Thursday, April 4, 2013

James Hansen and the lifeblood of democracy

With the apt headline  "Climate Maverick retires from NASA",  the  New York Times dedicates an article to the retirement of the maybe world's most famous climate researcher, James Hansen. Roger Pielke jr also shares interesting thoughts and finds respectful words  for "James Hansen: Responsible Scientist and Advocate". I guess, one calls it the "hermeneutic perspective" which enables Roger to shed a new perspective on the old discussion of science and advocacy.

In an interesting episode, Roger reminds us of a visit of James Hansen to Germany:
Hansen reflected after the fact that he hoped that his arguments would be found convincing to Merkel on the weight of their merits and against the wishes of her government (p. 179):

Merkel was trained as a physicist, and I hoped that rather than relying on advisers, she would be willing to think about the problem herself. I figured she would be able to appreciate the geophysical boundary conditions, the conclusion that most of the coal must be left in the ground.

Hansen finally was granted an audience with then minisiter of environment, Sigmar Gabriel:
 With Gabriel, Hansen found a receptive audience to his summary of climate science and the need to stabilize carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million. There were no debates over the science. "The sticking point," Hansen recounted, "was the implication: the need to halt coal emissions." Hansen was quickly learning about the realities of democratic systems and the fact that scientific authority does not compel action.

Roger describes James Hansen's political advocacy as a kind of life-long learning process. Is it "one person, one vote" or is it "money trumps democracy?". Roger's article ends with a famous episode and a surprising conclusion:
Since 2009 Hansen has been arrested a half-dozen times for civil disobedience at protests against individual fossil fuel projects, marking a sharp departure from his earlier efforts to sway world leaders based on his authority as a scientist. The NY Times explains:

In the absence of such a broad [climate] policy, Dr. Hansen has been lending his support to fights against individual fossil fuel projects. Students lured him to a coal protest in 2009, and he was arrested for the first time. That fall he was cited again after sleeping overnight in a tent on the Boston Common with students trying to pressure Massachusetts into passing climate legislation.

And Roger comments:
Such overt advocacy for government action, grounded in shared values is the lifeblood of democracy.

What a remarkable conclusion!  To paraphrase a famous quote from a famous anthropologist: this story is "good to think with".


Harry Dale Huffman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

@ Duffman

An advocate really needs "shared values"? And who is supposed to define what shared values are? You?


@ReinerGrundmann said...

Alice Bell has a nice comment in the Guardian under the brilliant headline

James Hansen retires from science to spend more time with his politics.
Should more scientists follow James Hansen's example and unleash their inner activist?

She says: 'Even when Hansen's political activities have been formally on vacation time, the title "Nasa scientist" follows him around. Even if he doesn't want to play on that credibility, others use it. Environmentalists love the kudos he brings. But maybe we need more, not fewer characters like Hansen, more people willing to speak out on the basis of their science.'

But environmentalists do not seem to like Hansen's endorsement of nuclear power. In a recent paper he claimed nuclear power has prevented about 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes (Gt) CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning.

This was completely ignored by environmentalists. Where has the kudos gone?

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Alice Bell's comment is here:

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner #3

"This was completely ignored by environmentalists. Where has the kudos gone?"

Maybe environmentalists like some of Hansen's opinions and dislike others? Just guessing, of course.

Werner Krauss said...

This is the line I like most in Alice Bell's article:

"I honestly don't know what I think about the issue of whether scientists should be advocates."

@ReinerGrundmann said...

"Maybe environmentalists like some of Hansen's opinions and dislike others?"

Yes, maybe. But then, they would say that Hansen has facts, not opinions. This is why politicians should listen to him. Has he got his facts right in one case and wrong in another? And who would decide?

Werner Krauss said...


I think it's up to you to decide. And to everybody else. No one can take responsibility from our weak shoulders, and even facts can fool you in case they are made up poorly. And in the Hansen case, it is easy to figure out: everybody knows that nuclear power sucks, and the climate change thing is - is another case, yep...Frankly, I have never really followed Hansen's activity very closely, I haven't read his book and was just amazed what kind of reflection his retirement seems to cause. In a world where everybody pretends to believe in facts and nothing but facts, hermeneutic approaches comes as a welcome change and surprise!

@ReinerGrundmann said...

I guess you need give a bit more detail about the 'hermeneutic perspective', as this seems to be central to your argument.

Werner Krauss said...


sure, hermeneutic - big term. I just was happy to read a story about Hansen which is not judgmental in the sense of "this is (not) allowed"; instead, Roger tells here the story of a scientist struggling with politics. Normally, Hansen is discussed in the narrow confines of alarmism vs skepticism; now that he retires, there seems to be also some kind of respect for a scientist who is an "honest advocat" or the like. I hope I understand hermeneutics correctly as a method to understand and to interpret texts or people within their context and not from abstract principles.

Anonymous said...

Ah I was always puzzled by the use of 'advocate' on this blog and now I am even more puzzled. So what's an honest advocate? And what's a dishonest one? And can a scientist be an honest advocate before he or she retires? And what about the distinction between scientists and advocates then? And what would you (Werner, Reiner) call yourselves? [before and after retirement ;)]


@ReinerGrundmann said...

Werner, raffa

"Normally, Hansen is discussed in the narrow confines of alarmism vs skepticism; now that he retires, there seems to be also some kind of respect for a scientist who is an "honest advocat" or the like."

Hansen is normally credited for having alarmed the world public during his famous congressional testimony in 1988. This created a high level of attention, partly based on the suggestion that the heat wave during the Congress hearings was linked to global warming (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). I would not use the term 'honest' in this context because it stipulates the existence of dishonest advocates (which IMHO does not make much sense). 'Open advocacy os perhaps a better term as it contrast with 'stealth' advocacy (which is a problem at the science policy interface).

One should also pay attention to the difference between individual and institutional advocacy (or brokering for that matter). While advocacy can be performed in a credible and effective way by individuals and groups, brokering is unlikely to be performed by individuals. I have discussed this briefly in a paper (you can read it here). So overall, there are opportunities for individual scientists to act as (open) advocates - and Hansen has always been open about this, perhaps exceptionally so. There are other examples were climate scientists prefer to hide behind the mainstream (or an alleged consensus).

I still don't get the point regarding hermeneutics -- for me it has to do with the art of interpretation. Of course, context plays an important role in this.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Grundmann, any particular reason why you refer us to the old version of your paper, rather than the modified version that was actually published?

Werner Krauss said...


Thanks for your clarifications concerning "honest" and "open"; I agree.

(Sorry for the floppy use of hermeneutics; I just wanted to express my appreciation of Roger's fine art of interpretation of Hansen's work as a NASA scientist and activist - an interpretation which was not along "right" or "wrong" criteria, but was contextual and understanding).

@ReinerGrundmann said...

For those having difficulty accessing the paper I mentioned above, here are the relevant passages (in two parts):

I start with a quote from Merton:

A passion for knowledge, idle curiosity, altruistic concern with the benefit of humanity, and a host of other special motives have been attributed to the scientist. The quest for distinctive motives appears to have been misdirected. It is rather a distinctive pattern of institutional control of a wide range of motives which characterizes the behavior of scientists. (Merton 1942/1973, 276)

Pielke (2007, 151) recognizes this problem when pointing out that such Honest Brokers could be ‘‘individuals, but more likely will be the result of institutional commitments to expanding or clarifying the scope of choice available to decision makers. Institutions can bring together people with diverse perspectives to provide a spectrum of options for decision makers. It will be much more difficult for any one individual to serve in such a role.’’

Stealth Advocacy

If scientists are driven by self-interest and guided by values, it seems to be unrealistic to expect that they will spontaneously adopt the role of honest brokers. As Pielke (2007, 7) points out, there is the temptation to act as policy advocate, albeit in a concealed manner:

So when a scientist claims to focus ‘‘only on the science,’’ in many cases the scientist risks serving instead as a Stealth Issue Advocate. For some scientists stealth issue advocacy is politically desirable because it allows for a simultaneous claim of being above the fray, invoking the historical authority of science, while working to restrict the scope of choice. The stealth issue advocate seeks to ‘‘swim without getting wet.’’

This relates to practices where science is used as a means for achieving political goals. Such practices occur on the individual and collective level but are more pernicious on the collective level. Nothing more than a personal reputation is at stake where one researcher claims to be guided by the science and nothing but the science—where there are indications that his public appearances are motivated by political goals. It is far more problematic if science advisory boards engage in stealth advocacy. Such committees should always point out the limits of knowledge and the range of political options. It is another matter if decision makers then present their chosen course of action as based on ‘‘irrefutable science’’ or not. In this reading, Pielke alerts us to the ethical problem of stealth advocacy in science policy which is a new and interesting issue (it has received some attention in publications on the politics of knowledge, see Beck 1992; Grundmann and Stehr 2003; 2012). Someone who has built her career on a specific scientific hypothesis is unlikely to reverse gear after having made a name in that field and discovering some uncomfortable data. The same applies to someone having gained a public reputation in favor of a specific course of policy action. The former acts out of self-interest, the latter out of ideological conviction. Sometimes both combine; and both have to be seen as motivations that drive the research enterprise and the advisory process. However, both are not enough to devise an advisory structure for democratic societies that enables policy makers to make informed decisions. They are not enough because the scientists’ self-interest and ideological orientation make it possible (perhaps even likely) that they misrepresent the state of knowledge.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

second part:

Individual and Collective Action

Merton distinguishes between individual and social action and expects a ‘‘distinctive pattern of institutional control’’ to lead to the desired outcomes. This would mean with regard to the honest broker, that we need to establish institutional structures that enable honest brokering to take place. It is too much to expect from individual scientists to go against their career strategies and normative commitments.Only in rare cases should we expect individual scientists performing such roles. As we have seen, even Mertonians have admitted that the scientific ethos does not apply in situations of scientific controversy.

Analyzing the roles of advocates and honest brokers through the lens of individual and collective (institutional) action, one can distinguish between individual and collective advocacy, and individual and collective honest brokering. While there aremany examples of individual advocacy (see F.S. Rowland, Paul Crutzen in the CFC controversy, Jim Hansen in the climate change debate, or E.O. Wilson advocating biodiversity) and collective brokering (see many advisory committees), collective advocacy and individual brokering are far less established.There are exceptional circumstanceswhere scientific organizations have engaged in advocacy (such as the National Academies of Sciences calling for action on climate change c. 2007, see Grundmann and Stehr 2012, chap. 4). And individual scientists are less convincing in the role of honest brokers as they are normally not bound by specific rules or policies. They can switch from advocate to honest broker at any time.

From this it follows that honest brokering in Pielke’s sense requires institutional arrangements that explicitly foster and encourage a diversity of viewpoints and practical options for decision making. Only by confronting the different viewpoints in an open manner can transparency for the decision maker emerge. If we grant one group too much power, it will dominate the research process and the decision-making process. It will ultimately define what science is and what a good policy decision is without our ability to check and without an opportunity to revise decisions, should they turn out to be flawed.

Grundmann, Reiner (2013) “Climategate” and The Scientific Ethos, Science Technology Human Values vol. 38 no. 1, 67-93
doi: 10.1177/0162243911432318

Anonymous said...

My hermeneutics fails me... are you saying that everybody who says that climate change is real is hiding behind an 'alleged consensus' and actually working as a 'stealth advocate'?? And: What is so reprehensible about an advocate openly advocating something on which a large part of people (I don't want to mention the word 'scientists') agree, as opposed to a broker honestly brokering something on which a large part of people agree. He or she wouldn't try to broker something totally outlandish for which they would not see any chance of agreement, would they? But then I don't know anything about policy processes...

@ReinerGrundmann said...


thanks for your questions. I shall try to briefly answer them, as best as I can.

The answer to your first question ('are you saying that everybody who says that climate change is real is hiding behind an 'alleged consensus' and actually working as a 'stealth advocate'?) is NO. However, I note the unspecified clause 'climate change is real' which could comprise a great variety of things, from agreeing that global mean surface temperatures have increased since 1870 ... to arguing that current weather patterns are proof of anthropogenic climate change.

Your second question rests on a misunderstanding, I think: 'What is so reprehensible about an advocate openly advocating something on which a large part of people ... agree...?'

My point is that open advocates, such as Jim Hansen, speak as individuals and take risks (of being proven wrong, of being attacked personally, etc) which is not always true of those who argue from the shadows of large institutions. So in Hansen's case, he does agree with what 'a large part of people' say (leaving aside how many these are) and there is nothing wrong with that.

Your remark about brokering in this context indicates that you do not seem to see the important point in this activity which is to open up policy options. Hansen's voice adds to the debate and to the options which need to be considered. Sometimes these can be outlandish, and with little prospect of finding support. The point is not how many people could agree, rather how impartial can a broker be (you need to bear in mind the premise of honest brokering, that policy makers make decisions, not scientists). And from this perspective it is clear where the difference between advocacy and brokering lie: the first role is pushing for one preferred course of action, the second shows the range of possible actions (and their likely effects, if known).

Having said this, I do think that brokering is an activity best suited to institutions, not individuals.