The man in the wet suit

“The stealth issue advocate seeks to ‘swim without getting wet'”
(Roger A Pielke – The Honest Broker (p.7))


James Hansen

James Hansen is not your ordinary scientist.  Until recently he was a distinguished NASA climatologist, perhaps best known as the man whose 1988 congressional testimony announced global warming as a present day reality.  He may now be better recognised for being arrested outside the White House, whether alongside Darryl Hannah at an anti-coal rally or protesting against the Keystone pipeline.

Pursuing such a transparent agenda attracts controversy – Hansen has been subject to a level of criticism that is probably unfamiliar from regular peer review. Other scientists have suggested that he is damaging “trust in the science” –  undermining not just his own research, but the credibility of the whole field.  Science that advocates risks losing its lustre of objectivity.

Pielke tweet

But is it possible that his political activity actually makes Hansen a very ordinary scientist – if a rather extraordinary man?  Pielke argues that all advocacy is a natural part of the human condition.  The public even expect scientists to get stuck into these issues (three quarters thinking political involvement is appropriate).  Sociologist Stephen Hilgartner suggests advocacy is unavoidable – as soon as science starts to engage with politics at all, it becomes an act, a form of persuasion.  That scientists use a specific register to generate an aura of authority makes this process no less deliberate.  Is Hansen then just more honest about his profession’s stagecraft.  Perhaps the scientists he riles are upset that he’s giving the game away?

Hansen himself says “I am not a politician; I am a scientist and a citizen”.  There are two things worth noting here – firstly his scientific background actually legitimises his involvement precisely because he is not constrained by a political agenda.  Secondly, he joins the roles of scientist and citizen in a manner that co-productionists would applaud.

“The ways in which we know and represent the world are inseparable from the ways in which we choose to live in it”
(Sheila Jasanoff – States of Knowledge : The Co-production of science and the social order)

But there’s something innately old-school about Hansen’s belief that while he can get arrested as a citizen, he should stand trial as a scientist.  He happily blurs his scientist/ citizen roles in claiming his right to express his views.  But he also wants people to remember that he is a scientist; that he has perhaps earned the right to be taken seriously in his campaigns by dedicating his career “to understand the processes and impacts of climate change” – that his views are (therefore?) based on “facts and not on prejudice”.

That may hold true for ice sheets and geological records.  But nuclear power is a policy response that involves more than just carbon concentrations, and something about which other people’s opinions can as much weight as a working knowledge of global climate processes.

Furthermore, while it might be true that the ideal of scientific objectivity starts to look rather mythical when examined a bit more closely, there are still degrees of advocacy. All scientists  may be citizens, as Jasanoff has argued, but we need to be wary of a reductive approach that sees no difference between a peer-reviewed paper and a polemic.

None of this is meant as criticism of Hansen.  I admire his expertise, respect his passion, and think we should all be grateful for his efforts to inform climate change mitigation.  I think his comments on nuclear power could have prompted a more sophisticated response than name calling.  Besides, it’s his planet too. You can hardly blame him for chipping in with some thoughts on how we might be able to look after it a bit better.

Are scientist advocates just more honest? Do they bring much needed expertise? Or does their engagement undermine their ability to inform that debate effectively?  Pielke argues that science must engage politically, but with institutionalised checks on the more strident levels of personal advocacy – the Honest Brokers:

Pielke diagram

Four idealized roles for scientists in decision-making (Roger A Pielke Jr – The Honest Broker, p.14)

Hansen’s pursuit of an advocacy agenda while attempting to maintain the full authority of impartial science (“stealth issue advocacy”) is, in this view, doomed to failure.   But it’s hard to see how citizen-scientists can be gagged.  Perhaps the only conclusion we can really draw from this is that impartiality is a matter of perspective.  Whether you think Hansen has remained dry after venturing into the mirky waters of politics, is – like the proposition of our title – fundamentally a matter of where you place the emphasis.