Guest Opinion by Kip Hansen
The internet information pipe is gushing out information faster than most people can handle. It is increasingly difficult to sort and strain that information flow to find the bits that are important for one’s work. One of my many filters is the continuing series of blog posts by Judith Curry, titled “Week in review – science edition”, in which Dr. Curry lists science articles, studies, blog posts and the like that “caught her eye” in the preceding week(s). She not only lists pieces that have added to our knowledge base and represent “a lot of progress in climate science” but she includes interesting bits that relate often to the philosophy and practice of science in general. Her suggestions lead to her readers pulling the threads and offering follow-up sources of ideas. One of those follow-ups, offered to us by Climate Etc. reader “Faustino” led me to an article on Quillette.com (“a platform for free thought”) titled “Motivated Reasoning Is Disfiguring Social Science” written by Chris Ferguson.
Chris Ferguson is a psychologist who serves on the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA). This council, he tells us:
“…voted for a resolution opposing parental spanking…. The resolution statement presented spanking research as if data conclusively links spanking to negative outcomes in children such as aggression or reduced intellectual development. I happen to do some research on spanking’s effects on children. Although I am by no means a spanking advocate, I was alarmed by the way an inconsistent, correlational, and methodologically weak research field that routinely produces weak effect sizes was mischaracterized as consistent and strong. Unfortunately, this resolution is part of a larger bias among professional guilds such as the APA, wherein messy science is laundered for public consumption, presenting it as more impressive than it actually is.”
Ferguson is talking about the issuance of Resolution Statements, Policy Statements, Position Statements which are regularly being issued by councils or leadership of professional associations, most often without being voted upon by members and sometimes without member input.
“The bottom line is that professional guilds such as the APA and AAP have a demonstrable track record of unreliability when speaking on matters of science. This means that parents, the general public, and policy makers may base decisions on erroneous pseudo-scientific claims that can’t be backed by good data. Perhaps the most egregious issue is when such bodies simply pretend no controversy exists in fields that are, in fact, highly controversial. This behavior, known as “citation bias,” has been described by some scholars as one of the seven deadly sins of research scholarship. ….. And yet professional guilds engage in such behavior on a fairly regular basis,…”
Ferguson’s original piece (repeating the link), quite a long and detailed monologue, is well worth reading, even for those of us not actively engaged in the world of psychology. Ferguson offers his thoughts on why learned societies, professional associations or guilds, promulgate these type of statements, whether they be called Position Statements, Policy Statements or other kinds of official statements.
Ferguson and his committee members (the APA’s The News Media, Public Education and Public Policy Committee) examined various policy statements on the effects of media in a new paper: “Do Policy Statements on Media Effects Faithfully Represent the Science?”.
Their findings have broad implications:
It was found that current policy statements tend to be more definitive than is warranted by the underlying science, and often ignore conflicting research results. These findings have broad implications for policy statements more generally, outside the field of media effects. In general, the committee suggests that professional organizations run the risk of misinforming the public when they release policy statements that do not acknowledge debates and inconsistencies in a field, or limitations of methodology. In formulating policy statements, advocacy organizations may wish to focus less on claiming consensus and more on acknowledging areas of agreement, areas of disagreement, and limitations.
Ferguson lays out three possible reasons why associations might issue such poorly crafted and ill-considered public statements:
1) The councils of these associations have a decided lack of intellectual diversity. The members of these councils tend to share common liberal and progressive social advocacy positions.
2) The culture of institutions which tend to function on a corporate structure — they increasingly behave like businesses rather than academic centers. As such, they do not appear to foster an appropriate level of critical thinking, skepticism, caution, or solicitation of opposing views, thus their Position Statements resemble advertising meant to improve their reputation in the public view.
3) When issuing Position or Policy Statements, the review processes these resolution statements undergo is obviously failing. (Read on for an example.)
Over the last decade, various professional associations have been tripping over one another to get out strongly worded statements on the topic of climate change. Oddly, it is the U.S.’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that offers a web page of Statements on Climate Change, titled “Scientific consensus: Earth’s climate is warming”.
As an aside, someone there at NASA still has enough scientific integrity to add this footnote at the bottom of that page (quoted verbatim):
*Technically, a “consensus” is a general agreement of opinion, but the scientific method steers us away from this to an objective framework. In science, facts or observations are explained by a hypothesis (a statement of a possible explanation for some natural phenomenon), which can then be tested and retested until it is refuted (or disproved).
As scientists gather more observations, they will build off one explanation and add details to complete the picture. Eventually, a group of hypotheses might be integrated and generalized into a scientific theory, a scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.
The list includes quips from each Statement from the following:
A quick sampling of these statements confirms Ferguson’s fears that “policy statements tend to be more definitive than is warranted by the underlying science, and often ignore conflicting research results.”:
From the American Physical Society:
“The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.” (2007)
This statement from the professional association representing physicists created quite stir which was covered in Scientific American magazine and was followed in detail on Judith Curry’s blog, Climate Etc. In fact, it was so controversial, all on its own, that Steven Koonin, who led one effort to correct the statement, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal in September 2014, provocatively titled “Climate Science is Not Settled (pdf)”. Naturally, the Climate Team responded, two weeks later, with a salvo written by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert proclaiming “Climate Science Is Settled Enough“ published online on Slate.com.
The Position Statements on Climate Change from various professional associations vary in their details, but all commit this error: they rely on inconsistent, correlational, and methodologically weak research … which is mischaracterized as consistent and strong thus, overall they “tend to be more definitive than is warranted by the underlying science, and….ignore conflicting research results.” Thus, by “releas[ing] policy statements that do not acknowledge debates and inconsistencies in a field, or limitations of methodology” instead of increasing public knowledge and confidence in climate science, they not only “run the risk of misinforming the public”, they erode the public’s confidence in the enterprise of science as a whole. When the public is faced with the spectacle of world class scientists from outside the IPCC climate science bubble pointing out the obvious deficiencies of the proffered evidence and calmly punching Mack-truck sized holes in their flawed logic, these hubristic Position Statements backfire and harm not only their issuers, but the greater scientific effort.
[World class scientists from outside the IPCC climate science bubble: Will Happer, Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Nils-Axel Morner, Lennart O. Bengtsson, John R. Christy, Freeman Dyson, Bjorn Lomborg, Myron Ebell, Ivar Giaever, Ian Plimer, the late Michael Crichton, Alan Carlin, Patrick Michaels — just to name a quick few who come to mind.]
More obvious to the general public than tiny, often imperceptible, changes in climate are the disconnects between the claims made in these learned pronouncements, on the one hand, and on the other, the evidence of history, the evidence of their own experience and the rational counter-evidence from other experts.
Hans Rosling, author of the book Factfulness, accurately stated “Exaggeration once discovered makes people tune out altogether.” And when that exaggeration is combined with rhetoric meant to instill fear and urgency among policy makers, it can lead to “stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects.”
Do you see this in your nation’s politics? UK? Germany? Australia? France? Poland? I see it here in the United States, with radically misinformed and inexperienced young politicians , informed only by hysterical statements based on intentionally exaggerated Climate Change Positions Statements, attempting to lead the country’s policy makers off a dangerous cliff like proverbial lemmings.
# # # # #
Author’s Comment Policy:
In this essay most of the Position and Policy statements are from U.S. science associations — and I am unfamiliar with the international situation, other than the IPCC, in regards to other country’s national scientific professional associations issuing these types of statements. Maybe things are better outside of the United States. Please let me know in comments what you think.
The title is a play on Ferguson’s article which focuses on the APA’s Position Statement on the “parental spanking” issue.
In a way, these Climate Change statements represent a type of a [mis]Information Cascade, in which the weak science in a policy statement from one association cascades into seeming universal “the science is settled” consensus statements from others.
Addressing your comment to “Kip…” will help me notice if you want a response.
# # # # #
Who is Dr. Steven E. Koonin?:
“Dr. Koonin was undersecretary for science in the Energy Department during President Barack Obama’s first term and is currently director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University. His previous positions include professor of theoretical physics and provost at Caltech, as well as chief scientist of BP, where his work focused on renewable and low-carbon technologies.” [ source ]
# # # # #