Let freedom ring!

It’s July 4th – Independence Day. So, a question for the occasion… When climate scientists talk with political leaders, is freedom in the air?

For several reasons, it might at first seem that freedom is lacking here.

Both the scientists and the politicians appear to be on their guard when with each other in the public eye, don’t they? On the surface, they seem to have distinctly different goals and purposes. They certainly come from divergent cultures.  Tobin Smith, Vice President for Policy at the Association of American Universities (e.g., Beyond Sputnik, U.S. science policy in the 21st century, by Homer Neal, Tobin Smith, and Jennifer McCormick, University of Michigan Press [2008]), characterizes some of the differences this way:

Scientists                                                          Politicians

numbers                                                               words

objective/facts                                                    subjective/opinions

hate to make promises                                      love to make promises

quantitative                                                        qualitative

technical                                                              politicial

Problem seekers                                                issue seekers

ask why                                                               ask why should I care

Money=research                                                money=getting re-elected

think long term                                                  think short term

publicity avoiders                                              publicity seekers

science page                                                       front page

Specialists                                                           generalists



Looking at this list, it’s easy to see why those conversations between scientists and politicians might tend to be a bit awkward. [Note that this divide isn’t peculiar to climate scientists – it would apply to biomedical researchers or high-energy physicists or nano-technologists or chemists equally well.] Add to this a lack of contact between the two groups – they don’t spend that much time in each other’s circles. No contact translates to low trust. And trust matters to freedom. So sure enough, when politicians and scientists do get together, the dialog seems anything but free.

It gets worse. Why? Because it turns out that on their side of this divide, the politicians don’t feel free to speak or act on this issue. Take Republicans. Whenever a Republican politician lifts his/her head out the foxhole and suggests that climate change might be real, that human beings might be contributing to the cause, and that it poses serious problems for mankind, he/she draws withering fire from a wing of the party that refuses to tolerate such ideas. Better to lay low!

Democratic politicians fare little better. For the most liberal, concern about climate change might be part of the orthodoxy. But for those in the middle of the road, seeking votes from independents and Republicans as well as from their base, it’s safer to ignore the issue. Plenty of controversy swirling around other, more urgent concerns – raising the ceiling on the national debt, health care, jobs, and more.

Note that we’re not talking about whether politicians are free to hold certain views on climate change – we’re talking about whether they feel free to even raise the subject! Seems like whoever brings it up first loses. Where’s the freedom there?

But hold on! Maybe scientists shouldn’t feel smug.

Rumblings suggest there’s perhaps not that much freedom on the scientists’ side of the discussion either.  A few scientists make their protests public, vocal and strident… and prompt us to think they protest too much. But more are whispered around the edges of the conversation, by scientists who are more cautious, feeling more guarded than free. On our end, we seem to be rather better than we should be at making manifestly complex issues a matter of black and white, then choosing sides, then administering loyalty tests. Scientists complain that this lack of freedom manifests itself in proposal acceptance, in journal peer review, tenure.

You and I might be tempted to say this is not a pervasive problem, but isolated, popping up here and there, confined to a fringe. Maybe true. Nevertheless, it poses a challenge and risk to our community. Why? Because while party politicians hold loyalty to be a virtue, both in practice and in the abstract, we scientists hold such loyalty tests, any constraint on free inquiry to be wrongheaded. So the slightest bit of waywardness on our part is equivalent to the preacher or rabbi who is unfaithful in marriage, or who steals or lies. It’s not that we’re held to some higher criterion, we fail to live up to our self-proclaimed standard.

So, to bystanders, to a cloud of witnesses, it might seem today, on July 4, 2011, that there’s not much freedom in this arena.

But take a closer look.

Start with a quick glance back at history. Compared with the past, the present day doesn’t seem so bad. Think Galileo and his problems with the Vatican. Think a thousand years of governmental, political, and religious prohibitions on the study of cadavers and the stultifying effect on any advance in medicine. Think Lysenko, Lysenkoism and its effects on Soviet science and agriculture in the 1900’s. Here in this country, in the 1880’s, Congress established the Allison Commission to investigate the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Signal Service, the US Geological Survey, and the Hydrographic Office of the Navy.  

Fast forward to today. Politicians might grumble – just like that Allison Commission – but they are still funding science – including climate science. The labels on climate-science-based services are being hotly debated, but the services themselves growing in capability and reach. Engineers and technologists are finding ways to innovate – to conserve energy, to make energy generation renewable, to make fossil fuels cleaner. In addition, governments and corporations worldwide are incorporating climate and the prospects for climate change explicitly in their planning and actions. We’re all adapting. Everyone’s frustrated (what else is new?)…but mostly about the pace of progress, rather than its direction. Politicians are savvy about how and why science – all science – matters to their district, their state, their country, the world.

What’s more, we’re only one political leader away from having an entirely different national dialog. Party discipline, on all matters, not just climate change, has gotten so tight as to be manifestly dysfunctional. Though it continues to be dangerous to buck this trend, politicians are recognizing that the first person who succeeds can become a national hero, and be viewed by history as a transforming presence (while whoever is second will be confined to history’s ash bin). Some politicians see opportunity.

Scientists, noticing their messages aren’t sometimes well received, are finally getting scientific about why. They’ve stopped simply repeating the same message, turning up the gain. They’ve not demanding blind acceptance from policymakers or the public. Instead they’re allowing them to be free. They’re asking “what is it about the climate change message that makes some people angry, defensive? How can climate scientists better understand the needs of society and its political leaders?” Scientists are learning how to listen more and to listen more actively. They’re getting as disciplined in their approach to these questions as they are to the science itself.

Lastly, note that on Toby Smith’s list of differences you don’t see any mention of honesty, integrity, courage, vision or, for that matter, love and caring. These are human values, values that politicians and scientists share, values that unite all of us.

Bottom line? As described in yesterday’s post, scientists and politicians, working from these shared values, today also share freedom – and most especially, the freedom to be responsible.

Hear those bells? See those fireworks? Let freedom ring.

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