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Humanize From Discovery Institute's Center on Human Exceptionalism

Too Many Climate Scientists Confuse ‘Science’ with Activism

Originally published at National Review

Remember when a scientist admitted to removing nuance from a climate-change study because he believed that Nature would not publish it if he did not strictly follow the favored narrative of human-caused climate catastrophe? The editor of the world’s most prestigious science journal denied the charge hotly, but it has hung in the air ever since.

And now — perhaps in a reaction to that piece — Nature has published a cogent warning that too many scientists in the climate-change sector conflate “climate science” with “climate activism.” Cambridge professor Ulf Büntgen writes:

While this Comment is not a critique of climate activism per se, I am foremost concerned by an increasing number of climate scientists becoming climate activists, because scholars should not have a priori interests in the outcome of their studies. Like in any academic case, the quest for objectivity must also account for all aspects of global climate change research. While I have no problem with scholars taking public positions on climate issues, I see potential conflicts when scholars use information selectively or over-attribute problems to anthropogenic warming, and thus politicise climate and environmental change. Without self-critique and a diversity of viewpoints, scientists will ultimately harm the credibility of their research and possibly cause a wider public, political and economic backlash.

Büntgen warns that the same is true from the other way around:

Likewise, I am worried about activists who pretend to be scientists, as this can be a misleading form of instrumentalization. In fact, there is just a thin line between the use and misuse of scientific certainty and uncertainty, and there is evidence for strategic and selective communication of scientific information for climate action. (Non-)specialist activists often adopt scientific arguments as a source of moral legitimation for their movements, which can be radical and destructive rather than rational and constructive.

In other words, no more commands to “Follow the science!” or declarations that “the science is settled.”

Büntgen accuses the activists of exaggerating actual scientific findings:

I find it misleading when prominent organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest summary for policymakers, tend to overstate scientific understanding of the rate of recent anthropogenic warming relative to the range of past natural temperature variability over 2000 and even 125,000 years. The quality and quantity of available climate proxy records are merely too low to allow for a robust comparison of the observed annual temperature extremes in the 21st century against reconstructed long-term climate means of the Holocene and before. Like all science, climate science is tentative and fallible.

That’s the very humility and nuance too often missing in science policy debates.

Here’s some wisdom:

As a way forward, I recommend that a neutral science should remain unbiased and avoid any form of selection, over-attribution and reductionism that would reflect a type of activism. Policymakers should continue seeking and considering nuanced information from an increasingly complex media landscape of overlapping academic, economic and public interests. Advice from a diversity of researchers and institutions beyond the IPCC and other large-scale organisations that assess the state of knowledge in specific scientific fields should include critical investigations of clear-cut cases, such as anthropogenic climate change. A successful, international climate agenda, including both climate mitigation and adaptation, requires reliable reporting of detailed and trustworthy certainties and uncertainties, whereas any form of scientism and exaggeration will be counterproductive.

The hopelessly in-the-tank science establishment will almost certainly ignore Büntgen’s advice. And the critics of current climate-change orthodoxy won’t have an easier time getting funding.

But credit where it is due. Nature did a service to the science sector by publishing this criticism. If climate scientists — and those participating in other contentious scientific policy areas such as gender and Covid — focus on distinguishing actual science from activism, there is at least some chance that the trust that has been lost by the science sector can be regained.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.