Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Schneider's "double ethical bind"

Over at Mr Watts' place I read that someone called Stephen Schneider died last weekend. Professor Schneider's name was familiar to me as the man who promoted telling lies in order to get across the message of the Warmists. At least, that's what I had always understood him to have said. On hearing of his death it seemed appropriate to see whether he really had said it.

What he is often reported to have said is this: "... we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public imagination ... we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have ... Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

On the face of it this is a blatant call for overstating problems, understating doubts and engaging in dishonesty if that is necessary to get the message across. It was surprisingly easy to find out whether he really did say it, all I had to do was go to his own website. There is a section called "Mediarology" (here) in which he addresses this very point (under "The 'Double Ethical Bind' Pitfall" in the left-hand column). He makes clear that he felt the substance of what he was saying was turned on its head by the above words being isolated from a longer paragraph thereby giving them a meaning they did not have. I have read the whole paragraph and struggle to see any substance in his point. Here is the whole thing:

"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but - which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."

Professor Scheider complained in particular about the omission of the final sentence in reports of his remarks and claimed that it qualified what went before. Specifically he argued that the final sentence changed the meaning of the more limited quotation I gave earlier.

One difficulty I have stems from his claim to be in a "double ethical bind". That supposes one strand of ethics pulls in one direction and another pulls in another direction on the same issue. While I can have no complaint about his description of the scientific method being a matter of ethics, stepping into the spotlight to further one's chosen political policy is not a matter of ethics. It is a matter of personal choice but it is not a matter of ethics.

One can test this by asking why the scientific method is a matter of ethics. Just so I make myself clear, my understanding of the scientific method is that scientific investigation should be accompanied by a freely available comprehensive record of what was done and what results came from that work. If a hypothesis is being tested, the hypothesis should be stated, the tests described and all results recorded whether they support or fail to support the hypothesis. If, on the other hand, the investigation has no hypothesis but is just an experiment to see what happens when various factors are combined, the record must state exactly what was done and what results were identified (again, all results). That is a matter of ethics because others might act in reliance on the conclusions of a scientific investigation, and they must have the opportunity to satisfy themselves that the investigation justifies them doing so. They must have the chance to replicate the work and see whether they reach the same conclusion.

It is not the fact that it is science that makes it a matter of ethics, it is the fact that it can affect other people. Medical practitioners are not obliged to maintain patient confidentiality for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of their patients. Similarly, lawyers are barred from competing against their clients or acting for clients with conflicting interests because the client(s) might suffer, not because the lawyers might either benefit or suffer. People working with money must keep their fingers out of the till because failure to do so is of detriment to their employers not because it is beneficial to them.

The second ethical question Professor Schneider raises is, by his own words, not one of ethics at all. It stems from his words: "we are not just scientists but human beings as well ... we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change". This pre-supposes that he concluded there is a sufficient "risk of potentially disastrous climate change" that he should abandon the leafy groves of academe and (no doubt with huge reluctance) rake in fees from speaking and writing on the subject and dine with Presidents. It was most kind of him to make that sacrifice, but it was not a matter of ethics. Either his belief in impending Armageddon was based on science - in which case it was only as strong as the science and should always have been qualified by any doubts he had about the science, or it was based on something else. If it was based on something else there is only one possibility - his personal political values.

If it was based on the science there would be no ethical bind, his belief would be as strong as the science and he should always put it forward in that context. That doesn't mean answering every question with recitation of an academic paper and the provision of a sheet of footnotes, but it does mean explaining briefly the doubts and uncertainties where it is necessary to do so in order not to be misleading.

It is only when you go one stage further and decide to put forward a case that is more certain than the science allows that you enter the realm of allowing your views as a human being to conflict with the ethics of your work as a scientist. Or do the two really conflict? I don't believe they do provided one is honest. Where you are putting forward an argument that it not wholly supported by the science you have to make clear that you are offering your personal opinion rather than a scientific opinion. By all means also say you believe the science is incomplete, that you believe your conclusion is correct and the doubts and uncertainties are likely to be resolved in favour of the position you take; but that is all you can do unless you are prepared to act dishonestly. Argue a position not supported by science and there is no conflict with your position as a scientist because you are not acting as a scientist, you are acting as an advocate of a policy.

In fact there is a potential ethical problem, but it has nothing to do with the absurd notion that policy advocates are subject to some (as yet unspecified) ethical code. The problem arises where a scientist seeks to use his scientific qualifications and experience to give his policy argument authority that science does not give it. In the same way that a lawyer acts unethically if he uses his position as a lawyer to secure a personal advantage, so it is, arguably, unethical for a scientist to use his position to gain leverage for his personal choice of policy.

Professor Schneider's self-justification falls for this reason alone - he sets up a conflict of ethical codes when there is none. It reaches the realms of absurdity when he argues that he was quoted out of context by reason of the final sentence of his piece being omitted.

Having said it is for each scientist speaking on matters of policy to decide on a balance between being an effective advocate and being honest, the damage was already done. One cannot reach a balance between effectiveness and honesty without sacrificing honesty. If you cannot make your point effectively and still remain honest to the science, you should not be arguing the matter at all and should leave it to those (if any) who can. It's not difficult to do, there are plenty of people who argue policies without having any formal qualifications or recognised expertise in the subject, some even write blogs.

The suggestion that his weasel words: "I hope that means being both" changes the meaning of the previous sentence is ludicrous, it does the exact opposite, it reinforces it. By merely hoping for both effectiveness and honesty he acknowledged that honesty might be compromised. It should be of no concern to anyone that effective advocacy of policy is hindered by the advocate being honest, the only people concerned about honesty hindering effectiveness are those interested in promoting a policy that cannot be defended by honest assessment. That was clearly his concern otherwise he would not have set-up a dichotomy between the two and then argued for individual advocates to form their own view of how honest they had to be.

He did not say whether he believed effectiveness or honesty was more important but I think I can guess. The whole passage I have quoted has no point unless it is a call for effective advocacy in preference to honesty and, indeed, a call for effective advocacy of a position that is not supported by science. It seems to me that his attempt to worm his way out of the hole resulted in it being deeper and more shady than it was before.


wonderfulforhisage said...

It seems to me that this is all about means and ends and the question "Do ends ever justify means?"

Once upon a time ends didn't ever justify means but that was in the days when Man didn't consider himself the Supreme Being. Then along came Newton, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, and the popularisation of secularism and Man became God.

Out of this were spawned Bliar and the Heir to Bliar.

God help us.

Anonymous said...

There's little in your post to argue with, scientists need to be honest in there science, and on a controversial issue issue like this they need to be seen to be honest.

Schneider though demonstrates the political naivety so common in scientists to a greater extent than he demonstrates any dishonesty as, obviously, if you're going to tell lies the first thing you make sure you avoid doing is telling everyone that you're going to tell lies.

There are many scientists who have allowed themselves to be caught up in the political advocacy of this issue, I'd argue that indeed most of the names that we routinely hear fall into that category - and that's on both sides of the debate. Compared to those more politically astute scientists, I suspect Schneider told very few lies, and made few exaggerations or misrepresentations.

Andrew W

J Bonington Jagworth said...

Very well put, FB - I couldn't agree more. Scientists' only duty is to be truthful, and as Piet Hein says:

"Truth is constructed in such as way that it can't be exaggerated."

Although that doesn't stop people trying, of course...

john miller said...

Subjects such as meteorology and economics can never be "science", because you can never postulate a theory and then test it by experimentation.

Their practioners are reduced to data analysis driven by software algorithms and underlying assumptions. This naturally leads one into forming a hypothesis and then proving it by analysing the data selectively.

Additionally, some computer models just don't work. Ask the Met Office and the Treasury. This is because it is incredibly difficult to isolate cause and effect due to the huge size of the system being analysed.

So the dear old Prof's lifework was incapable of rigorous scientific proof anyway. Any intelligent person would understand that and be extremely sceptical.

It would be better to review the "cures" suggested by tame scientists and tamer politicians. You just know that when Ed Millipede signs up to a £40 billion a year cure for the next ten years, in the middle of a recession, that something's not quite right.

Simon said...

This is how scientists should behave, summed up by climate skeptic:

Anyway, Spencer has a long discussion of his methodology in answer to some critics. I reserve judgment until I have studied it further. But I was captivated by this bit:

On the positive side, though, MF10 have forced us to go back and reexamine the methodology and conclusions in SB08. As a result, we are now well on the way to new results which will better optimize the matching of satellite-observed climate variability to the simple climate model, including a range of feedback estimates consistent with the satellite data. It is now apparent to us that we did not do a good enough job of that in SB08.

Really? You shared your data, were criticized, and are modifying your approach based on this criticism?


Roger Sowell said...

Clearly, the late Dr. Schneider did not understand the meaning of ethics. Ethics requirements are in place so that one’s “human tendencies” are not allowed free rein. A medical doctor is required to “first, do no harm;” an attorney is required to do many things, including zealously advocate for his client and not to represent a client where a conflict of interest exists (except in very limited situations); a clinical psychologist is required to not take advantage of patients who are sometimes very vulnerable; as just a few examples.

Scientists are bound to the scientific method, which does not allow for the human tendencies of distortion, or pursuit of agendas. However, just as there are doctors who do harm, and attorneys who break all manner of ethical requirements, there are scientists who break their ethical requirements also.

The difficulty in climate science is the very long times required for falsities to be proven, and the fear-mongering that potentially leads to expenditures of huge sums today to prevent predicted calamities in the near future. An unethical scientist will likely be long dead before he is proven wrong, and the economies that spend the huge sums will be devastated.

It is up to each of us to do our part in standing against such shysters and expose them and their Bad Science – BS.