidt

Editors note by John P. Reisman:

Note: Gavin Schmidt does a very good job of covering the topic regarding 'responsible' advocacy. I have long argued that it is okay to 'advocate' education and clarity regarding science. Due to some unscrupulous uses of advocacy the word advocacy has a bad taste in the mouths of many scientists though. The reputation of the word has suffered. 'Responsible Advocacy' is a good way to frame what one can do  in this area. It is important to define precisely what one is advocating. For scientists one can honestly advocate what the science indicates. Suggestions beyond that exceed the science.

That said, if one is aware of a policy direction that comports with the science in all relevant areas, then one may suggest implications based on that evidence. But it is a dangerous ground for those not sufficiently aware in 'all' relevant areas. Such considerations may include: economics, sociocultural psychology, resource capacity, risk ratios for various actions in different areas. Without consideration of other disciplines and realities an open ended suggestion may do more damage than good. Lest we not forget the corn/ethanol legislation of the early 21st century.

It is important for scientists to separate out any advocacy that is policy oriented and demarcate that advocacy, as well as be aware that overstepping ones understanding can have serious ramifications and should be avoided without appropriate caveats. Responsible open and honest advocacy limited to the area of ones expertise and understanding and available evidence is key to the foundation of good communications that will further the discussion and minimize blowback.

AGU talk on science and advocacy: by Gavin Schmidt

As Gavin discovered, his own ideas were closely aligned with Steven Schneider. The ideas are well reasoned and logical and can help any scientist that is interested in joining public discussion to understand methods and ideas that will help raise the level of discourse for the public.

While their are human difficulties in any kind of advocacy the prejudices against the word itself should be reduced. It is not wrong to advocate science in the needed context. It is not wrong to advocate education, progress, understanding, etc. It is typically when advocacy leans into policy that the risks increase for scientists. Science, properly presented, can inform policy. Caution is warranted beyond that.

In the end, the best understanding available by science can lead policy-makers toward more relevant decision making. Suggestions are good to raise the level of discourse but the lack of comprehension of any individual does increase the risk that even a focused consideration can miss the mark when it comes to relevant policy.

Care in how one presents suggestions should be embraced. As to the risks of advocacy, too narrow a focus can easily be inadequate to the task of progress in policy as the last question asked to Gavin (listen to presentation) illustrated well the dangers. Too narrowly focused a position combined with lack of understanding of all relevant sciences can cause the formation of incorrect context in position. This can easily lead to inadequate or less relevant policy recommendations.

Non scientifically based advocacy can easily reach beyond reason. It is important that science, and responsible scientists, contribute in a manner that brings the discussion closer to what the science actually indicates.

I highly recommend all scientists listen to this presentation, all the way to the last question :)



All in all, some degree of advocacy or even confirmation bias is unavoidable simply because we are human. The best method is to be honest, parse issues, give context, and tell the truth as best as it is knowable without scientifically inappropriate claims.

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