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Science, advocacy and the Royal

Eleanor Beal, writing at the Royal Society's In Verba blog reviews the debate at the University of Sussex earlier this week over what counts as good evidence for policy. It's an interesting report, and one bit in particular struck me as worthy of comment:

Should there be a separation between scientists and campaigners? Is such a separation possible? Richard Horton pointed out that for a public health researcher, not being an activist is the exception. However, Pielke pointed out that for climate science, experts being activists can actually lessen their credibility.

Perhaps this helps explain Sir Paul Nurse's keenness to take the Royal Society into the policy realm and the concerns some of have about the wisdom of such a move. Personally, I find the idea of public health researchers using my money to tell me how to behave no more welcome than anyone else doing so. I'm sure I'm not alone.

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Reader Comments (30)

This was the one at the Institute of Physics. At least four BH regulars went, and I have put my impressions up in the discussion section. Although you won't learn much from them except that I really did not like Horton.

Feb 7, 2013 at 4:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda Klapp

Credibility or none is of no matter as we can choose which to assign: it is the impertinence that is hard to accept.

Feb 7, 2013 at 4:48 PM | Unregistered Commenterssat

Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety was in original Comité de salut public, therefore better translated as Committee of Public Health.

Sir Paul might as well be continuing the good old Enlightenement tradition .

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:07 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Horton is the perfect example of what's wrong with scientists turning into activists (or vice versa).

I used to think the Lancet was a sober, serious scientific journal - until I found this clip of its editor addressing a "Stop the War' rally with Galloway's mob.

The 100,000 dead figure he rants about turned out to be a statistical fabrication in the end of course - sounds familiar somehow.

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:10 PM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

It is worth noting that Richard Horton was the editor in chief of the Lancet when that terrible MMR paper by Andrew Wakefield was accepted. The Lancet only withdrew the article in 2010 after an investigation by the GMC led to Wakefield being struck off. The investigation was only triggered after a free lance journalist pursued the story for 10 years and got a breakthrough when Wakefield tried to sue him. Discovery’s a bitch. One of the reasons Wakefield was struck off was because it turned out he had received £400,000 in fees as an expert witness for campaign groups preparing a lawsuit on behalf of parents of autistic children. The real crime was not receiving it but not declaring it.

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Personally, I find the idea of public health researchers using my money to tell me how to behave no more welcome than anyone else doing so.
Fair enough. No-one likes being told what to do by strangers. But what about the idea that people (who just happen to be public employees, and therefore in receipt of “your” money) having the right to be political (or any other kind of) activists?

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:31 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Is that a sick joke----'In Verba'? We do not find it the least bit amusing.

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:38 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

After a few decades on the planet, I've just about lost count of the number of health scares that turned out to be exaggerated, non-existent, or 180 degrees wrong.

I usually counter new ones with Woody Allen's suggestion (in 'Sleeper') that in 200 years' time, chocolate fudge cake will be Health Food.

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:53 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Most Public Health research shouldn't be taken seriously, precisely because most of those involved in it are activists. Here's an example. Stanton Glanz is the USA's most well known anti-tobacco campaigner. Here's a quote:

".....that’s the question that I have applied to my research relating to tobacco: If this comes out the way I think, will it make a difference [toward achieving the goal]. And if the answer is yes, then we do it, and if the answer is I don’t know, then we don’t bother. Okay? And that’s the criteria.”

Written Transcript Of 3-Day Conference Called “Revolt Against Tobacco,” L.A., 1992

What he actually means is, he'll carry out the research but the results may go unpublished, leading to publication bias, which is endemic in Public Health. Read more about him here

Scroll down and see he is also concerned about food (well he is fat) and alcohol. The same thing is happening all over Public Health. Public Health research - an oxymoron.

Feb 7, 2013 at 5:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Bagley

Ah, jamesp, Theobromine, the Food of the Gods.

Feb 7, 2013 at 6:11 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Activism kills.

"Taking a sample of middle-aged Australian men who had either experienced a heart attack or suffered from angina, half were advised to cut their animal fat intake and replace it with safflower oil (which is similar to sunflower oil) and safflower oil margarine, while the other half continued to eat as normal.

If the unholy alliance of Government nutritionists and the food processing industry were right — and margarine really was better for you, as they've been claiming for decades — you'd expect the men who switched to safflower oil to live longer and have better health outcomes.

The exact opposite turned out to be true. Those who ate more of the safflower-derived products were almost twice as likely to die from all causes, including heart disease.

Suddenly, margarine isn't looking the healthy option that those expensive marketing campaigns claim it to be."

Feb 7, 2013 at 6:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

jamesp on Feb 7, 2013 at 5:53 PM
"I usually counter new ones with Woody Allen's suggestion (in 'Sleeper') that in 200 years' time, chocolate fudge cake will be Health Food."

Actually, it's butter that is the new health food!
At last, the truth: Butter is GOOD for you - and margarine is chemical gunk

Well, until new research is available!

Feb 7, 2013 at 6:23 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher


I emailed the editor of Lancet at the time and was surprised to get quite a pleasant and honest reply back from him. Yes, he acknowledged that he was using the Lancets position to further the anti-war agenda and that using the questionable data was merely to support the decision he had chosen to make.

Sound familiar to you? Seems the catastrophiliacs that dare call themselves scientists have merely taken a leaf out of the Lancets book and used the same tactics for their own selfish ends.



Feb 7, 2013 at 6:52 PM | Unregistered Commentermailman

BMA says:

'Climate change has already claimed many lives worldwide through deaths, disease and injury. Between the mid-1970s and 2000, climate change was estimated to have caused over 150,000 deaths and 5.5 million disability adjusted life years (DALYs) per year worldwide.

In the UK, direct impacts are likely to include increased deaths, disease and injury due to:
heatwaves (with the greatest impact on the elderly, babies and young children, and people with ill-health)
flooding and storms (including drowning, chemical hazards and contamination of drinking water and mental stress)
increased spread of infections previously only seen in other parts of the world (such as tick-borne encephalitis, lyme disease, malaria, dengue, leptospirosis and West Nile Virus)
reduced food safety associated with warmer temperatures
greater exposure to UV radiation with increased risk of sunburn, sunstroke and skin cancers
reduced air quality and increased pollens'


Feb 7, 2013 at 7:08 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

They always cite heatwaves but never mention the reduction in deaths from cold related causes which are greater. This is intuitively obvious - relatively few people die of excessive heat, many from excessive cold and related illnesses.

When they mention flooding and storms, this of course comes back to the question of whether there is in fact a relationship with AGW which is very doubtful but the BMA seems to accept it as fact.

Feb 7, 2013 at 7:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

Bruce, it used to amaze me that what was advertised(correctly) as made from polyunsaturated fats, was made by saturating those fats. I've always liked 'whatever fat is oil @ room temperature' and in the right room, butter is the better banana.

Feb 7, 2013 at 7:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

In my youth, I once worked on installing a primitive computerised mixer control system at a margarine factory.

One whiff of the the ingredients being pumped out of tankers at the dock made me a butter-only eater for life.

Feb 7, 2013 at 8:37 PM | Registered CommenterFoxgoose

I can't believe it's not warming

Feb 7, 2013 at 9:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrian.Berlin

Politicising society is the breath of life to all socialists so it's hardly surprising when we see a Trot openly pursuing that objective.

Feb 7, 2013 at 10:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Reed

Sir Paul Nurse idea is to in affect change the RS motto from 'take no bodies word for it ' to 'trust me I am a scientists' . So advocacy fits very well into that approach .

Feb 7, 2013 at 10:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

Ironically, Pielke himself is a senior fellow of an activist environmental organisation

"Breakthrough's mission is to accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet."

Feb 7, 2013 at 11:30 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

The damage that results when public health policy and science become intertwined is well documented in Gary Taubes's book Good Calories, Bad Calories. I read that before I became aware of the details of the controversies in climate science, and as I began to study those issues it was deja vu all over again. The practice of scientist as policy makers is old enough in medicine to make it traditional. No one should confuse traditional with venerable or common with proper.

Feb 8, 2013 at 3:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterDarkson

"Richard Horton pointed out that for a public health researcher, not being an activist is the exception."

Is the researcher a scientist doing a scientist's work or a physician doing a physician's work? If the former then his duty is to present his best understanding of the matter with warts and all. If the latter then his duty is to care for the suffering. The two sets of goals do not overlap. The scientist must always tell the truth. The physician must always serve the suffering and, like it or not, physicians have a long and rich history of lying in service of their patients.

Feb 8, 2013 at 4:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheo Goodwin

Health and safety regulations are very powerful levers in the work-place, and also in limiting what products companies can sell (and thus what consumers can buy). In some (some) instances there is a good case to me made, but in other areas we see 'mission-creep'.

By phasing out incandescent light bulbs, governments are already placing restrictions on the quality of light that individuals are able to choose in their own homes. As far as I can see, this yields close to zero benefit above and beyond gesture politics, even if I was persuaded of cAGW. Will heat be next for the smart-meters? And would this also be a nice little earner for the same interests that have done quite well, thank you very much, as a result of the enforced changes in the lighting sector? Like car insurance it must be great to have a government mandate the people to buy your product.

I could believe that some would be quite happy to draft laws placing restrictions on the temperature inside an Englishman's castle, if they were told it would save the planet again. I'm all for saving the planet, but couldn't we just do it, say, once every five years rather than every day?

Feb 8, 2013 at 6:13 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Nice, Theo; skeptics seek a second opinion because we suspect we are being lied to in someone else's service.

Feb 8, 2013 at 3:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Nice, Theo. Skeptics seek a second opinion because we suspect we're being lied to in someone else's service.

Feb 8, 2013 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

"However, Pielke pointed out that for climate science, experts being activists can actually lessen their credibility."

Will Pelke apply his own rule to himself?

Feb 8, 2013 at 5:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Entropic - would you say that Pielke was an activist?

Feb 8, 2013 at 6:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes


He's certainly active!

Feb 8, 2013 at 7:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Ironically, Pielke himself is a senior fellow of an activist environmental organisation

They don't do very much active. They write papers. How often do you reckon they picket an oil rig? Greenpeace would be nowhere at all if they keep to the Breakthrough Institute's level of activism.

And they don't write propaganda pamplets, but dry tomes with facts as well as opinions. That recognise competing views. Yes, they have a line, but that's a free market of ideas. How much properly scholarly publishing, fact based and avoiding emotion, does FOE do?

They are "environmental" in a sense entirely opposite to the way the word is usually used. That is, they put people first, within an environment They don't promote some bogus "nature" as the be all and end all, like WWF does. (Note they published "Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility". Can you imagine WWF publishing under that title?)

Finally, and in many ways most importantly, they don't have a solid party line – the fellows are free to disagree about some pretty basic stuff. NGOs which allow internal dispute are not the ones that we need to fear.

In sum, every member of the Tory party is a member of a much more activist, much more environmentally focussed organisation.

Feb 9, 2013 at 12:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

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