How researchers get heard
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Your Data Need an Argument

The New York Times published a beautiful interactive earlier this week showing how U.S. greenhouse gas emissions might be reduced if the United States adopted seven of the most ambitious climate policies already in place around the world.

The interactive also beautifully illustrates something else: why researchers who want to make impact on polarized issues can’t just present data or findings. They need an argument.

Here’s the final slide of the interactive:

According to the interactive, adopting the seven measures would still only get the United States to a collective emissions level 50 percent below 2005 levels — nowhere near the 80 percent goal the Obama administration agreed to in the Paris Climate Accords, much less the zero net emissions goal many climate activists are pushing.

To reach those goals, write Times reporters Brad Plumer and Blacki Migliozzi, will require even more radical measures — well beyond anything enacted anywhere to date.

Great. But what does all this mean?

  • That the United States should give up on cutting emissions?
  • That it should cut as best it politically can, but focus on adaptation?
  • That only Green New Deal holistic shock therapy will save us now?
  • That it should take some of these steps, but ignore the ones — such as enacting an electric vehicle push, efficiency targets for heavy polluting industries and California-style energy efficiency standards for new homes and buildings — that the interactive seems to suggest will give us only global marginal gains?
  • That we need to accelerate geoengineering R&D as well as developing mechanisms for its governance?
  • Or something else?

The interactive and the accompanying text are mute on these questions.

The interactive is “informative.” But it doesn’t really inform. It strains to present data neutrally to support a decision-making process…for which there is no neutral ground left.

Yes, the interactive is journalism, which pretends to objectivity. But so does science and science communication. Many research organizations with a climate activist bent would have been happy to have it on their site. In fact, it was drawn from data informing a much more comprehensive visualizer created by the group Energy Innovation.

I think we can use Roger Pielke Jr.’s matrix of the four modes of science engagementto figure out the problem here. Because, when you try to plot the interactive on it, it doesn’t really fit:

But Pielke outlines a fifth mode of science engagement — stealth issue advocacy. And that fits the interactive well.

Stealth issue advocacy, Pielke says, is

characterized by the expert who seeks to hide his/her advocacy behind a facade of science, either pure scientist or science arbiter. This role seeks to swim in a sea of politics without getting wet. It is the fastest route to pathologically politicizing science. It is also what gives scientists as advocates a bad name.

This is where I’d site the interactive, although I’d say it’s advocating for action while trying to appear as an honest broker of policy alternatives. That impersonation won’t work for the climate wars; they are the opposite of an elite conflict with a linear model of science in society.

Every researcher working in deeply politicized issue areas needs to memorize what Pielke says next about stealth advocacy:

Where stealth advocacy is concerned, the expert’s intent really doesn’t matter. I had lunch last week with a couple of members of the National Academy of Sciences who told me that on the issue that they have expertise in, they just want to improve public understanding, and not weigh in on any “side” in the political debate. However, when an issue is already deeply politicized, science is typically already associated with the different “sides.” In such a context, any statement by an expert about science absent political context will readily be appropriated in advocacy, regardless of the expert’s intention. Stealth advocacy is the result.

For climate change and other polarized issues, the only place you can be in Pielke’s model is issue advocate. There is no middle ground. You need a point of view to be heard, to make sense. You’re already on a side — and “science absent political context will readily be appropriate in advocacy, regardless of the expert’s intention.”

Your data need an argument. Get help making that argument publicly, and be open about making it.