A Double Ethical Bind Along the Dead Sea Fault?

“Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” 

I was thinking of this quote whilst listening to Mustapha Meghraoui’s talk during this week’s ISEMG conference in Mugla (Turkey). Mustapha was reviewing the seismic hazard potential of the northern stretch of the Dead Sea Rift, and he ended by identifying two prominent areas where there was a substantial long-term (1000 yr) slip deficit that strongly suggested heightened future earthquake potential. The quote above has nothing to do with earthquakes. Neither is it by Mustapha. Instead, it relates to global warming and was from the climate modeller and policy advocate Stephen Schneider. Nevertheless, it struck me that what Schneider was wrestling with a decade or so ago with climate change has parallels to what some earthquake geologists are wrestling with now: what do we do when we believe that the science demands action?

What Schneider was referring to was a condition that confronts many scientists in the public glare: the ‘double ethical bind’. That bind is painfully simple: if you want to convey a scientific message in a way that gains wide support for your argument then you need to assume a simplified message, one stripped of the usual technical caveats. In Schneider’s case, promoting the likely implications of anthropogenic climate change necessitated portraying the complexities of the global warming process in ways that were not strictly technically correct but which nevertheless conveyed the essence of the problem to the popular press and the public beyond.

Critics of Schneider immediately leapt on the statement as evidence of him advocating scientific dishonesty, and that remark – made to a journalist during an interview in 1989 – still resonates widely in climate skeptical circles.  However, the full quotation clarifies the context of Schneider’s more nuanced position:

“This double ethical bind we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

Schneider’s contention is that scientists may find themselves in the unenviable position of becoming convinced that the accumulated science relating to a particular societal problem has become especially compelling, and yet being reluctant or unwilling to advocate for broader policy action on this issue for fear of compromising their scientific impartiality. After all, in that situation we want to ‘…communicate both that some scary possibilities are not improbable and that scientific uncertainties preclude high confidence in most specific predictions.’ The trouble is that sounding the alarm whilst also telling people that there is a chance that there may not be anything to worry about is a strategy that is unlikely to gain the attention of those charged with taking political action.

One reason for this likely lack of success is that politicians, and the public that impel them, expect a clear ‘call to arms’ from scientists engaged in an issue for which there is a high degree of technical consensus. Yet too often the impression from the outside, looking in on science, is that we agree on almost nothing. The blame for this can be laid at the door of a mischievous media, eager to stoke dissent and seek out drama and controversy. But as Schneider notes below, the real problem may lie with ourselves.

‘Scientists invite such trouble unwittingly, because we often project the appearance of being locked in unending debate. Why do we do that? In science, a good reputation is not earned by repeating the established consensus. Rather, most of us focus our efforts at the cutting edge, where new results and hypotheses compete for eventual validation. The frontier of knowledge is indeed littered with contention at times, and so debating one another is precisely what we typically do—and should do—at our scientific meetings.’

In casting his eye over the challenges confronting communicating climate science, Schneider readily acknowledged that he was a rare breed – a researcher not shy about offering both his scientific conclusions and his opinions about appropriate public policy.  In that regard, his guidance for those that find themselves in that dangerous ‘no man’s land’ is equally as apt to those working at the frontline of earthquake science.

First, he argued, we need to be more explicit about setting out the mainstream view of our community. At science meetings, we ought to have review talks that stress what is indeed well established before we lapse into our sparring about fine points on the cutting edge. Those reviews should strive to offer multiple points of view—not simply polar opposites – in order to map out the range of perspectives and make it easier to weed out more tenuous, speculative fresh claims that often grab media attention at science gatherings.

That notion of securing a broad consensus can be aided if individual scientists, when asked to comment on their research findings, found time to draw attention to what colleagues with alternative or even opposing views would say about their results. Where would they agree, and on what points would they likely disagree? Schneider urged us to resist the temptation to make judgments about the superiority of our own argument over others, and instead emphasise the process by which we arrived at our conclusions. In that regard, he stressed how critical it is to draw attention to the degree of certainty we assign to our assessments, and to explain the degree of subjectivity or speculation we invoke to estimate that confidence level.

Another point is to be aware of the difference between expert opinion and value judgement. Journalists often ask scientists to make forecasts, appraise what can happen, or assess the odds of occurrence. That is what requires ‘the science’ and it demands expert opinion that is rooted in the wider scientific consensus. Questions about what should be done about a scientific problem, however, constitutes value judgement and, when proffered, that need to be distinguished as the view of the individual not the wider research community.

The final guidance is to use language that any layperson can follow. The codified rigour of our technical jargon may be an efficient way to communicate with colleagues who know the lingo, but others often misunderstand it. As Schneider notes ‘…without resorting to some simplification, it is nearly impossible to communicate the implications of the scientific results to a broad audience…’  This isn’t mere ‘dumbing down’, this is breaking down the science to its basic building blocks and reconstituting it in whatever manner suits the situation and the audience.

But what’s all this got to do with the northern part of the Dead Sea transform? Well, it struck me from Mustapha’s talk that the information that we now have from the combined might of palaeoseismological studies, historical earthquake accounts, contemporary seismotectonics and modern GPS monitoring is so rich and apparently consistent that it presents a compelling picture of two areas of heightened seismic potential. Faced with the weight of knowledge we now have, I wonder how many earthquake scientists would seriously question the strong probability that a large (M>7) earthquake can be expected in these prominent ‘seismic gaps.’ Of course, few seismologists would be foolish enough to be drawn into making a specific forecast, conscious that our long-term understanding of fault behaviour and the earthquake cycle along this tectonic corridor remains incomplete (and always will be). Yet without a clear statement from earthquake scientists about the likely threat I fear that there will be no stimulus for political authorities and regulatory bodies to undertake serious earthquake preparedness measures in the years and decades to come. Instead, any impetus for action on improved building codes, seismic zoning and public education will dissipate amongst the scientific caveats of statistical probabilities and technical uncertainties.

So I wonder, if we want to drive real policy change, then perhaps the time has come for our community to convey a simple message about future seismic potential along the Dead Sea Fault. That message should be one based on genuine consensus about what the best science says, and ought to be one endorsed by the leading specialists in earthquake science. But the essence would be this: we can expect a large, damaging earthquake to strike along the northern Dead Sea Fault in the next 50 years. The specific wording of that public warning would need to be carefully crafted by those in the region that really understand the science, and how far we can reliably push it. But whatever it is, the prognosis needs to be  brutally clear, and honest. After all, if we really believe our own data, then a genuinely scary possibility is far from improbable.

Schneider, S.H. 2002. Keeping out of the box. American Scientist, volume 90 (Nov-Dec), 496-498.

3 Replies to “A Double Ethical Bind Along the Dead Sea Fault?”

  1. “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

    It’s like pregnancy, you can’t be both at the same time. Being effective means tinkering with the error bars, that’s not honest.

  2. In an essay on ethics, you quote “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” I completely disagree: if we are to be effective, we must be completely honest: it is a foundation stone of morality.

    The issue here in part is about scientists and advocacy: scientists have a particular specialisation, which may give them knowledge of importance to policy. But they rarely have expertise in policy, nor the knowledge to balance what they think is required on a particular issue with alternative demands on resources. A scientist, such as Schneider, might consider that what is happening in their field is of paramount importance. But first, it might not be, and second, the policies which they think are required might not in fact be appropriate, as I would argue has been the case with alleged CAGW.

    You write that “One reason for this likely lack of success is that politicians, and the public that impel them, expect a clear ‘call to arms’ from scientists engaged in an issue for which there is a high degree of technical consensus.” As someone with several decades of experience as an economic policy adviser, including to bodies chaired by the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, I disagree with that. Taking Schneider’s issue as an example, I was asked to brief the Premier and Cabinet of Queensland on what attitude they should take to Australia signing the Kyoto protocol. My task involved, inter alia, reading a great deal of the relevant scientific literature, or summaries and abstracts of it, as well as discussions with scientists with relevant expertise. I could never, whatever the issue, take on trust what a particular expert or group of experts believed was a cause for action. As it happens, I had been following the issue since the 1980s, and was briefed by the IPCC’s Chief Scientist in 1989 or ’90. One thing which emerged from my research was just how wide and complex the subject was, and how little was understood of the potential effects at a micro level. In the end, I decided that while it was not yet clear that significant harm would arise, there was reason to take precautionary measures while focussing on research to better understand the issue. Of course, I could not advise that in isolation from the economic aspects. I directed modelling of the impacts on the Queensland economy, which suggested that ten years hence, growth in State GDP would be about ten per cent less if Kyoto measures were adopted (32% growth v 35% growth). The Kyoto period was 2008-2012, my advice was given in 1997. It was that if the damage from warming was as dire as suggested, then a reduced rate of growth was justified as insurance. However, we should continue to investigate the issue thoroughly, and wind back growth-reducing policies if the warnings proved over-blown. I also advocated beginning with least-cost emissions reductions. (Not “no regrets” policies per se, I think that both in theory and practice it is extremely hard to find any “no regrets” policies, but that’s another issue.)

    You note that Schneider “stressed how critical it is to draw attention to the degree of certainty we assign to our assessments, and to explain the degree of subjectivity or speculation we invoke to estimate that confidence level.” It is clear that the IPCC (which of course is a political body with scientific input) has tended to exaggerate the certain of, and confidence in, its findings and projections – cf critiques over several years by Judith Curry. Once politics enters the equation, the parameters and incentives change.

    In the Dead Sea case, of course, your published prognosis should be “brutally clear, and honest.” Which means, of course, carefully presenting all uncertainties, particularly on time-scale. It is then up to the relevant decision-makers to determine the extent of measures to take now, e.g. in restricting areas of building or tighter building codes for earthquake resistance, in the light of other priorities, many of which will be of a more immediate nature.

    Finally, I would say that the highest welfare of humans comes from the spiritual development of each individual. Such development depends on a clear understanding of reality, as it is, and without honesty and integrity, this can never be achieved. Hence my opening statement: we can’t compartmentalise honesty, it must be integral to everything we do.

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