The “Mickey Mouse petition” agitating for “climate action” has provoked plenty of mirth but it is far more significant than just another own goal from the sort of climate alarmists who regularly get stuck in unexpected sea ice. Even before I learned of the Mickey Mouses and Albus Dumbledores of the petition, I recognised it as symptomatic of a far deeper issue: the continuing, self-inflicted decline of science.

There is a much bigger issue here. I suspect that even if every member of this group was a Nobel laureate, the response to its warnings would have been the same. Uncritical acceptance by some, indifference or outright hostility by others, probably the majority. And amid the flurry of reactions, very little, if any, intelligent discussion or debate.

This highlights what appears to be a paradox. Perhaps the defining one of our age. The more scientists seek to participate in public debate, the more distrustful and sceptical the audience, or at least a decent part of it, becomes.

As they should. Scientists should keep their yaps firmly shut about politics. The great Richard Feynman sternly warned against “Cargo Cult science”: scientists trying to peddle influence or solicit patronage. Slanting the evidence, with even the best intentions, to lead to a preferred political outcome is not science. “You’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used.”

To be an effective advocate in the public square, a number of basic rules should be observed. Aristotle famously detailed them […]

First, you should address your listeners as equals, not inferiors […]Second, when you state your view, avoid brow-beating and lectures […]

Third, avoid cheap rhetorical shortcuts, tricks and evasions. Offer views of future possibilities, but steer clear of unqualified prophesy. Resist appeals which shamelessly exploit people’s fears and fantasies.

All too often, scientists – especially climate activist-scientists – are failing these rules spectacularly.

All too often, scientists fail to respect these guidelines, setting themselves above and apart from their fellow citizens. They invoke Plato’s idea of philosopher kings, an elite uniquely qualified to govern […]if priests, or aristocrats, or titans of industry displayed a hint of this arrogance and hauteur, they would rightly be condemned. Little wonder, given their self-regard, that scientists’ public statements fail to persuade. As we know, these tend to take the form of warnings and commandments: bald statements of revealed truths (drawn from research which is too complex and subtle to question) accompanied by rigidly-defined policy manifestos. The audience is presented with an ultimatum, in other words, leaving no scope for questioning and debate.

But these failures of honest advocacy are nothing beside the fundamental betrayal of scientific integrity that is “scientific” activism. Science and politics are fundamentally different creatures. Science is descriptive: that is, it tries (as best as possible) to describe the way things are.

Politics, on the other hand is normative: that is, it seeks to find the way things should be.

Ever since David Hume nearly 300 years ago, it has been axiomatic that you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. The way things are entails absolutely nothing about the way things should be. The first is a simple fact; the second is an opinion.

This, perhaps, is the nub of the problem. Scientists in the public square, with few exceptions it seems, can’t help conflating their political values and their professional work. They smuggle the former into their presentation of the latter, presenting both as science. It is this, I would suggest, which devalues science, not the scepticism of the public. If you think I am being harsh, how many scientists promote research findings which conflict with their political preconceptions? How many stay scrupulously silent on policy questions, respecting the difference between what ‘is’ and ‘ought’ to be? The message for scientists is clear. To use a courtroom analogy, you cannot be an expert witness and chief prosecutor at the same time. Choose one. If you do not, do not be surprised if you are not trusted.

Or, as I put it: You can be a scientist, or you can be an activist. You cannot be both.


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