In a perfect world, I’m with Tamsin Edwards (who says scientists should stay clear of all potential controversy). But we don’t live in a perfect world. Gavin Schmidt knows this and articulated it well in his recent AGU talk. He argued that yes, scientists should be willing to speak up. I want to just add a few of my thoughts on this issue based on what I witnessed in my years of coral reef ecology and coral reef conservation. Bottom line: I’m in total agreement.


WHAT IS AND WHAT OUGHT. Gavin Schmidt gave the Stephen Schneider Lecture this month at the AGU meeting.  Advocacy was the subject of his presentation, and he mentioned Tamsin Edwards’s essay in The Guardian titled, “Scientists Must Not Advocate Particular Policies.”



I’m going to address the topic of science advocacy as a debate between two individuals (whether they see themselves squaring off or not). In 2005 I interviewed Gerry Graff, an English professor at University of Illinois at Chicago for my movie, “Flock of Dodos.” He authored a book titled, “Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education,” where he made the case that people learn best when a subject can be presented as a debate, and I know from narrative principles that putting a human face on an issue strengthens it.

So let’s look at this issue of “should scientists be public advocates,” as a debate between Tamsin Edwards of the University of Bristol who says a firm “NO,” and Gavin Schmidt of NASA who says a firm “YES.”

In Gavin’s talk he gets into a fair amount of hair splitting over the syntax and semantics of scientists talking about climate, but I’m more interested in the basic yes or no question of whether they should “get involved.”  It comes up all the time when I speak at universities, and of course I admire people who are concerned enough about human welfare in general to be willing to take leadership roles.



An important starting point in this debate is realizing that all voices are not equal.  More specifically, the voice of scientists is more powerful than spokespersons.  I learned this at the CDC.

In August, 2010, in the wake of my first book, one of the most exciting experiences was the invitations I received to speak and run workshops at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.  On my first visit, where they gave me the deluxe tour of their facilities and I met with huge numbers of communications staff (they have about 500), one of the most interesting comments I heard had to do with scientists and “the voice of authority with the media.”

They said that whenever there is a major disease outbreak and the media comes running to CDC the first thing they tell the communications people is, “We want to hear from THE SCIENTISTS.”  Basically, “Not from you spokespersons who probably don’t know what you’re talking about — we want to hear it from the mouths of THE EXPERTS.”

This is an interesting syndrome and is very relevant to this issue of advocacy.  Scientists carry “the big stick.”  This is always true.  I hear it at all the science institutions I visit to speak.  I mostly hear the dark side of it — about how when the scientists get mad at a communications person they can wreak havoc with their complaints — they carry the big stick and are listened to.

So this is part of the overall issue of advocacy.  Should the climate scientists sit quietly behind the scenes, whispering their knowledge to the spokesperson up at the podium?  Or should they actually be at the podium?  Edwards seems to say BEHIND the podium, Schmidt says AT the podium.  It’s a difficult question.



My overall feeling is that in a perfect world where the environmental community is incredibly smart and knows how to absorb all the details and complexities and nuances of the science world, insert the accurate messages into the mainstream media, and argue as fiercely and skillfully as Huxley did for Darwin, then Edwards would be absolutely correct.  But we’re nowhere close to that perfect world.

The environmental NGO’s are not perfect.  Scientists are needed in the fight.



Here’s my personal perspective on this issue.  Along with most coral reef ecologists around the world, I spent the 1980’s with my head buried in the theoretical world of figuring out how coral reefs maintain such high diversity and (for me) how starfish larvae manage to survive.  I simply assumed that all the happy and enthusiastic people working for environmental organizations were doing their job of making sure humanity didn’t destroy the resource we scientists were studying.

But by the early 1990’s major coral reef ecologists like my buddy Jeremy Jackson began sounding loud, urgent alarms. They began stepping into the public arena with their own voice, and a bit of a feeling of, “I thought you environmentalists were going to protect the planet.”

How and why the protection of the planet eluded the people we thought were managing it is of course a complex story. Part of it is understandable (overwhelmed by their opponents), part of it is inexcusable (incompetent leadership as detailed in many books such as Mark Dowie‘s Pulitzer Prize-nominated “Losing Ground“).

This is what I mean above when I talk about “a perfect world.”  In a perfect world, Jeremy would never have had to go so far as to give his hugely popular TED Talk in 2010 titled, “How we wrecked the ocean.”  He would have stayed “a purist” as Edwards recommends. But like most scientists who feel passionately about what they study, he just wasn’t comfortable watching it all vanish.



So that is the perspective from which I approach the issue of global warming — the divide between what “ought” to be (the perfect world where scientists can remain like research ostriches) and what “is” (the real world). This “ought-is” divide is also addressed by Gavin in his talk.  He uses Stephen Schneider‘s lifetime of advocacy as the narrative spine for the talk, peppered with clips from Schneider’s talks, going all the way back, rather amazingly, to 1971 when Schneider was first quoted in the NY Times speaking out on the issue of climate.

It’s a very good talk.  I’m with Gavin.  Scientist need to engage.