Confessions of a Conservative Climatologist

 May 1, 2017    by Adrienne Wootten

Looking back over the last ~10 years, it’s been a joy to be a scientist. I get to explore questions of interest to me and help climate science be useable.  Scientific communities are critical to society, so it’s important that they be trusted. It’s an interesting time to be involved in the study of climate, particularly from my perspective. I happen to be something most might think a contradiction. I am a climatologist, but I am also politically conservative. I have some remarks from my (sometimes awkward) perspective. I don’t often mention anything about my political views, but when I do let it slip in some way or another, the result has been… frosty. As an example, I was at a dinner for women in science during one of the AMS Annual Meetings a few years ago. At one point, I challenged the super-popular thinking at the table related to climate and public health regulations from my conservative views. There was not a barrage of vile language, but the cold attitude toward me afterward was evident. That example is one of many where there were different worldviews in play, despite the discussion on science.

Is science nonpartisan? Ideally yes, it should be. Are scientists nonpartisan? No, they are human.  We have social and cognitive biases just like everyone else (nicely pointed out by this recent article in Nature). Intelligence, advanced degrees, and awards don’t provide immunity to that. Peterson (1997) says it well - “Because one does not cease to be human upon becoming a scientist, cultural influences such as disciplinary training, personal experience, and funding sources influence both what questions are asked and what kind of answers are possible.”  All of us tend to seek like-minded people. This is all good in that we can support each other (as the March for Science and similar events intend). But being surrounded by like-minded others can also lead to some well-documented problems: echo-chambers, politicization and polarization, to name just a few.

Because I participate in conservative circles, I know that most within these groups do not believe science per se is partisan.  Instead conservatives typically view scientists (and particularly climate scientists) as politically motivated rather than motivated by scientific discovery (i.e. that scientists are partisan and ignore / disparage evidence contradictory to their agenda).  Indeed, despite the messaging in science communication, most conservatives feel strongly that they are not served by the agendas of modern science (as an example of what one might hear - “They are wasting my tax-dollars and don’t care about my needs!”). Related to this, events like the March for Science want to portray a message that science is nonpartisan and so are scientists, when that is simply not so. One of the reasons for the March for Science was to protest proposed funding cuts to science research (90% of respondents in a Science Business survey). Here’s a question: When you could have shown up during numerous other science related crises in recent history, why did you show up now (when your interests were threatened)? What will conservatives see through the filter of news media outlets? Probably that such marches (and more importantly march participants) are partisan and not interested in the public good or scientific integrity (indeed this happened before the March for Science both here and here). Marches are blunt tools, with little control over messaging (unlike smaller targeted efforts). Thus the unintended consequence of such a march is reinforcing the conservative belief that scientists are all politically motivated. The marches are a symptom of refusing to confront the reasons why science (and climate science) is still untrusted (by some but not all). Marching doesn’t confront the fact that many believe that scientists act for their own interests, a political agenda, and / or a close-minded ideology with no tolerance for dissent. Perhaps the reason many believe this is because of the tone of voice they hear or the biases they perceive that maybe we are ignoring.

The other point is harder to admit. I am blessed to work with many talented scientists and I am grateful for that. However, if I am completely honest with myself there are many times I have felt alienated working in this field. That has nothing to do with my skill level as a scientist. I have noticed over the years that most of the colleagues I have worked with identify as liberal. Perhaps because many assume that I am also a liberal, I often have found myself in conversations where others make disparaging comments toward conservative values and people. This is where that feeling of alienation comes in. I have never felt comfortable expressing my conservative views amongst my colleagues. I have never felt comfortable bringing up differing ideas (like changes to natural emissions sources, challenges to our ability to model the climate, or challenges to our ability to represent the carbon cycle) regarding climate change for fear of being disparaged by other scientists and political advocates. While I may not agree with those differing ideas, they help advance science and are important to talk about. I also know that I am not alone in my concerns as others I know share the same fear or feel like unpopular views are suppressed. Why would we want to speak up when we see the reaction to outspoken challengers (as Judith Curry describes in her recent testimony). We continue to speak in whispers, rather than sharing openly in the larger conversation.

I want to see scientific research continue. I want to see trust in all scientists (not only those with which we agree) and the ability of scientists to carry out their work objectively. One of the conservative principles is that of prudence- that any measure should be judged by its long-term consequences, not by popularity. Looking at the long-term, events like the March for Science don’t truly address the reasons for a lack of trust in scientists, which is why I have not supported them. We need to remember and confront the danger of our human biases in science. I love what I do as a scientist, and I wouldn’t work with regional climate modeling and downscaling techniques if I didn’t think they offered value to guide decision making and advance the science. However, I won’t pretend to be blind to my own biases that may affect how I approach doing research. There are questions I’m still trying to answer myself. How might my biases be affecting the way I approach doing science? Am I predisposed to wanting and pushing for a particular conclusion? Am I likely to shut off discussion just because someone doesn’t agree with my views? Are my political views affecting the way I think about doing science?

Knowing how human biases can affect scientific integrity, I also believe we can find a way to overcome them. I’m encouraged by recent articles highlighting some of the biases that can compromise objectivity and reproducibility and how we can overcome them. I’m am also encouraged by the recent updates to the AGU Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics Policy, which includes AGU policy regarding intimidation, harassment, and bullying (though it remains to be seen if this will be implemented fairly). These are great first steps toward addressing the problems which limit public trust in scientists, and the trust scientists have in each other and their institutions. These are the kinds of actions that need to continue and grow to restore trust in science. Marching doesn’t approach the problems of human biases and perceived biases in science, and so cannot build trust, and to me is short lived. I believe that the young scientists from all organizations, including the ECCF and similar forums, are the ones who can rise to this challenge, address our biases as humans, and ultimately restore trust in science among the most skeptical. At least for me, I will try to rise to that challenge. Will you? Conservative, liberal, and independent scientists alike, let us rise to the challenge together.

Peterson, T.R., 1997: Subverting the Culture of Expertise: Community Participation in Development Decisions. Sharing the Earth: The Rhetoric of Sustainable Development. University of South Carolina Press, pg 86-118


NOTE: Comments will be visible to the public. Before commenting for the first time, please review the ECCF's Editorial Policy.

Add comment

Log in to post comments