Responding to “a post-fact world”: In defense of the honest broker

Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Peter Adler.


Last week Brian wrote a series of idea-rich posts about doing science in a post-fact world. In his final post, he concluded that scientists need to “Act more like other interest groups at the decision making table… Now that we’re no longer being accorded a special seat, we should sharpen our elbows and advocate strongly.” Although I agree with much, even most, of Brian’s three posts, I come to the opposite conclusion. Here are two argument in defense of the honest broker position.

1. Embracing advocacy will only accelerate loss of credibility and the marginalization of science

Traditionally, scientists were not seen as an interest group at the decision making table. Rather, scientists were at the table to help decision-makers, and interest groups, understand the consequences of different policies, as best we understand them. Most scientists—academics, government researchers—are not accountable for bad decisions, which is why we leave decision-making to people who are directly accountable, like politicians. In this honest broker role, the scientist’s job is to make sure that the decision-makers have access to the best available information, not to push any particular policy choice.

I agree with Brian that we have reason to worry that science’s privileged position at the policy-making table is under threat, but I think it is way too soon to conclude that we “are no longer being accorded a special seat.” Even if the Trump administration is determined to toss that seat, there are other administrations, and other institutions, and there will be other presidential administrations too. We need to play the long game here, because once we start operating like an interest group, we will never earn back the credibility that earned us that privileged, special seat. I think of the old parenting adage, “One Yes can ruin a thousand No’s.” In this case, one act of advocacy can ruin a thousand acts of honest brokering.

A common response to this argument is that each of us should be free to draw our own red line on the science-advocacy spectrum. This is appealing, but it ignores the fact that whenever we act in a professional role we represent our whole profession. Your willingness to advocate may erode my credibility to serve as an honest broker.

Another tempting solution is to pick and choose our roles depending on the issue. As long as I am clear about when I am wearing my scientist hat, and when I am wearing my advocate hat, I can play either role in public, right? Well, maybe not. As a grad student, I hosted a visiting speaker who had been working with a local county development commission for some time. He had always played the honest broker role, but he found one particular development project so offensive that he felt like he had to share his personal view. He did the “scientist hat, advocate hat” dance, said what he felt, and regretted it—the members of the council never looked at him the same way again.

I remembered this story a few weeks ago at the Salt Lake City March for Science. I was looking around at the pro-science signs held up right next to protest signs about all the standard environmental and social justice issues, and thinking that to most lay people, and certainly to Fox News viewers, “Science” must look like just another left-of-center interest group. The honest broker role is too valuable to risk in exchange for scoring short-term, and long-shot, political points.

2. We have real power in the courts, and we need to use that power responsibly

A big reason that I am not ready to give up on the honest broker role is that it is written into (some) law. The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require agencies to use the “best available science” to make decisions. The upshot is that lawyers spend a shocking amount of time parsing words in peer-reviewed journal articles! I know this only because I have a friend who is a lawyer for the Office of the General Counsel and often defends the USDA against suits filed by both environmental groups and pro-industry groups. Our conversations made me realize that the courts often take science more seriously than they probably should, because they don’t recognize any difference between the hard-won material we report in a Results section and the speculative musings on management implications that we casually toss in a Discussion section. To the court, it is all peer-reviewed science, and an ill-considered or agenda-driven conclusion sentence can seriously constrain an agency’s policy options.

The bottom line is that if your research is relevant to a case involving a law requiring best available science, then your research will be carefully considered, and you should write your Discussion sections accordingly. But the legal requirements for best available science go only as far as the credibility of the science. If we allow advocacy to erode our credibility, we will quickly lose this special legal role. I am describing an ideal, and of course there will be grey areas and difficult decisions, but a commitment to protecting the credibility of science should inform those decisions.

Taking a hard-line position to protect science’s honest broker status does not mean scientists cannot take action. We absolutely should call out misrepresentations of science, publicly and forcefully. If Scott Pruitt questions evidence for anthropogenic causes of climate change, climate scientists should correct him. But they should stop short of recommending a policy response.

We should also advocate for science itself, but as the March for Science shows, this is tricky. Advocating for science means making the case to preserve or expand research funding and defending science’s honest broker role. It does not mean publicly supporting regulations on greenhouse gas emissions or even mandatory vaccinations. We might consider those policies the obvious choices given the science, but it is not our job to make those decisions. Protest marches may not be the right medium for this kind of advocacy. Marching feels good, but may do long-term harm.

Finally, be as politically active as you want as a private citizen. Go to marches, sign petitions, donate money. If you want to assume a public role—run for office, take a leadership position in an advocacy group—more power to you, but you should be ready to relinquish your claim to the honest broker role.

I am arguing that our collective responsibility to protect the credibility of science should constrain our individual actions. Many of you may find that frustrating, and I can relate. In a previous life, I was an environmental activist, and I hate to think of what that activist would say about dedicating my current life to teaching esoteric concepts and writing even more esoteric papers that a few dozen people in the world will read. Shouldn’t I be doing more to save the world? Maybe one day I will decide to make a change, to hang up my scientist hat and do something to directly and tangibly make a difference. But then, as John Harte likes to say, who will save the world in 50 years?

46 thoughts on “Responding to “a post-fact world”: In defense of the honest broker

  1. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for engaging in such detail!

    I completely agree with your second point. There are times and places where law does give a unique role to science. And it is critical that we wear the honest broker hat there. I totally failed to address that so thanks for bringing that up.

    On the first point I guess we just perceive the current state of how the public perceives science differently.

    In short, I think the honest broker role exists and still exists in the specific policy contexts of your 2nd point. But I’m not sure it ever existed in the broader, less regulated public debates on climate change, GMOs, development vs biodiversity loss, etc.

    • Hi Brian,

      I share your frustration with those broader, less regulated debates. But maybe the fact that those debates exist at all says something about the power of science? If research findings stimulate a major public debate, then science has really done something. We shouldn’t expect science, or scientists, to settle any of these debates because the decisions involve many non-scientific factors.

      The disinformation campaigns are certainly disheartening, but maybe one way of combating them is to reassure the public that accepting the scientific consensus on, say, climate change, does not presuppose any particular policy response. Those policy decisions SHOULD be the focus of a vigorous, public debate considering all kinds of issues and information.


      • I agree science and scientists won’t settle these debates. The question is should scientists stay out of these debates (beyond a “purely objective” role) and cede the real decision making to others?

  2. I could not have stated it any better than this.

    Scientists have far more than enough of a task just making sure that their work is defensible, and then communicating it to those who are, for whatever reason, interested. It’s an enormous responsibility just in itself. Marching around carrying a sign with a mass of other people who’s intentions and beliefs you have no idea of, is not going to get that done.

  3. Peter (and Brian), what are your thoughts on how scientists defend their position as honest brokers when public officials or other stakeholders ask them to go beyond that role, or try to spin their findings?

    For instance, in every political debate, all sides tend to claim that the facts are on their side, and that the facts themselves constitute a knock-down argument for that side’s preferred policies. Is it the job of scientists, in defense of their role as honest brokers, to try to police all sides to keep them from doing that?*

    Or imagine a political debate that is being fought on grounds that omit or downplay some potentially-relevant facts. Is it the job of honest brokers to decide which facts are relevant and to somehow try to inject them into political debates in a “neutral” way?

    As an honest broker, how do you respond to requests for factual information that come from political actors, knowing that their choice of what to ask about is a political one? Think for instance of the historians who are being asked by left-leaning media outlets if there’s any precedent for Trump, or if Trump is a Nazi, or etc. No doubt those questions have more and less objective answers, which might well include “it’s hard to say” or “it depends”. But that those questions are being asked at all, and that they’re mostly being asked by people of one political persuasion, is a matter of politics.

    How should honest brokers respond when asked for policy opinions by politicians or the political appointees who run government agencies? “No comment”? “That’s for others to decide?” Because I can imagine situations where politicians might like to have political cover from science and scientists, defending a political decision by describing it as a technocratic regulatory decision dictated by the facts. The EPA decision to regulate greenhouse gases as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act is a possible example, but I don’t know enough about it to say for sure.

    *And if you say “yes”, here’s one measure of how difficult that is: the two major fact checking organizations in US media rarely check the same facts, and when they do they agree at an uncomfortably low rate:

    • Great questions. I hope there is someone out there who has been involved in situations like these and can comment about their experience. Since I don’t have much first-hand experience, I don’t have much to say. I’ll fall back on the disclaimer I put in the post, which is that the hard-line honest broker position I defended is an ideal, but that ideal–protecting the credibility of science–should guide decisions about how to respond in the difficult grey areas you are illustrating. Declining to answer a question, or saying I don’t know, or that’s beyond my expertise, seems safe, even if it won’t satisfy the agenda-driven question-asker.

      “Policing all sides” seems a little closer to the advocate-for-science role I supported, but doing this without appearing super partisan would be hard to do, at least in the polarized national debates. Maybe we should try not to let those debates influence our thinking about this too much. There are lots of other issues and kinds of decision that involve science, and that aren’t as hyped or polarized, where the honest broker role should be easier to maintain.

      • “There are lots of other issues and kinds of decision that involve science, and that aren’t as hyped or polarized, where the honest broker role should be easier to maintain.”

        Dan Kahan talks a lot about this–about how it’s only certain politically-salient scientific issues on which public opinion is politically polarized (and that those issues don’t include vaccination and GMOs, by the way; they do include evolution and climate change). Kahan argues that the important thing is not to allow those issues to become politically-polzarized.

      • Kahan is one of the few who maintains his objectivity, tries to understand the dynamics of the public debate and is willing to criticize any side based on what he observes. Which results in him therefore taking fire from all sides and also why I like him. I can relate.

        It’s not that difficult of a problem. Scientists’ societal role is to figure out what’s going on in the world and give progress reports thereupon. If these are biased or incomplete or exaggerated or otherwise questionable in some way, there’s going to be trouble, because of what PT Barnum once famously said.

        It doesn’t matter if it’s a “climate science denier” or a famous climate scientist–if they say something you know is questionable or wrong, then you either jump in and say something that challenges it, or not, depending on your situation at the moment. It’s not that difficult. You just have to value the truth more than you fear making enemies.

    • I think these questions highlight that to even be close enough to policy to be policy relevant, the role and limits of honest broker is complex and not obvious. The real world is a lot fuzzier than the academic world of peer review.

    • I’m not sure I totally get the idea of the spectrum here. In my post, I tried to suport advocating-for-science but not advocating-for-policy. I was thinking of these as independent axes. What does an intermediate posiiton on that spectrum look like?

      • Not sure this is what Kristen had in mind, but in an already-polarized context arguing-for-science becomes difficult to distinguish from advocating-for-policy in the minds of partisans. I’m thinking for instance of the longstanding Congressional ban on Federal funding for research on gun violence. In principle, arguing for more research on that topic isn’t inherently partisan. But in the currently-polarized context of debates about gun violence, it might well be widely seen as partisan.

        Or think of the recent randomized study on educational outcomes at Washington, DC charter schools vs. public schools, that involved randomly assigning students to different schools. It didn’t give the answer charter school advocates wanted (found that charter schools were no better, or maybe even worse, if memory serves). So from what I understand, funding for further study has now been mandated to use a *worse* study design that leaves more room for argument about interpretation.

        I should try to have a glance at the econ blogs I read to see what they have to say about studies of the effect of minimum wage increases on employment. That’s an area on which there’s a large volume of empirical work at various times and places, using various methodologies, and coming to different conclusions for various reasons. It would be interesting to have some data on anecdata on how different economists talk about that literature to policymakers and the general public. Indeed, I bet there are some studies of this out there somewhere. Like you, I completely lack personal experience with these issues, and would be very interested to hear from someone who has some.

  4. Just thought of another telling example, from the Canadian experience. The Canadian Species At Risk Act (Canada’s equivalent of the US Endangered Species Act) specifies a process by which a scientific committee identifies species at risk of extinction and recommends management plans to reduce/eliminate that risk. Those plans then get kicked up to the relevant government minister (a political appointee), who can act on them or kick them back to the science committee for further study. I’m glossing over details, but that’s the gist. Anyway, under the Harper government, certain high profile species which were proposed for listing were routinely kicked back to the committee for further study. Polar bears was one. I think certain salmon populations may have been another (?). Basically, the Harper government simply didn’t want the headlines that would’ve ensued had some iconic species like polar bears or salmon been listed as “at risk”, or obliged to take management steps that might upset conservative constituencies. How do you react to this as an “advocate for science”? Especially, say, one who sits on the scientific committee concerned? And especially if the press calls you for a quote? Do you say nothing? Say “The minister is within his rights, this is a policy decision, our only job as scientists is to provide the facts”? Say “The minister is wrong to send this back to us for further study. The science is clear, polar bears are at risk of extinction as defined in the Act. The law intends that information to inform policy decisions. The Minister is flouting at least the spirit if not the letter of the law in refusing to take any policy decision. If the government doesn’t want to take policy decisions the law mandates, it should change the law.”? Say or do something else, such as resigning from the committee?

    I don’t have any easy answers.

    • I don’t have any answers either, but one thing that occurs to me is to avoid wading into the science-advocacy gray area as an individual. In your example above, you assume that the science is crystal clear. I suspect in many cases there are a range of views even among the scientists on the committee, providing enough uncertainty for the foot-dragging politicians to seize upon. But if in fact the committee was really in tight agreement, perhaps the committee could make a joint statement. Similarly, I’m less worried about the Ecological Society of America wading into policy debates than about individual scientists. The ESA is more likely to move slowly and deliberately and consider all the ethical issues, which isn’t to say it won’t make mistakes. Also, the ESA’s voice is more likely to have an impact than scientists speaking on their own.

    • I had a colleague on this committee (COSEWIC) and he was surprised that politics overrode science all the time, but it did. The Canadian law was pretty much set up to ensure that would happen.

      I guess to me that is a pretty good example of why honest broker has some severe limits. If its the polar bear, sure various NGOs are going to get involved and scientists can sit back. But if it is some endangered herb or insect that gets no press coverage, who is even going to know enough to advocate aside from scientists?

      • Except that when it’s some obscure insect or moss, my impression is that the minister routinely adopts COSEWIC recommendations.

      • Not if its found on a military base or in the path of a billion-dollar development project!

    • Brian, if you travel to the US Army’s Yakima Training Center, you’ll find a recreational trail through the training center that’s open to the public (the John Wayne Trail, a Washington State Park), and from that trail you can see *many* flagged or otherwise marked areas that are off limits from training exercises because they are either ecologically or culturally sensitive (the YTC is mostly sage covered hills, so you can see pretty far from the trail).

      The military works around wide variety of ecological and cultural resource issues. I guess it’s cheaper than hiring lawyers.

      • Jim – I agree the US military does a good job of being environmentally sensitive. However, this is because the US has a uniquely powerful endangered species law (why the US ended up with an environmental law more powerful than most other countries is another question – brief moment in time in the early 1970s) which can stop bulldozers and government agencies with a single endangered frog.

        I was speaking about Canada, which like many other countries places endangered species in a relatively more advisory role to policy decisions rather than a legally obligatory role. I wasn’t trying to pick on the Canadian military, who I am sure is also a good land manager, but highlighting the fact that in Canada (and much of the world) when it is politically inconvenient to take action on endangered species, it usually doesn’t happen.

  5. Peter – great addition to Brian’s thought-provoking posts. I especially like the point that individual actions have collective consequences. That means that it’s not so simple to just say ‘each person makes their own choice and lives with the consequences’, which has a superficial appeal. The scientific community feels the consequences. Although it’s probably also worth remembering that we collectively benefit in a _positive_ way if advocacy leads to outcomes in our favour.

    • I understand the argument, but it suffers from a cheater problem. If “good” scientists stay out of the debate and only “crazy” scientists enter the debate we are left with smoking doesn’t cause cancer and climate denial.

      • I think the way you phrased your example blurs the line between the science debate and the policy debate. I don’t have a problem with scientists entering the debate about the science: “Here is the evidence for anthropogenic climate change.” But scientists should stop short of declaring “Therefore we should all drive electric cars.” In other words, as long as the debate is on our “turf” we should be free to engage.

  6. Jeremy – you mention economics above. They have very different views on this .There are a few places like the Congressional Budget Office in the US that are setup for economists to give policy-neutral, advocacy-free assessments. But the vast majority of economists live in the advocacy world all the time (and even freely label themselves as liberal or conservative) and don’t feel it diminishes their role or expertise. Why is economics so different?

      • Actually I think our above discussion of COSEWIC is a very parallel example. It exists as an intentionally designed honest broker that feeds into the political process. But in both cases, the political process very often moves in a different direction. Worth doing? Sure. A leading role for science/economics into decisions? No.

      • Brian, it strikes me that many of your comments are focused on how scientists can more effectively influence decision-making. I don’t think that is our role. We should be focused on effectively communicating our science and fighting disinformation. If society decides to disregard the science, that’s a political problem. It’s fair for an individual to ask, “How can I more effectively influence decision-making (and get the outcome I want), as a scientist or an advocate?” That’s a tough question that depends on the individual’s appetite and talent for those different activities. I suspect many people who are attracted to a career in science might not be effective advocates (they certainly aren’t trained for it).

      • An interesting distinction made in the book “Nature’s Experts” (Stephen Bocking) is between the role of science in decision making vs. the role of scientists in decision making, given that scientists often bring to the table opinions based on more than just science. That distinction seems relevant here.

  7. Peter,
    re “it strikes me that many of your comments are focused on how scientists can more effectively influence decision-making” – yes absolutely, 100%. That was the main point of my post.

    I guess to step back, and clarify the question I was addressing it is something like “in areas where scientists have a strong consensus and believe that there will be strong consequences for society if action is not taken, what should scientists do?” Climate change and smoking-cancer links are the two canonical examples I use, but there are plenty of others. DDT will rapidly degrade the environment. Humans are massively rearranging nature with the potential for high unintended consequences. CFCs depleting ozone.

    To be clear I’m not saying scientists should start wading into whether climate change should be addressed by cap-and-trade vs carbon tax vs regulation. But I do think they need to more strongly take on inaction around climate change abetted by claims of scientific doubt.

    But yes, policy impacts are the end goal I am talking about. I didn’t think we were debating that but rather debating given that whether the best way for scientists to have those types of impacts on policy is to: a) report the science and let others finish the connection to society change, or b) close the loop to the end goal and get involved in societal change directly. This is an important debate to have. And I personally have moved from (a) to (b) so I’m not claiming one is wrong or one is obvious. But are we talking past each other? What end goal are you measuring your proposals against?

    Jeremy asked me in the comments in a previous post why I changed. With a little more reflection, I think the answer is obvious to me. Its having served in public office for the last 2.5 years (just a
    local school board). I’ve learned a lot about how change happens in public policy. And the answer is its all about the opinions and beliefs of people in power (formal as in holding office or school administrator or informal as in respected teachers and parents who spend time attending board meetings and lobbying board members). Objective reports are not a very big part of it. So I would rather see that people who know what they are talking about are in those positions of influence.

    • Hi Brian,

      I feel like you’re reacting passionately against the “hoax” claim regarding climate change to advocate significant action and in doing so making a potentially dangerous mistake. The hoax claim is outright bogus and in focusing on it you’re ignoring the real scientific issue: how much climate change will occur over what period and is the cost of remediation worth the cost of lost economic benefits? How can you advocate action if you don’t know the answer to that significantly more complex and uncertain question?

      I point it out not to argue the climate change issue but because it’s a typical reaction to a typical scientific policy issue.

      Most science policy questions boil down to a cost-benefit trade-off. We don’t want to stop climate change at any cost. We’re interested in understanding various possible outcomes so we can decide which action to take, if any. But scientists often react with the Absolute Science answer to the question, then go about advocating that position, missing the point entirely. I guarantee that almost all Americans would be thrilled to save polar bears if it’s free or very cheap. But if it costs them 10-15% of their standard of living, they’re going to be a lot less excited about it.

      I think it’s also important going forward for scientists to be extremely careful about uncertainty.

      Science as a whole will pay dearly for scientists who strongly advocate for a policy that winds up being damaging or extremely costly. As we move further from determinative science (rocket science) to probabilistic science with significantly weaker experimental backing (disaster forecasting of all kinds), the fog of uncertainty will get much thicker and scientists *must* recognize that uncertainty at the risk of losing credibility. The example of the Italian scientists talking loosely and flippantly about earthquake risk is a good example of the kind of public backlash that can occur if statements by scientists prove false.

      • Hi Jim I agree about communicating uncertainties.

        And you’re just echoing my 2nd and 3rd post when you say scientists need to get real about the fact that action against climate change exists on a cost benefit trade-off and rational humans may have different trade-offs.

        But its not really up to you to decide that I should focus on more detailed scientific questions when the “hoax claim” has caused inaction that I (and most scientists believe) will profoundly affect this earth.

        Oil companies are spending $100,000,000/year advocating for the no action side. All I’m really interested in in this series of posts is who is most effective to counterbalance that. There are arguments to be made that it is NGOs and advocacy groups. But there are also arguments to be made that scientists need to do more than just report the facts and let somebody else engage. But ignoring the fact that my science tells me something more needs to be done and just ignoring the fact that companies are pouring $100,000,000 on the side opposite what I believe is not working for me.

      • Thanks for your response Brain.

        I agree that it’s not for me to tell you what to do, and while you may or may not consider my opinion, I be disappointed and dumbfounded you to bought it outright. 🙂 I’ve been reading DE for four or five years. I know well enough that your reasoning is carefully thought out. But IMO despite words to the contrary academicians generally ignore or underplay the economic consequences, opting for a pure science approach to everything environmental.

        Here’s my point. You say:

        “But ignoring the fact that my science tells me something more needs to be done”

        Natural science alone can’t tell you that about climate change or polar bears or any other issue because it ignores the economic tradeoff. The only case in which natural science can stand alone is one of a certain total doom.

        These decisions have serious economic consequences for millions of people. It’s easy when a person has a lifetime employment guarantee to forget that the rest of society needs a strong, growing economy to be relatively prosperous. I think I could make a case that, as much as anything else, unnecessary environmental regulation is killing the middle class – certainly, here in the Seattle area, growth-preventing regulations and land use restrictions coupled with high demand are driving home prices through the roof and pricing all but the highest earners and most dedicated savers out of the market.

        Moreover growth in the post-war period drove the emergence of the middle class and the scientific class as well. The entire education system depends on it.

        So I implore you as a scientist and a citizen to give the economic part of the equation more than words.

      • FYI, here’s some data on oil companies. Below is the average annual:

        $21,048,000,000 Taxes ($21B)

        $26,729,000.000 Dividends ($27B)

        of the top five US oil industry companies over the last four years (Details below). that’s just five of hundreds of US companies, and it’s not counting the taxes paid by the millions of employees of oil companies or the business taxes and personal taxes of their thousands of contractors and sub-contractors and employees.

        That’s what you have to recognize and what I think most academics ignore: the HUGE benefits that oil production and the energy it creates brings to **every segment** of society. They support government services, retirees directly and through pensions and annuities and myriad NGOs and foundations and provide millions and millions of jobs, not to mention a low-cost source of energy that generates many more jobs.

        If that’s going to be destroyed, oh my god, someone better have an **EXTREMELY** powerful argument, which means an extremely *certain* one.

        Whatever the oil industry spends on rejecting climate change arguments is hardly necessary, because what it produces is so vast, and benefits so many people that the climate policy spending is laughable.

        Incidentally, my background in industry is in mining. I’ve never worked for an oil company, nor do I invest in energy. My interest is in a strong economy that creates prosperity for everyone. *THAT* will bring equality sooner than any legislation ever could.

        All data from google finance.

        Taxes paid: look up the company by typing in the ticker. Go to financials. Click on income statement. Select Annual. Subtract “income after taxes” from “income before taxes”. (hint, you can copy and past lines into Excel).

        Dividends: look up the company by typing in the ticker. Go to financials. Click on Cash flow. Select Annual. See the line “total cash dividends paid” (hint, you can copy and past lines into Excel).

        Companies: Exxon (XOM), Chevron (CVX), Conoco-Phillips (COP), Schlumberger (SLB); Occidental (OXY).

        Alright, thanks for entertaining my comments, thanks for writing the blog. All the best.

      • Jim – and what is the value of the negative externalities?

        You’re engaging in rather black and white thinking here – doing something about climate change does not equate to eliminating oil companies and all of their benefits.

      • On 2nd thought I need a longer response. I am not even sure what you’re arguing. You are aware that people are losing jobs because of climate change too? Ask the owners of businesses in Maine’s ski resort towns if they’re better or worse off. And one of Maine’s top crops – blueberries -is going to start to become unviable in a few decades. And sober headed (and conservative) institutions like insurance companies and the military have identified substantial economic costs to climate change (and the military suggests there are security risks as well). And ask the businesses in lower Manhattan (or Miami) whether climate change is an unalloyed good for their businesses. Not to mention businesses have a long history of griping about environmental regulations and then profiting all the way to the bank (e.g. CFCs) or it turning out to be minimal impact (clear air legislation or in a slightly different arena seat belts in cars).

        And as for your arguments about growth post WWII, I thought education (via e.g. the GI bill), research spinoffs like the computer and medical advances, infrastructure investments like the interstate highway system (essentially a peace dividend) etc had a role?! I don’t often hear unregulated oil mentioned as the central cause.

        The economics of climate change is extremely complicated and I wouldn’t presume to claim expertise on it. And its definitely getting off topic for the post. But to just say anybody who thinks we should take some action on climate change is opposed to massive economic growth and benefits is facile and wrong.

      • “I agree about communicating uncertainties.”

        Brian, this is the key point, or if not *the* key point, it’s on the super short list thereof. Climate science has done a really bad job of being clear, honest and correct about the types and magnitudes of the uncertainties involved in the science, and the level of scientific agreement about same, particularly in communicating it to the world at large. This is a very serious issue. The fact that the FF industry may be spending many millions on disinformation is surely not a good thing, but is to some degree, beside the point. This claim has long been used as a way to divert attention from the problems within either the science itself, or it’s communication to the public. Literally, on a daily basis, on Twitter and/or blogs, you can see this playing out. It wears on you after a while. I don’t know anything about the FF industry’s spending on climate change denial or it’s effects. But I do know something about the details of certain aspects of the science, and when I see it misrepresented in one of the approximately ten dozen ways there appear to be of doing so, I’m going to say something. Publicly.

        Having said that, I’m in full agreement that we don’t want a bunch of ideologues or knuckleheads distorting science, and the public policy response thereto, by putting themselves in all the positions of power.

        This is a terrific set of posts in all respects. I don’t think I’ve seen a single bad comment.

      • Hi Brian,

        I bring oil companies up not just because of climate change but because they are frequently the subject of attack on many environmental issues. So they’re kind of a touch point for environmentalism in general.

        You’re correct that I am taking the extreme position of what would be lost by the elimination of the entire oil industry. It’s true that doesn’t have to happen, and I’m not trying to claim you took that position. But I think it’s worth pointing out the extraordinary wealth they create because it’s frequently overlooked or demonized as the wealth of rich people only. It’s not that: its wealth for the entire society.

        Another point I just realized: they are just as frequently the subjects of misinformation as they are the providers of it. For example, the frequently-made claim that the keystone pipeline could contaminate a major portion of the HP/Ogallala aquifer. But judging buy studies of the movement of oil in aquifers from previous spills, anything more than a thousand cubic meters is *extremely* unlikely if not impossible. Yet environmental groups make such ridiculous claims all the time. (aside from engaging in illegal action to prevent lawful oil industry development).

        This takes us back to Jeremy’s question: if a scientists sees an environmental group making a false claim, do they have a responsibility to counter it? IMO, no, in general they don’t – unless they’re assuming the role of an honest authority on a particular issue. Then they do have a responsibility to call out the excesses of both sides.

        With regard to climate change, I can’t speak to what hasn’t happened. I’ll accept at face value that Maine has lost some skiing jobs. And you can accept at face value that, for whatever reason, Washington state has grown a booming wine industry in the last forty years.

        I think my point about the post-WWII emergence of the middle class was that it was driven by strong growth. I don’t think I ascribed that growth specifically to the oil industry, but the oil industry was a substantial part of it, as noted by your point about the interstate highway system. Of course the GI bill funded the university system. But it in turn was paid for by taxes, generated by strong post-war growth.

        I don’t think it’s facile to recognize that people who argue for environmental action – this is a generalization, but I think a reasonable one – seek to downplay the economic impacts of their actions and overplay the environmental benefits.

        Alright well I’ll probably have to leave it there. Other issues call,

        thanks again for a great set of blogs Brian and a great discussion.

  8. Starting a new thread re: economists as policy advisers and how they do it. Prefaced with the fact that all I know is what I happen to read on econ blogs, so caveat emptor:

    -As with scientists, economists vary a lot in their approach. From people who are widely regarded as political hacks (including by many who share their political leanings), to people who are openly political but who argue sufficiently honestly that they’re taken at least somewhat seriously by the other side (think Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong), to earnest apolitical policy wonks (think CBO staffers, or many empirically-oriented academic economists).

    -I think it’s fairly rare for mainstream economists to do basic research on the economy out of pure curiosity or b/c it’s intrinsically interesting, with no regard for any use it might have. Much more common for economists to either be doing applied work (think CBO staffers), or to do use-inspired fundamental work. I think this is something of a contrast to ecology where there’s a critical mass of people doing pure basic research with no regard for use (even if we often bullshit about the possible uses). But my impression may well just reflect the circles I move in; my own research is about as far removed from any possible use as is possible in ecology.

    -economists do discuss and worry about whether their work is politically skewed in some way, perhaps inevitably so. The ones I read tend to worry about political economy. That is, if politics isn’t exogenous to economics (or economics exogenous to politics), then how does that affect the policy advice one should give? What’s good policy advice in some hypothetical political regime might be bad advice in the actually-existing political regime, and feedbacks between politics and economics-that-ignores-politics might lead to really bad economic and political outcomes. At some point it gets difficult to set that aside as mere politics or leave it to the politicians to think about.

    -There are also more subtle concerns that standard theoretical approaches and background assumptions in economics bake political biases into the cake. For instance, some once-standard assumptions made in macroeconomic models for the sake of analytical tractability also make those models tend to produce outcomes that conservatives like.

    -Over the past few years there’s been a pretty broad-based shift in economics away from theory and towards rigorous empiricism with a strong emphasis on estimating causality. This shift has been driven by statistical advances, and by a widespread (though not universal) sense that the financial crisis exposed existing macroeconomic theories as so bad as to not be worth testing.

    • Hi Jeremy,

      As many people know, Seattle implemented a graduated escalation to a $15 min wage a few years ago. But the same legislation funded an independent task force to try to sus-out once the economic impacts of the min wage.

      The group’s intent is, as far as I can tell from what I’ve read, very seriously aimed at bias-free analysis and conclusions. I think they’re doing a good job so far, as economists from both sides have already attacked their preliminary conclusions.

      I think it would be almost impossible to do work in economics that had no political implications. People want prosperity, and economics gives politicians millions of ways to promise it.

    • I think the economics model is something we should seek to avoid – or, rather, economists should work more toward the honest broker model.

      But debates among economists tell us something important about the effectiveness of “peer reviewed literature” in solving thorny problems: the fact that science is peer reviewed doesn’t guarantee that it solves the problem in question. It guarantees – really, “guarantee” is too strong – only that the methodology and performance of the research probably meet a minimum and often unspecified standard.

      Conclusion: Peer review is an insufficient standard for policy-level science.

      And that shouldn’t matter because there’s a much better model that no one has mentioned: call it the “validated” or “proven effectiveness” model. It has been employed in the pharma and medical device industry for decades. For the most part, it’s impossible to deliver an ineffective product to market because the procedures set up by the FDA determine not only whether the product is effective or not, but how effective the product is and under what circumstances it’s most effective.

      Why shouldn’t science that’s used to create policy also meet some standard of demonstrable effectiveness? And if it can’t, shouldn’t terms like “the best available science” be excluded from legislation?

      • “Why shouldn’t science that’s used to create policy also meet some standard of demonstrable effectiveness?”

        For starters, because it’s not often possible to prove effectiveness of policies before or even after implementing them, and because banning all policies that hadn’t been demonstrated effective to a pharma standard would leave us with no policy options in emergencies or other novel situations. There are no policies that are demonstrated effective for dealing with global climate change or the financial crisis and subsequent major recession of a few years ago.

        I think it’s best if we leave it here. Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

  9. The economic argument for a more cautious approach to fighting climate change and environmental impacts, more generally, is one that is beginning to bother me. It seems to me that we have to accept that there is likely an end to economic growth at some point – that is, an end to increased consumption of goods and services – and we should be starting to think about how to adjust to that without catastrophic consequences. (As an aside, there is a great TED talk by Tim Jackson about the idea of creating an economy fir for purpose). Jim, you write that “people want prosperity” – I don’t actually believe that – I think people want to be happy. But for the last 70 or 80 years – from an economic policy point of view – we’ve made an almost 1:1 link between happiness and material well-being. I suspect that link is close to 1:1 when an increase in material well-being moves somebody from near starvation to a reasonably full belly. But when it moves you from an extremely clear picture on your 64 inch wall screen to a slightly clearer picture on your 72 inch wall screen the link between happiness and increased material wellbeing becomes somewhat less tightly linked, I suspect. It seems tough to dispute that at some point, enough will be enough, no? Are we approaching that point?

    One clue may be that 19% of US GDP gets spent on marketing ( – almost 1/5 of our wealth gets spent convincing us we need or want to buy something. It’s the rarely discussed side of increasing production – somebody has to consume it and apparently it’s hard, expensive work to get us to do that. Where I agree there is a concern is that if we hit the economic growth wall going full speed it’s going to hurt. We need to plan to come to a controlled stop – not assume it will solve our problems indefinitely. That likely means increased wealth redistribution rather than relying on the ‘rising tides raise all ships’ argument.

    On the issue that started this thread – advocacy or honest broker – it’s an incredibly important one for scientists. And a tough one – when Peter Adler and Brian McGill can take opposite sides on the issue you know there are cogent arguments for both positions. I have to say that in the end I come down on Peter’s side. And it’s because anything I advocate for combines two things if I’m doing it right (1) my understanding of the evidence and (2) the things I value. Two people can be equally well-informed about an issue and take opposite positions just because they value things differently. I suspect that the difference between Brian’s position and Jim’s position on climate change has much less to do with differences in how well each is informed about climate change than about the relative values they place on environmental versus economic impacts My value as a scientist rests entirely on having a more comprehensive and correct understanding of the evidence than most people – what I want, whether I am more concerned about environmental or economic impacts has no more value than any other citizen. So, as soon as I combine what I know with what I want, I think I water down my value. And if I stick with what I know then I’m not an advocate – I’m just there to help advocates take an informed opinion.
    Great topic and it’s helped me clarify some things for myself. Jeff H

    • ” It seems to me that we have to accept that there is likely an end to economic growth at some point – that is, an end to increased consumption of goods and services”

      I wouldn’t be so sure. Or that even if there is a limit, that we know enough about what it is and when it will bite for it to have policy implications. See here:

      I’ll also note in passing that there are plenty of reputable economists (e.g., Noah Smith) who think we could decarbonize the economy a lot without a big hit to GDP growth. And that even if there is a hit to GDP it’ll just be because we’re pulling forward into the present investments we would’ve wanted to make at some point anyway.

      I agree with your larger point about values and weightings, Jeff.

  10. What a great discussion and lead article – I love this advocacy or honest broker argument.

    For me I’m definitely in the Peter Adler camp. There is a role for advocacy but when we are in the role of advisory scientists then we must confine ourselves to the honest broker role. There’s no point imagining that the world accords us demi-god status, though most of us would take if it was offered. Whether it’s valued or accepted, our role is to stick to the facts as best we can discern them, and let the critics rise or fall where they may. Once we become advocates, and there are times when I absolutely will and do, we have to accept that we have abdicated our role as honest broker.

    My personal orientation on this debate is that our honest broker role is too valuable to be given up lightly. We can offer so much to the decision-making process if we keep our passions in the right frame.

    Thanks for the thoughts people,


  11. Pingback: Science, advocacy, and honesty | Dynamic Ecology

  12. Pingback: Friday links: Covid-19 vs. BES journals, Charles Darwin board game, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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