I have criticized James Hansen, while Michael Heath has defended him. Here I critique Hansen with the use of multiple examples of why he is of dubious credibility, not as a scientist but as a political advocate. I do not criticize his peer-reviewed work, for three reasons. First, there is often a sharp disconnect between a person’s public persona and their research persona–I’ve known of a few real cranks who do fine quality research. Second, for his peer-reviewed work we can rely, at least tentatively, on the credibility of blind reviewers–it’s not a perfect and infallible process, but for debate purposes it should be taken as prima facie evidence of the work’s credibility. Third, I haven’t reviewed his peer-reviewed work yet, so it would be extremely irresponsible for me to critique it.
But no matter how good Hansen’s research is, there are reasons to doubt his credibility in his more public and/or popular statements. [Note: It’s a bit hard dredging up good sources on this stuff. His detractors are frequently willing to completely distort and even lie about him,* his supporters seem eager to overlook or excuse away any embarrassing thing he might say, and the respectable media (if there still is such a thing) seems to overlook some of these things. So I may have stumbled into some criticisms that aren’t true. If you can provide evidence that these things didn’t happen, or didn’t happen as reported, please do. [I am working on a companion piece on “Things Hansen Didn’t Say,” since there’s a lot of that out there, too.]
“I have the impression,” he says in a recent email, “that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles. At the same time China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient….not only is it nearly impossible to get effective legislation through Congress, but that the special interests can prevent implementation almost interminably. Democracy of the sort intended in 1776 probably could have dealt with climate change, but not the fossil-money-’democracy’ that now rules the roost in Washington.
I have a hard time overstating my horror of arguments like this. I went to grad school with people who argued seriously that it was time to give up on democracy, and who truly believed that China’s government was the best way to go (“If only,” one of them said to me, “they could get the right people in power”). What price are we willing to pay to remediate global warming? A shift to authoritarianism? I’m not willing to pay that price, and I doubt Hansen has thought seriously about what costs are entailed in that solution.
Hansen also demonstrates ignorance of both contemporary politics and U.S. history. If he thinks the Chinese government’s real interest is in preventing climate change, he hasn’t looked very closely. Their top interests, in order, are preserving their position of power and promoting continued economic growth. And if he thinks the democracy of 1776 could have dealt with climate change, then he has absolutely no idea what kind of conflict there was between the states. They couldn’t even agree to pony up the money for the war they wanted so badly to win, so it’s highly doubtful they’d have been able to agree on anything else that required each of them to make serious long-term commitments to a joint venture without immediate returns. He’s just employing an empty shibboleth, the purpose of which is to block critical thought by appealing to our emotional reverence for the Founders. Ironically, that’s exactly what the right-wing panderers normally do.
Hansen on FOIA Requests
As reported by approximately 73 zillion anti-Hansen websites and also Climate Progress, James Hansen is frustrated with FOIA requests. Here’s what he said:
I am now inundated with broad FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests for my correspondence, with substantial impact on my time and on others in my office. I believe these to be fishing expeditions, aimed at finding some statement(s), likely to be taken out of context, which they would attempt to use to discredit climate science.
Allow me to grant two things up front: First, I have no doubt that he legitimately finds them frustrating, and any of his critics would, too, were they in his situation. Second, I have no doubt that he is at least partly, perhaps mostly, right about the purpose of these FOIA requests.
But that’s just too damn bad. Hansen is employed by the government and his research is funded by the citizens of the U.S. He has no business expecting that he be free from the troublesome meddling of those citizens who are paying his salary. As much as FOIA requests can be abused, the law was created precisely to ensure that our agents in government could not operate in secrecy and without public accountability. If Hansen finds that to be too troublesome, he should seek employment in the private sector.
At Dispatches a while back Michael Heath and I went toe-to-toe on what he meant by a “republican-technocratic form of government.” This is what I think that approach necessarily entails–technocratic freedom from public accountability. Michael was not advocating that outcome, but I believe that is where it necessarily ends up. There are no clear “focal points” (c.f. Thomas Schelling) between strong democratic accountability and technocratic unaccountability on which the public can clearly converge to prevent sliding too far to the unaccountable side of things. I suspect Michael remains unconvinced of my argument on this point, and I respect that. But of course I remain very convinced of it, and on that basis of that considered conviction, I have no qualms critiquing Hansen for his disdain for democratic accountability, as evidence both in this example and in the China example.
Hansen’s Weakness on Economic Issues
This comes from Hansen himself, specifically his web page (the same link as above, with text of a speech he gave about his trip to China).
[T]here is great economic advantage in having the leading low-carbon technologies
Well, maybe, under appropriate conditions. The assumptions in his argument are that China can just “have” that technology, and that it will be economically cost-effective. He doesn’t take into account the cost of “getting” (developing and implementing) that technology, which is less affordable to a country with a relatively low GDP per capita, such as China has (about 1/6th that of the U.S.). If they invest too much of their scarce capital in that effort they can actually set themselves back in economic development, rather than gaining any advantage. There’s a reason poor countries adopt (which is sometimes a polite euphemism for “steal”) technologies from wealthier countries rather than buying the intellectual expertise necessary to develop it indigenously. In fact for the same reason I personally am a technological “late adopter,” as early adoption is an inefficient use of my limited resources. There’s also the problem that a new technology’s capacity to resolve problem X is not necessarily related to its cost effectiveness. Even if we assume a “getting” cost of zero, the technology could still be too costly to be economically advantageous, especially given China’s significant coal reserves, which provide a pretty cheap source of energy (cheap to China’s government and manufacturers at least, since much of the real cost is externalized via pollution). If that technology is substantially more costly than coal, China doesn’t necessarily benefit economically. Sure, coal will impose future cleanup and remediation costs, but we have to appropriately discount those costs. If they become wealthier in the future, they may be able to better afford those costs then than they can afford new technology’s costs now.
I have a persistent beef with natural scientists over their failure to have a basic grasp of economic principles. I have a friend who claimed that the problem of unemployment is caused by overpopulation, which is an interesting variation on the lump of labor fallacy. They understand the effort that is needed to acquire expertise in their own discipline, but give every appearance of thinking that a similar effort is not required to understand economic behavior. They’re confident in their demonstrated intelligence, and think that is sufficient unto itself. To the extent people take Hansen’s economic arguments about global warming seriously because “he’s an expert on global warming,” he is contributing to misunderstanding of the facts in the policy debate.
Hansen on Trying Energy Executives for Crimes Against Humanity
Oh, lord how I wish I could put this in the upcoming post on things Hansen didn’t say, but it’s right there in his congressional testimony, not on some idiot denialist’s website.
CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.
Conviction of ExxonMobil and Peabody Coal CEOs will be no consolation, if we pass on a runaway climate to our children.
First, Hansen doesn’t actually know what the CEOs believe, so his claim to know the state of their knowledge can’t be taken seriously. His claim that they really do know sounds very much like Fred Clark’s explanation of a certain type of Christian:
In their view, additional proof of the existence of God would be redundant. Everybody everywhere already knows that God exists… Unbelievers are simply in rebellion — not ignorant, not unpersuaded, just perversely denying what they know to be true.
In Hansen’s world, it appears, everyone knows the truth about global warming, they’re not just ignorant or unpersuaded, but “perversely denying what they know to be true.” Hansen’s slide into that kind of thinking error probably results from the same cognitive process that causes certain Christians to commit the error: When you know/believe something so completely, it becomes difficult to actually understand how someone else could not. Denial comes to seem a more parsimonious explanation than disagreement. But of course that doesn’t make it so.
But that aside, which is, for all the words I expended on it, a very minor issue, let’s focus on what Hansen sees as an appropriate response: trial and conviction for crimes against humanity and nature. This fits in well with his anti-democratic views above; now he’s perilously close to being anti-rule-of-law as well. The fact is that we have no crimes against nature statute, and crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting the mass of humanity in creating temporary wealth for themselves at the expense of long-term costs would be a novel interpretation of the international law on crimes against humanity.
At the risk of provoking outrage, I am going to suggest that when you have a person who designates one issue as so important that we must sacrifice all else before it, not just economic growth, but our political and legal freedom, we should be rightly suspicious of them. No scientific evidence can demonstrate that these costs must be accepted, because the science is empirical data and the decision about what costs to accept is a normative, a value, judgment. Hansen, like many natural scientists, fails to understand that just as an ought doesn’t create an is, an is doesn’t create an ought. Science can tell us what the costs of different courses of action will be, but it can’t tell us which of those courses of action we must or even ought to choose. To suggest otherwise is to demonstrate an ignorance of the essential distinction between facts and values. If you doubt my claim about that, go read the science policy literature. Roger Pielke, for example, asks the question, “can science compel action” in his book, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, and calls the belief that it can the “technocratic impulse”:
…the technocratic impulse suggests that the reduction of scientific uncertainty necessarily leads to a reduction of political uncertainty. In other words, technocrats believe that by seeking a clearer conception of the relationship of alternative courses of action and their outcomes, there will necessarily be greater consensus on what action is preferable. We see such calls in most every area where science is contested, with notable recent examples including global climate change, genetically modified food organisms, and nuclear waste disposal…In situations of political conflict about the means or ends that a policy is to achieve, politics will always and necessarily “trump” science simply because science does not compel action. (p. 35)
Pielke writes specifically about Hansen himself, and what he calls Hansen’s “Scientific Authoritarianism” here. It’s worth reading, particularly where he points out that Hansen claims governments should ignore the people and listen to the experts, then accuses governments of “tricking” the public by following the recommendations of….experts–the wrong ones.
The reason I distrust Hansen’s public statements is because while I haven’t followed the science of global warming very closely for the past decade, I have studied the literature on science policy. Coincidentally, today as I was preparing a lecture for my Environmental Politics class, I happened to be in a textbook chapter that dealt, in part, with the specific issue of what the author calls “the limited neutrality of scientific judgment.” Here are some relevant quotes:**
The more an issue is in the public eye, the more expert judgments are likely to be influenced unconsciously by pre-existing policy preferences or by supposedly unrelated factors such as media presentation, the opinions of colleagues or friends, or even the emotional overtones of certain words used in the debate. (Physicist Harvey Brooks).
[A] study of several hundred risk professionals involved in federal environmental policy making suggested that once risk professionals became involved in policy making there was “a weakening of disciplinary perspectives and a strengthening of viewpoints based on politics and ideology” (Science policy expert Dorothy Nelkin).
Social or political bias can be particularly pernicious when not recognized or admitted by the experts. It is now evident that many technical controversies in policy making may not be resolvable by resort to scientific evidence and argument because scientific solutions will be permeated with social, political, or economic bias….as political scientist Dorothy Nelkin once remarked, their expertise “is reduced to one more weapon in a political arsenal.” (Rosenbaum)
In fact my primary reason for ceasing to follow the climate change issue a decade ago, and the cause of my trepidation in returning to it now, is precisely that the science and the politics have become so intermingled that it’s just about impossible to sort them out anymore. And it’s not just the “anti” camp that’s doing it. They may be more obvious, but the pro-camp has thoroughly muddled the science and the politics as well, and are in persistent denial about that fact. But the very fact that they regularly argue as though the scientific evidence should automatically compel specific action itself demonstrates their commingling of the two realms.
I think Hansen is an exemplar of this error, which is why I have difficulty taking him seriously, at least in his public pronouncements. Roger Pielke writes about “stealth advocates,” scientists who speak as though they are promoting particular policies based only on the science when in fact their policy arguments are based as much on their political values. They play the technocratic card–the appearance of the unbiased, objective, technical expert who is only reporting the facts–but it is a sham. Their values are a crucial factor driving their policy recommendations. As Pielke notes, that’s fair, as long as they’re upfront about it. There’s no claim that scientists have a duty to refrain from advocacy, just that they have a duty to be honest that their advocacy is derived from their values, not just from the science. But the common failure of scientists to make that distinction is another reason to be exceptionally dubious about increasing the technocratic influence in government–it adds more authority to a particular set of people who, contrary to the beliefs and goals of the technocrats, will not simply make objective scientific claims, but claims imbued with a heaping dose of subjective value judgments.
Sticking solely to authoritative reports without additional commentary or recommendations is not a solution to the problem, either. As Rosenbaum notes, speaking specifically of risk analysis by federal agencies;
A close reading of [risk assessment] guidelines reveals an enormous discretion customarily left to regulatory agencies in determining how to balance the various statutory criteria (p.127). …
“A politically motivated risk assessor could, in many situations, easily manipulate his or her analysis to produce a desired outcome on either side of the [statutorily defined threshold]…Even a more conscientious risk assessor with no interest in the impact of his or her results would make numerous decisions in the process that could change the final answers by several orders of magnitude…” (National Academy of Public Administration).
The assumption that any individual scientist is, with any degree of certainty, more neutral and objective in his/her policy recommendations is simply naive, and represents a fetishization of science that ignores the fact that it is conducted by real, fallible and imperfect, human beings. The scientific process is one of humanity’s greatest achievements precisely because of the discipline it tends to impose on those imperfect beings, but not only is that discipline itself imperfect (because it frequently works through the administration of other imperfect human beings), it is specifically subject–as are all things–to the corrupting power of politics.
The more political a scientific issue is, the less certainty we can grant the claims of scientists, not because they are inherently untrustworthy or dishonest, but because they are as human as the rest of us, and not normally any more immune to the corrosiveness of politics. James Hansen, as one of the most actively politically involved climate change scientists, is a perfect case example. In fact he’s too perfect. Were I to use him in a case study to try to prove the claim that politics corrupts science I would be open to criticism that I chose an “easy case.”
I want to close by emphasizing that I am not casting aspersions on any of Hansen’s scientific work or any of the claims in his peer-reviewed publications. As suggested above by Rosenbaum, it is of course possible that the politicization of an issue can affect the technical analyses of it, and so presumably could even affect the interpretations of scientists and the peer-review process. I will write more about that in a subsequent post, but I have no basis for believing or implying that is the case with Hansen’s scientific work. Here I have focused solely on his public pronouncements, where the political effect is both more likely and, when present, more noticeable.
Outside of the laboratory, Hansen appears to me to be a bit of a fool, unwise and incautious in his arguments, and most probably deceiving himself about how much he’s commingled his values with the scientific evidence. (The alternatives to believing he’s not deceiving himself about that are a) he hasn’t commingled them, which I think is an indefensible claim, or b) he’s aware of it and is doing it intentionally and dishonestly for the purposes of political persuasion, which is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence, but for which I have as of yet seen no evidence at all.) At his best, in public speaking, he seems careless, with a tendency to claims more grandiose than he can support. At his worst, he seems fully unaware of the ways in which his lack of expertise in economics and politics leads him to make foolishly dangerous policy recommendations.
That’s my view. Have at it.
*For example, it’s often claimed that he authored a peer-reviewed paper in the ’70s, claiming that the earth was cooling. This appears to be false. A research associate of his used a model he’d developed and reported that the model suggested a cooling trend. Critics then follow up this false claim with snide condemnation of the model, but it is obvious their ignorance of modeling methodology is unlimited. Any model, even stochastic ones, depends heavily on the initial assumptions–the values of the particular variables that you plug in at the start. And this person’s assumptions did not include an increase in CO2 (only a handful of people at the time had noticed the increase in CO2). Also, this was among the earliest climate models, and there have been significant improvements in both model design and in computing power (allowing for more sophisticated models requiring vastly more computing power) over the past several decades.
**I will note the original authors of the quotes, but all are reported in Rosenbaum Walter A. 2008. Environmental Politcs and Policy, 7th edition. CQ Press. pp.124-5, with complete citations at the end of the chapter. If anyone wants the complete citation for a quote I will be happy to provide it.