More on scientific neutrality vs. advocacy

The latest salvo in the debate over the relative importance of scientific neutrality versus public advocacy from climate scientists comes from Joe Nocera at the New York Times:

A Scientist’s Misguided Crusade

The op-ed columnist takes James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and one of the earliest proponents of the idea of anthropogenic climate change, to task for his high-profile advocacy in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Specifically, Nocera criticizes Hansen for 1) potentially compromising the scientific neutrality of his institute, and 2) a variety of tactical points, e.g. whether a 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 target is appropriate, whether the effort directed at the pipeline would bear more fruit if applied promoting a carbon tax, etc.  Here‘s a rebuttal from Jamie Henn at 350.org, and some of the Letters to the Editor responding to the original article.

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Jamie Henn’s rebuttal when it comes to the second point about tactics.  Experience with the Kyoto Protocol suggests that ‘backdoor’ efforts to indirectly limit GHG emissions such as CAFE standards, the Montreal Protocol, and regulations on interstate mercury and particulate emissions have been much more effective at reducing emissions in the short term than efforts towards grand international agreements or carbon taxes (though of course these will be essential in the long term).  And, at risk of a fallacious appeal to authority, I’m much more inclined to trust the climate scientist and climate activist on this particular point over a pundit who spent most of his career doing business journalism at Fortune Magazine and GQ.

However, the first critique of undermining institutional neutrality I think is more interesting and worthy of serious discussion.  In the past I’ve been critical of commentators who complain about scientific biases without offering any evidence for them.  However, in this case Nocera proposes a clear mechanism for a potential perverse incentive: a post-doc or mid-level researcher at NASA might (overtly or subconsciously) introduce a bias towards over-estimating climate change effects after seeing his boss out protesting the issue.  I’ve always assumed that the peer review process is rigorous enough to even out incentives like that (not to mention the countervailing incentive that, if you could prove climate change was less serious than currently thought, you’d quickly become very very famous, and celebrated by most of the political spectrum!).  But I wonder what a social scientist would say about the issue, or if anyone has studied it quantitatively?

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