Can an activist be a good scientist?
August 12, 2012 2:15 PM   Subscribe

NASA's James Hansen has been called the "godfather" of climate warming, largely because of his long record of major publications on the topic. He is also a determined climate activist, protesting, blockading, and demanding (PDF) that immediate action be taken to deal effectively with the issue, while using his science to advance his case. Recently, he and 2 colleagues effectively contradicted the widespread view that individual extreme weather events cannot be directly linked with observed climate warming, using extreme high temperatures as an example. [additional earlier and new (PDF) information]. (See previous (PDF) related work by others.) Several climate experts have attacked Hansen's activism and his science (PDF). Does his activism make James Hansen a bad scientist? (Related previous posts here and here, now peer-reviewed and published.)
posted by dmayhood (62 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
When the truth inconveniences the powerful, all science is activism.
posted by mhoye at 2:30 PM on August 12, 2012 [58 favorites]


Does his activism make James Hansen a bad scientist?

The answer to that question will greatly depend on whether one is a pragmatist or not.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 2:36 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Considering his siblings, it would be foolish to oppose him.
posted by zippy at 2:42 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hansen has given his own answer to that exact question in Storms Of My Grandchildren. Great read.
posted by mek at 2:42 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


NASA's James Hansen has been called the "godfather" of climate warming, largely because of his long record of major publications on the topic.

They made him into an author you can't refute
posted by hal9k at 2:50 PM on August 12, 2012 [69 favorites]


They made him into an author you can't refute

Owww owww owwwwwww.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:00 PM on August 12, 2012 [11 favorites]


Does his activism make James Hansen a bad scientist?

Is it true that this is a rhetorical question set up by the links to create an editorialized FPP: James Hansen is a bad scientist, global warming should be questioned?
posted by stbalbach at 3:06 PM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Pollution harms and kills, that's beyond any reasonable doubt. So why don't we relaunch the world economy by attempting to obtain better productions with less pollution and waste? That may help killing the idiocy that "austerity" (which in practical terms means masses spending a lot less or working a lot more for a lot less, ultrarich not spending till the bad economy is over) is what the "economy" needs to restart.
posted by elpapacito at 3:15 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm not a big fan of taking typical blog format "end the post with a question to spark discussion" and doing it here on MetaFilter. It feels too editorial to me. Especially with this post, with the title AND the final bit both being basically the same question.

It's overall a great post on an interesting topic, with a lot of meat to chew on. I just wish those little touches didn't get my hackles up and make it a bit less for me.
posted by hippybear at 3:15 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


largely because of his long record of major publications on the topic

Oh and Hansen's longer record of being right.
posted by stbalbach at 3:16 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


James Hansen: Climate change is here — and worse than we thought
posted by homunculus at 3:20 PM on August 12, 2012


Does his activism make James Hansen a bad scientist?

Did Einstein's condemnation of using the atomic bomb on civilians in Japan make him a bad scientist?
posted by fairmettle at 3:26 PM on August 12, 2012 [26 favorites]


The question of how to navigate the intersection of science and politics has a long history. I'm reminded of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, a play in which Heisenberg and Bohr ruminate on the ethics of participating in nuclear science (among other things).

Personally, I think science can never really be divorced from philosophy and ideology, and those that pretend they are truly objective tend to be the most dangerous sort.

At any rate, the question is much less interesting in Hansen's case, as the science involved is much more observational than technological. If NASA spotted an asteroid headed straight for earth and every politician on the planet chose to ignore it, would I fault them for becoming radicalized and shouting to anyone who would listen that we need to stop the asteroid before the Earth is annihilated? No, I would expect nothing less.
posted by mek at 3:29 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


As long as 'changes' can be laughed off as normal variance, the cretins will control the debate, and most of us (me certainly) will be dead before the 'oh, shit' effects are emerging.

Should a scientist be an activist? I dunno. Once you jump into the pit, it's all rhetorical tricks and mud-slinging and who can yell louder. Here in Canada, Dr David Suzuki is paying a price for speaking up.
posted by Artful Codger at 3:31 PM on August 12, 2012


"All scientific work is incomplete - whether it be observational or experimental. All scientific work is liable to be upset or modified by advancing knowledge. That does not confer upon us a freedom to ignore the knowledge we already have or postpone the action that it appears to demand at a given time."
posted by docgonzo at 3:33 PM on August 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


Here in Canada, Dr David Suzuki is paying a price for speaking up.

That's part of Harper's official plan to audit and attack all charities involved in environmental activism. They're doing the same to Greenpeace and others. It's fucking despicable.
posted by mek at 3:34 PM on August 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hansen's newest paper touches on a piece of science that is the most subject to methodological holy wars: how to estimate probabilities from a posteriori observations. SO it's no wonder peope are objecting to his line of argument.

But it's also something that lots of people are doing for a simple reason: civil engineers in this country have to consider the 100 year event in all their work (100 year flood, 100 year wind burst, et cetera.) and global warming is changing the local estimates of what the 100 year event is.

So the methodological pissing matches are only going to be a momentary distraction from his point, which is correct: we can, in fact, rise up and say that recent weather events are attributable to the greenhouse effect.
posted by ocschwar at 3:47 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Hansen's activism, I believe, puts him somewhat at higher risk than normal of *becoming* a "bad scientist" -- being so publicly invested and publicly activist about his findings put him at risk of being biased against data or research which isn't in line with his work. But I don't have any information indicating that there is good data out there he's ignoring or trying to stifle.

The same can easily be said of many other scientists of higher public influence and stature -- just remember the famous astronomer Fred Hoyle who derided Hubble's expansionary universe data. The phrase "big bang" was intended to be a punchline.
posted by chimaera at 3:53 PM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


As usual, just follow the money. All of the giant global reinsurance companies, those companies that provide insurance to insurance companies, are including global climate change in their risk models. If these reinsurance companies that have real skin in the game think it is true, it indicates that the Exxons of the world also know it and are just lying about it.
posted by JackFlash at 4:10 PM on August 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Does his activism make James Hansen a bad scientist?

No. It makes him a bad person.

Now, if he owned a lignite coal mine, generating electricity and creating jobs, and getting involved in the discussion by using his billions to distort the discussion then he'd be good.
posted by Mezentian at 4:12 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Consider this annecdotal single line report from NPR thismorning: The airport in Phoenix, AZ experienced 3 record days of heat in a row during July. So? You say? The hottest day recorded in July was 116 degrees. At 120 degrees apparently they have to close the airport since planes haven't been tested (and hence weren't designed to operate) in temperatures that hot.

And folks in the sun belt always thought those of us in the snow belt were crazy for living in places where the weather could cancel our travel plans.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:12 PM on August 12, 2012


Nanukthedog: "At 120 degrees apparently they have to close the airport since planes haven't been tested (and hence weren't designed to operate) in temperatures that hot."
It's not like planes are going to drop out of the sky if the temperature rises four degrees, more like the manufacturer not having bothered to provide operational data for what is (was) likely to be a rare occurrence. Here's a relevant discussion on airliners.net, wherein it is mentioned that the Lockheed L1011 was certified to fly at up to 54°C, most likely due to having many operators in the Middle East, and some of Air France's Airbuses being rated up to 60°C.
posted by brokkr at 4:34 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's some criticism of Hansen from Cliff Mass.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 4:36 PM on August 12, 2012


That's some pretty specious criticism, which basically hinges on hypotheses pulled from the blogger's... imagination.
posted by mek at 4:44 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The idea that you can't point to an extreme event and say, see, this is because of climate change, is pretty standard, isn't it? If the climate heats up enough, there will be many such events, and we will say that it was the climate change that caused them. Any particular event, however, could have occurred in the absence of climate change. We have no way to know, of each event, which kind it is - caused by climate change, or not. The question is actually suspect, even: what climate change causes is the increase in frequency and severity of events, and one could argue that it is a category mistake to consider whether or not it caused one particular event.

What the abstract claims seems to evade the scope of that familiar argument:

It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.

So they have a very specific case to make, scientifically, it sounds like. No telling if they can support it or not - the abstract stops there, but I don't think I'd be able to judge the merits of the climatological argument anyway.
posted by thelonius at 5:29 PM on August 12, 2012


It's not like planes are going to drop out of the sky if the temperature rises four degrees, more likethe manufacturer not having bothered to provide operational data for what is (was) likely to be a rare occurrence.

Could be the airport, not the planes. Hotter air needs longer runways for takeoffs and landings, if I remember my Stick & Rudder.
posted by adamdschneider at 5:30 PM on August 12, 2012


There was a thread here recently about US infrastructure, and it mentioned that the tarmac is mixed to operate within a certain temperature band. If it gets too hot the runway begins to lose cohesion. I'd imagine that might be an issue in Phoenix.
posted by Mezentian at 5:34 PM on August 12, 2012


Hansen has moved well beyond establishing his credibility and authority on climate change. It's true that you could question some of his recent scientific output if you wanted to, concerned that he may be over-invested and tempted to gild the lily a bit. But he really doesn't have to rely on his own science and his own research any more, the case is basically closed, the evidence is overwhelming, there isn't any further need for the fundamentals of climate science to be looked at.

Of course there is much more to be known and substantial second order issues to be explained, predictive models need to be improved and are being so, but the underlying science is rock solid.

So what's a man of his stature to do, once he is aware of just how diabolical a problem this is? Advocacy is the most useful thing he can do to convert his unquestioned legitimacy into hopefully action.

In other words, go James Hansen!

Support him by buying his book.
posted by wilful at 5:49 PM on August 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


I really don't understand the problem at all. So here's a good scientist who has done credible work, and whose predictions have been correct again and again. He's very confident of the general trend he is seeing and 97% of the people in his discipline back him up to various degrees. And what he's seeing is certain catastrophe barring major, global changes. But some people think that he's not supposed to sound the alarm as loudly as he can lest he lose credibility? I don't see how he could stay silent and keep his credibility. The only sane action when your own excellent research over three decades has persuaded you that the cataclysm is rapidly approaching is to shout that to the rooftops using every means at your disposal. I don't get how this is even a question.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:02 PM on August 12, 2012 [34 favorites]


I would echo that James Hansen is an elder and authority in this field of study, and his status conveys a certain freedom or responsibility to become a certain kind of advocate.

it indicates that the Exxons of the world also know it and are just lying about it.

And, due to the bubble in fossil fuels, their business model requires them to lie about it, or their assets become close to worthless.

It remains to be seen whether the humans at Exxon will subvert Exxon for the sake of their species.

::

Already in 2011, the world has used over a third of its 50-year carbon budget of 886GtCO2, leaving 565 GtCO2

All of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GtCO2

Fossil fuel reserves owned by the top 100 listed coal and top 100 listed oil and gas companies represent total emissions of 745 GtCO2

Only 20% of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of assets technically unburnable

posted by eustatic at 6:06 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a pointless intellectual cul-de-sac of a debate anyway. It may well be that we cannot yet establish direct causation between ACC and extreme weather events, James Hansen's "99% likely" claim is in fact scientifically flawed or invalid. But to point this out and just leave it there as if it is some refutation of the entire field of climate science is laughably absurd.

Things we're very sure of:
  • Humans are having a distinct impact on climate, already demonstrated and measured
  • Impacts will certainly cause more extreme weather events
  • We have had some extraordinarily wild weather in recent years, breaking all sorts of records

    It's hardly a leap of faith to state that there is a high likelihood of causation here.

  • posted by wilful at 6:12 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Also, there's some (deliberate?) confusion in what's happening with the weather here. No one is claiming that without climate change the summer would have been completely normal. What is being asserted is that rather than breaking (say) 400 heat records, only 300 would have been. Rather than 2500 counties being drought declared, only 1800 would have been.

    We had a 48° day (118° F) in Melbourne in Feb 2009. Without climate change it still would have been an utter stinker, say 45°, it would not have been an average day of 32°. But that 3° still did matter, it made the inevitable bushfires just that much worse.
    posted by wilful at 6:26 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


    The National Climatic Data Center updates average temperatures for US locations every 10 years. Those averages are based on the previous 30 years of recorded temperature. So far 2012 has been an extreme weather event in the USA as far as temperature is concerned. It is the hottest year ever recorded to date, and moreover the departures from normal are way above the envelope of data for all other years. So in 2020 when the 30 year averages are updated, the 2012 temperatures will be included. And it will be no surprise at all that the new normals will be higher than the previous 30 year normals, and years like 2012 will be part of the reason. So since climate represents the sum total of all weather events, at some point we have to say, yes, these weather events are more extreme because the climate is changing.
    posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:50 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


    planet is cooking = traditional energy providers control traditional media
    posted by ovvl at 6:54 PM on August 12, 2012


    Good comments, thanks.

    It is true that I had an ulterior motive for posting this. I wanted to hear what the arguments might be, pro and con, from a thoughtful bunch of commenters. As both an aquatic ecologist and an environmental activist, I want to keep my position under frequent reconsideration. I am no James Hansen, just a lowly grunt in the trenches. If James Hansen can be legitimately attacked, I had better think through my own analysis.

    For what it's worth, my view is that the only valid measure of whether somebody's science is good, is: is it true? I confess I was a little surprised that this answer didn't come up yet in the discussion, at least in that stark form. By this measure, Hansen's record would seem to disprove the notion that he is a bad scientist, based simply on his results, as stbalbach at 3:16 PM noted. He has been wrong, but his right answers were enormously valuable.

    On the other hand (to throw more bullets into the fire) consider this comment by Dean Burnett, a scientist-comedian who writes a column for Guardian (UK):

    Wrongness is inherent to the scientific process. Any theory or idea you want to test, you start with a null hypothesis, which is basically the idea that your hypothesis is wrong. You then have to go about getting enough data to prove the null hypothesis wrong. So in science you have to be wrong at least twice in order to get anything done. And even then, if you proved that the idea that you were wrong is wrong, you'll have countless other people asking if you might have been wrong in different ways, or setting up their own experiments to prove your conclusions wrong, which will involve them having to prove their own wrongness wrong as well.

    They say two wrongs don't make a right, but in science it's because two is nowhere near enough.


    Boggles, does the mind.
    posted by dmayhood at 7:34 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


    Any consensus on the methane clathrates theory? (i.e. slightly warmer temperatures allow clathrates to release methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas, so a runaway process begins). Supposedly the seafloor clathrates are of much more concern than arctic clathrates, too. I looked at some climate monitoring stations and didn't see methane trending upward. Either I'm looking at the wrong data or methane doesn't play a part right now.
    posted by crapmatic at 7:35 PM on August 12, 2012


    I think Hansen's recent article "man-made warming makes hot events more likely" and there's a statistical proof to go with it.

    But let me play devil's advocate. We've got reliable climate data for what - a hundred or three years tops? And some historical, fossil and archaeological data from before that. So what - there's an ice age every 10,000 years or so, there's fossil evidence of tropical life at high latitudes, so getting all wet about half a degree rise in thirty years...pffft.

    I'm saying this only to illustrate how hard it is at present to make the case for massive social and economic upheaval because of half a degree.

    Me, I'm convinced. The clincher for me is ocean acidity. The oceans are as near to infinity as my tiny brain can conceive (when I'm not watching PBS programs about the universe), yet we've managed to raise their acidity. Jaw drop.

    (leaving fishery collapse in its own thread)
    posted by Artful Codger at 7:56 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


    It is true that I had an ulterior motive for posting this. I wanted to hear what the arguments might be, pro and con, from a thoughtful bunch of commenters.

    Please don't use the community as your personal tool. Just post cool stuff that you find. Any more on this aspect of the post should probably go to MeTa.
    posted by Jpfed at 8:15 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Suppose you're a scientist who discovers there's a high degree of likelihood that a massive, extinction-event sized asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth, and you try to warn everyone, but powerful business interests spend billions lobbying and publishing disinformation to discredit yours and any other findings that corroborate your warnings. Does that make you an activist or a human being?
    posted by saulgoodman at 8:40 PM on August 12, 2012


    I think part of the problem when talking about temperature is how people perceive the significance of temperature changes. If a scientist says the temperature will rise by 1 degree F in 30 years, what does that mean? Is it significant? For example, compare two locations like Boston and Baltimore in January. Yes, Baltimore is warmer because it is further south, but by how much? The difference is only 3 degrees F. (Boston Jan mean = 29.3 F, Baltimore Jan mean =32.3). So a 1 degree increase in 30 years shifts a winter thermal zone approximately 1/3 of the way from Baltimore to Boston. Those two cities have a 3 degrees of latitude difference. So that 1 degree temperature shift is the equivalent of shifting the winter climate by 1 degree of latitude every 30 years. That is a big deal. Here is a table of mean monthly temperatures for US cities if you are curious about what the real differences are from place to place.
    posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:43 PM on August 12, 2012


    Please don't use the community as your personal tool. Just post cool stuff that you find. Any more on this aspect of the post should probably go to MeTa.

    To be fair, plenty of us have ulterior motives in FPPing things, beyond "this is neat." It's a good post and they commented both late and honestly; I'm okay with that.
    posted by mek at 8:48 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


    Crapmatic: there is film of roiling arctic waters, where clathrates are melting. It is terrifying.
    posted by five fresh fish at 10:46 PM on August 12, 2012


    As wilful pretty much said, Hansen simply said out loud what everybody else was already thinking anyway, but was too careful not to voice for mostly methodological reasons.
    posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:34 AM on August 13, 2012


    Was Jor-El a bad scientist?
    posted by biffa at 1:40 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


    The fact that this matter is even up for debate is frightening, given the various instances of drought, heat and changes in our biosphere.

    We will sit here like helpless ants as our fish get sucked into huge factory ships, our lands get polluted and our water dries up into salt pans.

    Hopefully, we'll be dead by then.

    But that's highly unlikely given the rate this change is happening.
    posted by infini at 2:57 AM on August 13, 2012


    On the flip side, is someone who knows about a great danger and refuses to act on it a bad person? If so, does that make nuclear scientists and fossil fuel scientists, for example, bad people?
    posted by No Robots at 9:47 AM on August 13, 2012


    Both Candidates Carefully Avoid Topic of Global Warming
    posted by homunculus at 1:03 PM on August 13, 2012


    Krugman redux. Amass a reputation, then go wild.
    posted by syntaxfree at 1:20 PM on August 13, 2012


    No Robots: "On the flip side, is someone who knows about a great danger and refuses to act on it a bad person? If so, does that make nuclear scientists and fossil fuel scientists, for example, bad people?"
    I love the assumption that no nuclear scientist cares about risk. But what I really want to know is: what is a "fossil fuel scientist"?
    posted by brokkr at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2012


    But let me play devil's advocate. We've got reliable climate data for what - a hundred or three years tops? And some historical, fossil and archaeological data from before that. So what - there's an ice age every 10,000 years or so, there's fossil evidence of tropical life at high latitudes, so getting all wet about half a degree rise in thirty years...pffft.

    Ice cores provide a ton of information on climate, going back a long way, possibly 800kyrs.

    The EPA's climate change projections are startling, 4-11C rise in temperature by 2100. This chart of carbon emissions in the last 200 years is ominous, especially considering the massive industrial growth yet to take place in China, India and other emerging economies. It seems highly unlikely that greenhouse gas emissions will stabilize anywhere in the near future. It seems unreasonable to expect we'll end up anywhere less than the EPA's "higher emissions scenario (A2)" projection.
    posted by Golden Eternity at 3:13 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


    oops. This chart of carbon emissions.
    posted by Golden Eternity at 3:13 PM on August 13, 2012


    Thanks G-E. Do you have a link to the climate findings they have gotten from ice core samples, and what level of accuracy they are considered to have?

    (just asking; I don't yet know how ice cores have been used to provide historical climate records, besides particulates, pollen, etc)
    posted by Artful Codger at 3:39 PM on August 13, 2012


    I just did some looking and came across this summary of what is done with ice cores to analyze past climate, and this article on uncertainties in ice core data, but neither give specific accuracy numbers.
    posted by Golden Eternity at 4:00 PM on August 13, 2012


    The EPA's climate change projections are startling, 4-11C rise in temperature by 2100.

    That is 4-11 degrees Fahrenheit, not Celsius.
    posted by mek at 4:02 PM on August 13, 2012


    oops. Thanks mek.
    posted by Golden Eternity at 4:04 PM on August 13, 2012


    but what I really want to know is: what is a "fossil fuel scientist"?

    Geologists working to find new reserves. Mining engineers. Supply line engineers. Anyone working on CCS. I'm sure there are others.
    posted by biffa at 12:44 AM on August 14, 2012


    And how are they qualified to speak on the consequences of burning fossil fuels?

    Anyway, bad people. Bad.
    posted by brokkr at 2:00 AM on August 14, 2012


    And how are they qualified to speak on the consequences of burning fossil fuels?

    Zay are making zur zat ze trains are on time, but zay do not know vere zay are going, ja?
    posted by No Robots at 5:49 AM on August 14, 2012


    How original.
    posted by brokkr at 6:45 AM on August 14, 2012


    Bonus points for the gratuitous German-bashing, by the way.
    posted by brokkr at 6:46 AM on August 14, 2012


    The point is that scientists have been involved in some of the greatest crimes of modern times, and they should be carefully scrutinized.
    posted by No Robots at 7:34 AM on August 14, 2012


    Who sciences the scientists?
    posted by biffa at 2:03 PM on August 22, 2012


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