Disunity yet again plus impolite scientists

A couple quick points.  First, check out Joe Romm’s post on this recent Times article.  Apparently most meteorologists neither have training in climate science nor have Ph.D’s.  Romm obviously dismisses them as a source of authority.  While I more or less agree with him, I’m also somewhat more sympathetic to the meteorologists.  It’s not too unreasonable to think that expertise in weather forecasting makes you at least a little qualified to speak of its long-term trends.  We’ve returned to Paul Newall’s problem with modern science: it has become so specialized that almost no one can comment on anything.

On an somewhat different note, check out blogger Steve Easterbrook’s great post on rude academic scientists and peer review.  I’ll definitely have more to say later, but let’s highlight this for now:  “And scientists don’t really know how to engage with these strange outsiders. Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives; they don’t call it the ivory tower for nothing.”

Part of the problem is that scientists, and academics more generally, like it this way.  They (we?) don’t really want to worry about mundane, everyday concerns.  Harvard professor Louis Menand touched on this in his article on the professionalization of the academy.  Interestingly, this desire for isolation exists side-by-side with our self-proclaimed desire to be “the foundation of decision-making.”

This attitude especially leads me to say that Easterbrook is only partially correct when he writes “The scientific community doesn’t have the resources to defend itself [w.r.t. the C.R.U. scandal], and quite frankly it shouldn’t have to.”  While the opposition to climate change has been particularly rabid, in many cases I think we deserve some of the blame.  We can’t simultaneously say we’re the most important component of policy and then be surprised when people attack what we say.  That’s kind of like complaining when the opposing team plays defense.  It’s their job to do so, just as it’s the job of anti-regulatory zealots to distort the science.

On a final note, please take note of the elegant simplicity of Easterbrook’s blog.  Remind you of anything?  I guess great minds think alike!


  1. I think Romm is totally biased and quite rude himself.

    Romm is more about spin than he is the search for scientific truth.

    It really isn’t the degree that matters.

    Even a non-climate scientist can delve into the subject and have an opinion on the science.

    Even an electrical engineer/patent attorney can learn enough about climate science to raise questions.

    It is not as if the field of climate science is closed.

    There are still fundamental things we do not understand about our climate, and what makes it change.

    People like Romm pretend we have a perfect understanding of the climate and need to take action now – or the sky will fall.

    This sort of rhetoric is usually wrong (in my experience).

    1. Hi Rick. Thanks for your comment. I agree Romm can be quite rude, and I have a problem with that. But I think he sometimes has insightful stuff to say on policy, and especially the importance of energy efficiency. I actually plan on writing a post just on my thoughts about Romm.

      I also agree that his “sky will fall” rhetoric isn’t always helpful.

      Thanks again.

  2. Hi, Praj: I’ve been reading your blog for a while–so please take this in part as a “thank you” for some interesting posts. I actually have a project where I’m documenting scientists’ use of “foundation/basis/grounding” to describe the relationship of science to policy-making. We will undoubtedly trade ideas on this at some point!

    Meanwhile, though, I’m a little surprised by your cautiously positive response to Easterbrook’s little diatribe. I think the essay goes against several of the ideas you’ve been developing in this blog.

    First off, notice the very heavy “we” throughout? As you’ve been pointing out, there is no Science–there are only sciences. Do we really believe that Easterbrook can speak for them all?

    Second thing: I think your point about science not providing a “foundation” for policy casts a strong blow against this essay’s basic idea. When I read Easterbrook, I notice a deep and pervasive asymmetry:

    When citizens enter into the scientific realm, they are “ignorant and lazy.” They don’t “understand.” This includes people like Monbiot, who presumably has put a lot of work over the years into *trying* to deal with scientists.

    What happens when scientists enter into the civic realm? Maybe then it’s *they* who don’t understand? No: they are still the misunderstood ones, attacked by “vested interests.” (Isn’t politics about interests?–apparently not.) It’s stupid to expect scientists to learn about policy/political communication (what Easterbrook contemptuously dismisses as “PR”). The idea that “research might need to be communicated on anything other than its scientific merits” is “horrifying.”

    Frankly, this strikes me as “lazy and ignorant.” Like the communicative practices of science that Easterbrook talks about, the communicative practices of policy-making are messy and often unpleasant. But they are also complex and successful in sustaining a reasonable degree of democracy. If scientists are as you say thinking about entering into policy-making to provide a “foundation,” don’t they need a little bit of humility and willingness to learn about the culture they’re joining?

    Anyhow, it’s clear I had a pretty negative reaction to this essay. There is in fact some research on how scientists communicate with each other in a variety of settings which I don’t think Easterbrook has consulted, so his remarks on scientists’ communication struck me as, well, unscientific. In fact, they might best be described as a piece of pro-science propaganda, articulating a pretty typical ideology according to which the public is supposed to give scientists a lot of money, and then just leave them alone!

    1. Hi Jean.

      Thanks so much for your detailed comment. I really appreciate it. I will agree with what you’ve written, and also stress that I’m, as you observed, cautiously positive. This is not an excuse, but I (clearly!) didn’t read the essay as closely as I should have. I skimmed it and picked a couple of his sentences to respond to.

      Let me say something quickly before getting ready for work. I’ll try respond in greater detail tonight. I definitely agree no single person should speak for science and there is no science. But even if scientists shouldn’t speak with a collective voice, they already do. So my use of the word “we” recognized that fact. I’ve also found that when I speak with scientists about this, it can be helpful to use “we” because, for whatever reason, “we” all think of ourselves as a single community. But in the end you’re right, neither Easterbrook nor myself should speak for all of science.

      I also agree now (but didn’t realize it at the time), that Easterbrook wrongly adopts the deficit model of scientific literacy. It is unfortunately the way we(!) operate.

      My cautious defense and positive response to his post stems from my personal experience with climate scientists. They really are besieged in some ways, and the opposition doesn’t always play nice. Yes, scientists’ communication and attitudes leaves a lot to be desired. But since part of the blame lies with actions taken by scientists and their institutions throughout history, I’m sympathetic towards individual climate scientists. Individual climate scientists didn’t create the current environment where there’s a strong incentive to politicize and distort science. Yet, they’re individually facing the repercussions.

      I hope I’ve made some sense in this rambling response!

      Finally, I saw your comment on Nesbit’s blog and really appreciate it. I also checked out your blog and it looks very interesting. I would love to hear about your research project in more detail. How are you documenting scientists’ use of foundation, basis, etc? Have you considered the use of word mapping tools? I’m involved in a project now that makes use of them.

  3. Hi, Praj! When you talk to other scientists, your “we” can just mean “you, me, and other people like us.” It’s inclusive, and it’s also sort of negotiable who actually gets covered by the “we.” But when a scientist says “we” to the general public, it sounds like it has a capital letter: it means “We, The Scientists–and definitely not you!” Exclusive, not inclusive; and non-negotiable.

    After I wrote my irritated comment on your post, I had the satisfaction of seeing Monbiot say roughly the same thing to Easterbrook over on Climate Progress, of course in a more cogent & less irritated way.

    Send me an email some time and we can exchange research!–Jean

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