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Why scientists shouldn't heed calls to 'stay in our lane'

Posted on 20 April 2021 by Ben Santer

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections

It’s hard to lose a long-term friendship. That happened to me last year. My friendship did not survive my unwillingness to “stay in my lane.”

I met my friend – let’s call him T – while I was a student at Cornwall School in Dortmund. Back in 1966, our family moved from suburban Maryland to Dortmund in Germany. My parents had to decide whether to enroll me in a German school or a British Army school. Because I spoke no German at the time, they chose the British Army school.

I was the only American in a school of over 400 British students. It was tough going. I spoke with a different accent. My parents were not in the military. My parents did not live on the British base in Dortmund. I did not know how to play soccer, rugby, or cricket. I was “the Yank.” I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Finding friends was essential to a survival strategy.

T was one of my friends. He was fascinated by history, and a never-ending source of information about military strategy, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and obscure Greek philosophers. We shared interests in literature and language. And T was always funny, with a goofy and endearing grin.

After graduating from Cornwall, I remained in contact with T – we did not let our friendship fade into an insubstantial memory. We wrote each other letters and holiday cards. T’s communications continued to explore rich veins of history and philosophy. They were always a joy to read.

In 1999, while attending a scientific conference in the U.K., I met T again. It was a trip down memory lane – an opportunity to reminisce about our time at Cornwall School, catch up on what had become of old classmates, and reflect on where we were in our lives.

A few years later, T invited me to be best man at his wedding. I felt deeply honored to receive his kind invitation. I had never been “best man” at a wedding. I bought a nice suit for the occasion, flew over from California to London, and caught a train to Manchester for the event. “It was a good do,” as the Brits might say. I gave T and his wife a blown-glass vase I had brought from California, painted with a motif of California poppies. “Always keep your marriage fresh,” I wrote in a card to the happy couple. “Always keep fresh flowers in the vase.”

And then Trump happened. When Donald J. Trump became a serious candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 2016, the first real cracks appeared in my 50-year friendship with T. In T’s world view, Trump was a bold and fearless leader, willing to take the difficult decisions other politicians could not. I viewed Trump as a dangerous demagogue. As a climate scientist, I was particularly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s incorrect dismissal of human-caused global warming as a “hoax” – a conspiracy “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

In the summer of 2016, candidate Trump announced that if he became President, he would initiate steps to remove the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord. That announcement caught my attention. Together with colleagues at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, I drafted a letter – subsequently signed by 372 NAS members – pointing out the dangerous consequences of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord. In 2017, when candidate Trump assumed the Presidency and appointed climate change deniers to influential positions in his Administration, I publicly pushed back against such “trickle-down ignorance.” I wrote op-eds in newspapers and essays in Scientific American.

I used these op-eds and essays to defend scientific understanding of the reality and seriousness of human effects on global climate. My entire scientific career had been focused on fingerprinting the climate system. My colleagues and I had identified human fingerprints in many different records. I was not going to walk away from our research findings, even if the new head of the agency that funded our research – Secretary of Energy Rick Perry – incorrectly dismissed climate science as “a contrived phony mess.” I was not going to lay low for four years, and simply hope for more enlightened political leadership in 2021.

I firmly believe in the importance of speaking science to power, particularly on issues that are of critical importance to the health of our society and our planet. Climate change is such an issue. As I see it, there is little point in being a scientist if you are unwilling to defend hard-won scientific understanding.

My friend T read my op-eds and essays. Our communications became more difficult. He advised me to stay in my lane – to stick to climate science, and to avoid expressing political opinions. I responded that defending scientific understanding, on issues directly related to my technical expertise, was an integral part of my job. If President Trump and members of his administration publicly misrepresented scientific understanding, I would do my best to set the record straight.

I had hoped that our friendship would survive our divergent views on the public responsibilities of a scientist. Sadly, it did not survive. T descended ever deeper into a maelstrom of conspiracy theories. In one of his last emails, he cast doubt on the integrity of all the scientific research I had published, arguing that my politics had infected my science. It was time to politely disengage. Disengagement felt like failure – like a punch in the gut. It still feels that way today.

When you are driving a car, it’s important to have some situational awareness. How fast is traffic moving in other lanes? Are drivers in other lanes exhibiting erratic behavior, or showing signs of being distracted by their cell phones? Sometimes it’s necessary to shift lanes to pass slower traffic, or to merge or exit. In shifting lanes, lack of awareness of the relative speeds and sizes of other vehicles can get you hurt, or worse.

In driving, I signal when I’m changing lanes. In science, I do the same. When I express opinions that are outside the boundaries of my professional expertise, I let others know that I’m speaking as a citizen, not as a climate scientist. But I don’t accept my former friend T’s premise that I must forever remain within the narrow confines of my scientific lane. I did not park my citizenship at the door when I became a scientist.

Benjamin Santer is an atmospheric scientist who has worked on all five previous Scientific Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This piece, re-posted here with permission, was originally posted as part of the Science for Public Good series on the Union of Concerned Scientists blog.

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Comments 1 to 31:

  1. Sad for Ben Santer to lose a friend to "trumpism".

    I have lost a cousin who has cut himself off from his siblings & extended family ~ in part because Global Warming is a Hoax.  Add some conspiracy ideation and a "suspicious mind" about the (presumed) nefarious intent of his siblings/cousins.  His adult children try to keep their heads down and wait for it all to pass (but they don't seem hopeful).

    He is not insane in the strict medico-legal sense, but IMO he is intellectually insane.  Nor do I think he has an organic brain dysfunction and/or early dementia, as far as I can tell.   But judging by the shenanigans on the internet (especially the echochamber of GreenHouse denialism at WattsUpWithThat ) his is not a wildly uncommon case.  Additionally, there must be millions who go along for the ride, as a matter of identity politics.

    Fortunately, I rarely encounter flagrant denialists in everyday real life.  But obviously they exist, even in the higher echelons of government.

    The real question is :- Which way is the tide running?   And are politicians starting to see the light . . . or are they merely responding to increased public & media pressure, and are simply dissembling while hoping they're dealing with a transient wave of publicity.

    From what I've seen during the past 5 months [ i.e. since mid-November 2020] , the denizens of WUWT  are a bit glum, but consider themselves to be bravely holding out against all this unscientific AGW nonsense (and its underlying Marxist World Revolutionary push).   Bravely holding out until the public is brought to its senses by sky-rocketing electricity prices and the inevitable arrival of decades of drastic Global Cooling.   Due soon.

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  2. Scientists are not staying in their lane these days. They are protesting, or attempting to at least. However it seems the "powers that be" aren't very keen on that idea:

    That article in the online version of the UK's Guardian newspaper was "redacted" shortly after publication on Monday.

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  4. As a long retired civvil pilot I have but a superficial training in meteorology and climatology (I can still use a tephigram but probably get the wrong answers<g>).

    I'm politically somewhere to the right of Atilla the Hun; however this doesn't mean that I am obliged to close my brain down and go along with what has become a political fight by denialists.

    There's certainly been a shift in public opinion about global warming these last five years but - and, America, I'm looking at you - there's a significant percentage of the population that is NEVER going to take the trouble to check the veracity of the huge amount of misinformation out there. It's almost comical that some can quote temperature CO2 and sea level data from millions of years ago yet without blinking rubbish what the same science is telling us now.

    It's psychology bordering on psychiatry that's the issue, and I don't think there's any way of countering it - certainly not with facts.Scott Morrison, here in Australia, is making faint noises about minimal investments but it's merely to assuage some of the criticism without breaking from his close relations with parliamentary colleagues and the FF industry.

    The even sadder thing is that, in the unlikely event that global gree efforts DO hold temperatures to a manageable level, the deniers' descendents will of course cry "There you are, what was all the fuss about - it was rubbish". We saw just that with the millenium bug!

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  5. Apologies for the spelling!

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  6. I have many "Ts" friends ... Here in Brazil, since the last elections it was impossible not to leave an opinion in front of so many climatic absurdities proposed by the current government. The problem is that the government will always be the consequence of our society and never the cause.

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  7. Unfortunately, I encounter many people like T because I live in Alberta, Canada.

    I have found it helpful to be more aware of the comprehensive presentations of history. And I try to stick to verifiable facts to refute modern day beliefs, especially about the history of what has happened (a good book on the topic is "Telling the Truth About History", by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob).

    One important point is that Trump is not the only Republican to spout nonsense that appeals to easily impressed people. Many others were doing it before Trump chose to try to become "Their Leader". And they have done it on many issues, not just climate science and the related understanding of what is wrong with the developed socioeconomic political systems.

    Bush declared that "Americans did not have to change how they lived" when he announced that the USA would not officially sign on to Kyoto. And Republicans since Nixon, and maybe before that, have appealed to the misguided "Utilitarian" belief that Being Harmful can be justified if there are Net-Benefits (Their Benefits as they evaluate things are greater than the Harm Done as they evaluate things). That incorrect thinking also suits the pursuit of Liberty that justifies harmful things by claiming the virtue of "Freedom". And it fits the pursuit of Purity and Nationalism that justifies harmful things by claiming only a limited diversity of ways of being human are acceptable and that "Interpretations of Old Books are Immutable Law".

    I won't say I am always successful in changing every mind I encounter that has developed powerful selfish interests (Alberta has many people who are very powerfully motivated to maintain their developed beliefs). But sticking to the facts of the harm done and the nonsense that has to be believed to excuse the harmful behaviour does make some people appear to reconsider what and who they are choosing to believe. But then some of them state the classic nonsense excuse that "They have no choice - until someone else makes it easier and cheaper for them to not be so harmful" which they pair with a passionate dislike of regulation that restricts the harmful activity they could benefit from (making less harmful options easier) and really dislike Carbon Pricing that makes the harmful activity more expensive (making less harmful options cheaper). They seem incapable of seeing the irony of what they dislike while they claim to be willing to be less harmful if it was cheaper and easier.

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  8. This climate denial issue is not a simple thing. Its like an octopus with many arms slithering around. People have various reasons that drive denial about issues of the day. It might be vested business interests, extreme levels of self interest and entitlement, seeking popularity, fear of job losses, addiction, fear of government control, religion, conspiracy thinking. This is easily observed.

    Normally its possible to overcome these fears with time and facts, with the vast majority of people anyway, but something sems different with climate denial. It might be that its become so politicially tribal with the right wing genuinely believing climate science is some giant left wing conspiracy to enslave them to government control, (it isnt of course) and they see this as more of a threat than climate change. So its war, and in war anything goes including even the most inane and contradictory attacks on the science.

    I'm not sure how you counter this. Although explaining the facts about the science is always worth a try, and its not going to hurt and it may convince a few people. I think its important to get across to denialists that the science of climate change goes a long way back predating things like socialism, and the modern green movement. But quite how you convince denialists that there is no giant left wing climate conspiracy to control people or take away freedoms or eat the bodies of their children god only knows. Its hard arguing with stupid.

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  9. Further to #2 above, MSN published a clone of part of the Guardian article mentioned, which has now "disappeared" as well:

    Fortunately in all the circumstances archived copies of both articles have been made.

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  10. Jim Hunt,

    Regarding criminalizing Climate Change Protests:

    In Alberta, the first Bill that the newly formed United Conservative Party implemented after they won Majority Power in 2019 was Bill 1: CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE DEFENCE ACT.

    The nastiness of the Bill - particularly the way it made it illegal for any protest to be held on any public surface that people may travel along, potentially applied to sidewalks and pathways in parks - has been publicly protested against, commented on in the media, and written about by people at Universities:

    And there is more harm being done than the efforts to "Criminalize" efforts to raise awareness and improve understanding of the harm of pursuing benefits from fossil fuel use.

    The UCP also set up an investigation to find proof of foreign money creating misleading propaganda against Alberta pursuits of profit from fossil fuel activity - well presented in Wikipedia's "Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns"

    The ability of powerful wealthy people to "get the claims they like" to be more aggressively and more profusely publicly presented has been a scourge to the development of increased public awareness and improved understanding of what is harmful and how to helpfully limit and correct for the harm being done by selfish people competing for Perceptions of Superiority in games based on popularity and profit.

    The Manufacturing Consent problem (also well summarized by Wikipedia), is alive and well today, with new mechanisms being grown by the harmfully selfish trying to protect their Undeserved Status, Status they got any way they could get away with and that they will defend any way they can get away with.

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  11. Thanks for that information 1Planet,

    Have you seen any media comment in Canada, whether from the CBC, other mainstream media or even a humble blog, about the >400 signatures of climate scientists on the open letter that you can no longer read all about in The Guardian or MSN?

    The list includes such world famous names as Michael Mann and Stefan Rahmstorf.

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  12. Jim Hunt,

    Unfortunately it appears that "mentions" of the letter you are referring to have been very effectively acted on by the Harmfully Powerful Interests controlling Propaganda for their maximum benefit.

    The only mention of it I can find is This Reddit item which includes a link to an archive copy.

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  13. Jim Hunt,

    Though I do not recall seeing a CBC item about this the CBC News website Search finds one "World - CBC News" item containing the full title of the Guardian article ... but there is nothing there now other than the Search identifying that 1 item, likely scrubbed, was found.

    And searches on a few other Canadian media sites do not find anything, which may mean that many Canadian News sites did not publish anything regarding the "Open Letter: Stop attempts to criminalise nonviolent climate protest."

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  14. Thanks again 1Planet,

    I don't usually frequent Reddit. Why do you suppose that the few references to the "open letter" that do get published in the MSM all seem to be "scrubbed" shortly thereafter?

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  15. Jim Hunt,

    My suspicion is that influential interests are doing whatever they can get away with to influence what gets presented to the general public. And there is likely a lot that they can get away with.

    In addition to the Propaganda Model of Communication presented in Manufacturing Consent that I referred to in my comment at 10, more recent books on the topic indicate that systemic propaganda influence of powerful interests is Still Going Strong. "Propaganda in the Information Age" by Alan MacLeod is a 2019 update of the original that investigates how social media is functioning. And Matt Taibbi's "Hate Inc." includes his personal experience of the Propaganda Model in action in journalism.

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  16. No less a celebrity than Greta Thunberg has announced that the "redacted" article in The Guardian referred to upthread has now reappeared:

    However no explanation has been forthcoming as yet for these strange comings and goings, as far as I have been able to ascertain.

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  17. Hi 1Planet,

    See my recent announcement just above for some "Shock News!!".

    I cannot help but agree with you that the "Propaganda Model of Communication" is going full steam ahead at the moment, in the run up to the G7 Summit and then COP 26 here in the once United Kingdom. By way of example please see:

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  18. I am informed via Twitter that a judge ordered the Guardian/MSN stories to be taken down in order to avoid influencing the jury of the recent "Shell Knew" trial here in the UK:

    Via Extinction Rebellion: 

    Six Extinction Rebellion activists have been acquitted in a landmark verdict at Southwark Crown Court this afternoon.

    The jury delivered its not guilty verdict for each defendant, despite Judge Perrins ruling that five of the six had no defence under the law.


    The trial, for criminal damage to the Shell HQ building in London’s Waterloo in April 2019, which could have led to a maximum five year prison sentence and/or a £10k fine each, is XR’s second only case to be heard before a jury.


    The verdict is being hailed as a major victory for climate campaigners everywhere facing increasing criminalisation.

    No doubt the mainstream media across the planet will now plaster the climate scientists' "open letter" and XR's victory in court across their front pages?

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  19. "I am informed via Twitter..."

    Now there is a phrase you don't hear very often....  :-)

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  20. However Twitter is perhaps a good place to get the latest news before it's been "filtered" by the oligarch owned "mainstream media"?

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  21. Jim Hunt,

    Twitter is a lousy source for verified evidence-based information. Mind you so is media that is under the influence of the Propaganda Model of Communication.

    As an Engineer I would dread the thought of any engineer considering that technical sounding stuff on Twitter is as valid as any other technical information.

    Twitter is great for quickly disseminating fairly inconsequential information like sports scores or other entertainment information. It can be a source of verifiable information that can help build a verified better understanding of what is happening or has happened. But, tragically,it can more easily be abused to mislead and misinform. It, like other social media, is a perfect platform for disinformation because it can keep people from being exposed to the fuller story.

    Some politicians have learned to turn politics into simplistic competition that can be won by harmful cheaters, like Sports. And they do it to Pump up Pride among Their Type of People. They can make Politics be like:

    • Keeping people from understanding the harm they will do to Win, or how they cheat to Win (keeping people fascinated and engaged by grotesque engrossing distractions and other forms of hiding or masking the Truth - likely results of the Propaganda Model of Communication).
    • Trash Talking Professional Wrestling (a tactic of the likes of Trump - Trump wasn't the first of this type and won't be the last)
    • Gossip Rag Speculation-based Story-telling using selected bits of information, including made-up bits (also a tactic of the likes of Trump - Their Type are The Pure Best who Fight for their Deserved Glory and are Always Excusable. Others are: Less-worthy, Blame-worthy, Inexcusable - that loops back to the Pro-Wrestling style of Sport - those Trash Talking Gladiators, the Heroes of Their Type of People).
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  22. Jim Hunt @20 : 

    An amusingly ambiguous comment about the ephemera of Twitter !

    And thanks for your good work at Great White Con .

    And for your very recent amusing appearances at WUWT  , regarding Professor Monckton's continual nonsenses on his "Pauses".   I see that the good Anthony Scissorhands has now  excised your comments.   But, pleasingly, you have a several  staunch companions who have not (yet) been banned there.   (If it weren't for those few guys, the comments columns would be unmitigated dreck  of anger & drivel.)

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  23. As the one that started teasing Jim about Twitter, it was his use of the word "informed" that caught my eye.

    If he had said "I heard about it via Twitter..." then my sarcastic humour would not have been twigged... :-)

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  24. You are very kind Eclectic.

    Anthony has indeed "outed" me again for the umpteenth time. It wasn't as though I was wearing a heavy disguise! No doubt it was mere coincidence that his scurrilous attack on my character occured shortly after I sent a missive to Willis including a link to some actual Arctic science? Which coincidentally never saw what passes for the light of day at WUWT.

    At the risk of drifting off topic, if you're also interested in all things Arctic please see:

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  25. @24 , You're welcome, Jim Hunt.  Your internet efforts are indeed deserving praise.

    If the Moderators will allow me this brief OT digression :-

    Jim, I did catch a couple of your comments at WUWT.  When I went back to read them again, your comment to Willis-E was still standing.  But (allowing for my possibly confused memory about threads) your "elsewhere" comment had been zapped by the petulantly wrathful Anthony-W.    Either way, your comments were very reasonable (plus a hint of humor) ~ and did not receive a good response.

    WUWT  is a dreary wasteland of angry extremist & barely-sane people.  They are whistling in the dark and are ever hopeful they will eventually be vindicated.   It is pleasing to see how their spirits are rather low, after 2020 events . . . yet, however much reality they have to swallow, they will never change their position/positions.

    BTW,  I note how the good Willis-E's reply  went somewhat to the side of the bullseye target.   Must say that I like reading Willis posts ~ he has a sense of humor, and he is a clever fellow.   Unfortunately his strong emotional bias keeps him firmly in the grip of motivated reasoning.   He can analyse a tree, but can't recognize a forest.   Gotta love his Thunderstorm Theory of global temperature homeostasis.   AFAIK he has never quantified it ~ and like most denizens of WUWT,  the concept of TOA is an elephant which does not exist.

    . . . . And to Bob Loblaw, thanks for injecting some dry humor.  (Not a vaccination, I hope.)

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  26. Thanks Bob and Eclectic!

    Getting back towards the topic at hand, as far as I can tell the Guardian article is still the only one in the global MSM mentioning over 400 scientists that have moved out of "their lane" in order, one assumes, to raise awareness of what they refer to as "climate breakdown as an existential crisis for humanity".

    Meanwhile WUWT is a mere sideshow to the main event. There are hundreds of articles in media outlets of all shapes and sizes favourably reviewing the latest magnum opus of one Steven E. Koonin, currently peddling his "Unsettled Science" snake oil to hordes of eager buyers.

    Fortunately in all the circumstances the Great God Google seems to have noticed our antidote advertisement:

    Search results for Steven Koonin's "Unsettled Science" book

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  27. Can anyone please suggest some past articles regardin why we have a moral obligation as a species to adress climate change? I am interested in writing a paper on this topic and want other points of view. I treid searching with no luck

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  28. Nevertheless, there seems to be an increase in "positive" reviews of Koonin's new book.   True, to some extent this is to be expected with any new book. The real test will be the test of time ~ will the book be a Nine-Day Wonder, or a 90-day, or a 900-day?

    Ordinarily, for any new book, one might suspect the hand of the publisher is pushing the perceived enthusiasm.  But with the Koonin book, one might also suspect the climate-science-denying Establishment is adding its own weight of propaganda.  ( I noted that, inter alia , the book's review on WUWT  was nauseatingly fawning . . . much as WUWT  fawns on Lord Monckton's ludicrous & often self-contradictory emanations.   Possibly a consequence of their very slim pickings for such purposes.)

    Koonin is certainly running "out of his lane" regarding science.   And the question is :  Why  is he doing such a political Propaganda Piece of half-truths?

    Nothing unusual for paid shills to go deceiving the public.  And nothing unusual for crackpots, crazies, and rabid right-wingers to try the same.   But why is Koonin doing it?   Yes, there are a few elderly eminent scientists (you know their names) who have Gone Emeritus for presumable reasons of mild early dementia / religious fundamentalism / loss of inhibition of their underlying Maverick tendencies / and so on.

    But Koonin is in his late sixties, and so is rather below the usual  age of elderly pre-frontal brain deterioration.   Moreover, I recall his work on a subcommittee of the American Physical Society's review of the APS climate change statement.   That was seven years ago (2014) and he was even then showing the same sort of eagerness to undermine a reasonable assessment of mainstream climate science & the reasonably-expected consequences of modern global warming.

    So, no, I don't understand where his mind is coming from.  And I am glad he is a rare case.

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  29. alonerock @ 27:

    Science does not do "moral obligations". Science attempts to find observable patterns and understanding that allow people to make better predictions.

    From a moral standpoint, this allows us to better realize the implications and likely outcomes of our choices - but it does not tell us what the moral choice is.

    Right now, the science of climatology is telling us with a high degree of certainty that burning fossil fuels will lead to warming at rates far greater than anything humans have experienced before. The science of biology is telling us that nature will find it very hard to adapt to this rapid change. The science of economics (please don't laugh - let's be generous today) is telling us that as time goes on the economic costs of this rapid warming (and other anthropogenic climate changes) will greatly exceed the costs of avoiding it or minimizing it, and that these costs will be unequal across different parts of society.

    What specifically is your moral concern? My morals tell me that I should have concern for my fellow humans, and nature in general. There is no Planet B if we get this badly wrong.

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  30. Eclectic @28 - Having purchased my very own copy of Dr. Koonin's tome I have now personally, if rather hastily thus far, reviewed it:

    We eagerly searched the virtual weighty tome for the term “Arctic sea ice”, and you may well be wondering what we discovered?

    Nothing. Nada. Zilch. ничего такого. Nic.

    Evidently there are some areas of climate science that Dr. Koonin tells his eager readers nothing whatsoever about. It seems likely that he is also well aware that Arctic sea ice is the canary in the climate coal mine, which is why he has chosen to make no mention of it in his magnum opus.

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  31. Jim Hunt @30 :  thank you for that.  I won't be purchasing a copy of Koonin's book, for I have zero hope that it would contain anything other than Points Refuted A Thousand Times.   But I shall be grateful if you can unearth anything at all which will prove me wrong about that.

    From the snippets of the book so far received at second hand, it is disappointing that someone of Koonin's education & intelligence could produce such a book.   If I were a certain cartoon character, I would describe the book as "dethpicable".   ;-)

    As mentioned in an earlier comment, Koonin seems (at first glance) to be rather different from the usual nutty denialists and the run-of-the-mill rightwingers who care only for their own short term interests and who have no compassion or charity for their fellow citizens.   His mindset puzzles me ~ perhaps we need a psycho-analyst to delve into his early childhood traumas etc etc.

    Jim, it would be great if you would provide more insights into Koonin and his book.   Interesting - and as expected - the elephantine omissions in his Propaganda Piece.    (As a frequent visitor to WUWT,  it is very noticeable to me that the question of summer minimum sea ice volume is unmentionable there.  Among various other perpetual omissions.)

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