Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?
By Nicholas Goldberg
I do not know whether to be relieved or distressed by the fact that the “Climategate” scandal has not brought about a swift and decisive resolution of what was, at first glance, a clear-cut case of wrongdoing involving scientists and institutions that were central to public policy on climate change. At first I thought this must be a sign that climate change skeptics were right — that what we have learned so far suggests that the skeptics were right about the need for an immediate change in climate policy.
The latest “Climategate” story broke when University of East Anglia climatologist Professor Phil Jones, along with 13 of his co-authors, was caught altering the raw data that served as the source for his climate model outputs. This is not about whether data can be altered. The issue is whether the manipulation itself was an “unfair” act by those being manipulated into changing the data for purposes that were not their own.
This news story has led to a new discussion about what role, if any, scientists should have in shaping public policy on issues of climate change. For example, in the United States, scientists who are advocates of reducing carbon dioxide emissions have asked the White House to remove the authority of the White House Council on Environmental Quality to issue guidelines on science-based environmental policy. A climate scientist and the head of the Sierra Club, Fred Krupp, has said that in his opinion, “It is unethical for scientists to appear in the media to promote their own cause.”
There are also those who take the point of view that scientists should not be in the media in a way that is unbecoming of their role. They point out that journalists, being human, are generally driven by their own interests and are not always objective. Scientists are far more likely to be objective and unbiased.
But there is another side to this conversation, and it’s an important one. We need to be clear about what we mean when we talk about “scientists.” This has been the subject of much scholarly debate and a heated discussion in the scientific community, but so far, the results have been contradictory. But I think that in trying to