Adventures in Ethics and Science

“Hush your mouth!”

[I'm blogging on this at the request of my mom, who also requests that I try not to blog so blue.]

As Chris, among others, has noted, there’s a piece in the Washington Post about global warming. The piece includes an all-too-familiar feature: the government scientist (here James E. Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies) whose bosses are trying to get him to settle down and not say so much about what he thinks the science says. Deja vu all over again.

Because I know others will attend the the specifics of the global warming science and policy issues here, I’m going to restrict my focus to what I see as the central ethical question: what are the obligations of the government scientist?


To set up the discussion, let me quote from the WaPo article:

James E. Hansen, who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, last week confirmed that 2005 was the warmest year on record, surpassing 1998. Earth’s average temperature has risen nearly 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past 30 years, he noted, and another increase of about 4 degrees over the next century would “imply changes that constitute practically a different planet.”

“It’s not something you can adapt to,” Hansen said in an interview. “We can’t let it go on another 10 years like this. We’ve got to do something.”

[Snip: what could be viewed as concurring opinions from Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer, participants in a scientific symposium on "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" sponsored by the British government, and director of Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.]

Some scientists, including President Bush’s chief science adviser, John H. Marburger III, emphasize there is still much uncertainty about when abrupt global warming might occur.

“There’s no agreement on what it is that constitutes a dangerous climate change,” said Marburger, adding that the U.S. government spends $2 billion a year on researching this and other climate change questions. “We know things like this are possible, but we don’t have enough information to quantify the level of risk.”

This tipping point debate has stirred controversy within the administration; Hansen said senior political appointees are trying to block him from sharing his views publicly.

When Hansen posted data on the Internet in the fall suggesting that 2005 could be the warmest year on record, NASA officials ordered Hansen to withdraw the information because he had not had it screened by the administration in advance, according to a Goddard scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

“They’re trying to control what’s getting out to the public,” Hansen said, adding that many of his colleagues are afraid to talk about the issue. “They’re not willing to say much, because they’ve been pressured and they’re afraid they’ll get into trouble.”

But Mary L. Cleave, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Earth Science, said the agency insists on monitoring interviews with scientists to ensure they are not misquoted.

“People could see it as a constraint,” Cleave said. “As a manager, I might see it as protection.”

(Bold emphasis added.)

Hansen shared what what he viewed as important scientific information with the public. The government officials above him in the food chain would rather, it seems, control this information. Hansen, a government scientist, works for the government. Therefore, if his government bosses tell him to keep his mouth shut, ought he to do so?

Perhaps if Hansen were working for a private company there would be a clear case that he ought to keep secret what his corporate masters want kept secret. (Even here, though, there are places where it seems to me one is obligated to blow the whistle on very bad goings on.) But Hansen is not employed by the private sector. As a government employee, his work is paid for with public funds — to the tune of 2 billion public dollars a year supporting research on climate change, according to the article.

This makes it reasonable to ask whether government scientists like Hansen have an obligation to the public whose moneys fund their research.

And indeed, it seems reasonable that governments fund scientific research at least in part because such research delivers information that is relevant to the public. Not all scientific research, government funded or not, fits clearly into this category, but anyone who has ever written a grant proposal to secure federal research funds knows that demonstrating the broader relevance of the information the planned research is supposed to produce is very, very important. Another way of putting the point is this: If the public supports a research project, and that project turns up information that might be relevant to the public, is there a principled reason to deny the public that information?

Here are some principled reasons you might try:

It’s not science yet. How one guy sees the results is not the last word on the matter, scientifically speaking. What we tell the public ought to be the result of critical engagement by many different scientists (peer review, etc.), so that it reflects something like a scientific consensus (or at least a well-supported scientific position).

If Hansen’s higher-ups are asking him to rein it in on these grounds, though, they have an obligation to provide the conditions that allow researchers to reach scientific consensus or a well-supported scientific position — and then to make sure it is communicated to the public. It goes without saying that the scientists, collectively, are the ones best equipped to distinguish scientific hunches from scientific knowledge. Indeed, in his capacity as a scientist, Hansen has an obligation not to put out half-baked information. But, if he’s worked up the data and exposed it to the criticism of other scientists — in other words, if he has good reason to believe that he has sound scientific information that the public has an interest in knowing — the government scientist has an obligation to make sure that information is shared. Higher-ups can improve quality control, but they ought not keep the information on the shelf indefinitely.

The release of the information might hurt economic interests, and this could hurt the public. Some information developed in research funded by the public could make it very hard for particular companies to stay in business. (Let’s say research determined that using an iPod drastically increased your chances of becoming a philosophy major. Would it be good for Apple’s sales projections if this information got out? I’d hazzard a guess that it would not.) Those companies employ people. If the companies go under, the people they employed are out of work. Money for public support, less earnings to spend, effects in other sectors of the economy, yadda yadda.

Of course, depriving someone of information because you think, overall, she’d be better off without it, is a species of paternalism which, to use some technical jargon from ethics, is uncool. Also, people who argue from economic grounds that individuals are better off without a piece of information may well be trying to make a buck on your ignorance.

Besides which, is it the government scientist’s duty to look after the interests of particular companies (or even industries) in the private sector? Remember that these scientists are funded with public moneys. Sure, some of those tax dollars come from taxes on corporations, but some come from individual tax payers — the consumers. Corporations hire scientists of their own, who might be expected to look out for those corporations’ interests. Perhaps it’s harder to believe that the knowledge produced by the company scientists really is objective. But that’s even more of an argument that government scientists ought to be free of any pro-business bias — that they should call the facts as they see ‘em.

So, if it’s really good scientific knowledge, the fact that it might have negative implications for some corporate interest of other doesn’t mean the information should not be made public.

Those science writers might misquote the scientist, or present the information out of context. Yes, this happens. But couldn’t the scientist who was misquoted, or whose findings weren’t put into context, set the record straight? Maybe, on the internet? We live in an age where, if journalists screw up the story, there are avenues beyond the “correction” column on a page no one ever looks at for getting the right information out there.

And, just because science writers have gotten the story wrong (even repeatedly), does that relieve scientists of their duty to share information with the public. Owing to the sorry state of journalism, does the public lose its right to know? (Or maybe, do scientists and members of the public have some work to do reminding journalists of their duties?)

If the government scientist has obligations to do good science with the public’s money so that the public can reap the benefits of the scientific knowledge it has paid to produce, what other reasons could there be for holding back that scientific knowledge from the public?

Maybe to give scientific cover to policy objectives of the administration?

But here, if the politicos think this is the overriding duty of the government scientist, they just don’t understand science. Science is supposed to be a hard-headed pursuit of the facts, not the politically convenient facts. Part of the scientist’s training is learning to accept the reality of lots of results you didn’t want to see. The universe is like that sometimes; makes you stronger.

If the results of government-sponsored scientific research are inconvenient for that government, the politicos need to evaluate their options in light of the new information. But no scientist worthy of the name is going to deny a scientific finding because it’s inconvenient to the party in power. Inconvenient results are a risk you run when you put scientists on the job. However, information that holds up to scientific tests (rather than just to political ones) may be worth the risk.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Spruiell
    January 30, 2006

    The Yahoo News site included an AFP story on this which was, quite oddly, accomplanied by a picture of someone burning a flag (I’m pasting the link below). I’d like to think it’s just a goof — the picture itself was actually of Palestinians burning a *Danish* flag, over something that has nothing to do with global warming — but….it’s still odd. Why would someone think of flag-burning in connection with this?

    Link (accessed 8:00 p.m. EST 1/30):

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20060129/ts_alt_afp/uswarmingnasa;_ylt=AjPeZ__84LU9eQn2JHVn5aMPLBIF;_ylu=X3oDMTA5aHJvMDdwBHNlYwN5bmNhdA–

  2. #2 Super Sally
    January 31, 2006

    James E. Hansen has had a long and distinguished career observing and modeling planetary atmospheres since 1967. His focus was initially Venus, and gradually moved to Earth as atmospheric modeling, terrestrial data, and the computers to mesh them became a reality.

    His interests are identified on his GISS Directory page http://www.giss.nasa.gov/staff/jhansen.html and include this statement:

    “I am also interested in the development and application of global numerical models for the purpose of understanding current climate trends and projecting humans’ potential impacts on climate. The scientific excitement in comparing theory with data, and developing some understanding of global changes that are occurring, is what makes all the other stuff worth it.”

    By 1980 he reported a decade of atmospheric change and predicted further change due to aerosols. See his list of publications from 1967 to the present at:
    http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/authors/jhansen.html

    He has contributed to the growth of climate change studies for many years. I have heard him give invited talks at GSFC on his research several times while I worked as a contractor there, 1990-2003. His theories were always presented with data AND physics to support them. So it’s hard to put him in the “It’s not science yet” column.

    As for your third option “misquoted” or “out of context” reportage, Dr. Hansen has had lots of press on his findings and as far as I can see he has gotten the press to quote his scientific reports with good accuracy , and generally been able to provide adequate context to aid understanding of what the report is and is not.

    Your remaining category is very chilling from the point of view of scientists reporting findings, and the general populace being able to get and use scientifically valid information of value in informing their actions and choices (including political choices).

    Thanks for blogging this.

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