Should Scientific Societies Issue Position Statements? by Ross McKitrick

The American Meteorological Society has released a draft statement on climate change for comment over the next few weeks. As an economist I find it strange that scientific societies show such a propensity to issue position statements. One of the reasons economists have maintained relatively free collegiality while debating issues with controversial policy implications is that our major associations do not issue position statements.

I am a member of the American Economic Association. Its 3 objectives are listed at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AEA/gen_info.htm:

1. The encouragement of economic research, especially the historical and statistical study of the actual conditions of industrial life.

2. The issue of publications on economic subjects.

3. The encouragement of perfect freedom of economic discussion. The Association as such will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.

I am also a member of the Canadian Economics Association. Its policies are at http://economics.ca/en/information.php. Its position is like that of the AEA:

The Association has for its object the advancement of economic knowledge through the encouragement of study and research, the issuing of publications, and the furtherance of free and informed discussion of economic questions. The Association as such will not assume a partisan position upon any question of practical politics nor commit its members to any position thereupon.

In both cases the promotion of free discussion is coupled to the refusal to issue position statements.

Official statements celebrate group think and conformity. They effectively demote members who disagree with some or all of the statement to second-class status within their profession, regardless of the quality of their own individual work or their reasons for disagreement. And they create divisions and alienation within the profession. Having issued a party line, it cannot be a surprise that partisanship emerges, with all its potential for polarization and resentment.

Official statements also legitimate the appeal to authority as a form of argumentation. By issuing a position statement, they encourage outside commentators to buttress their position by appeal to the “Expert Statement”, rather than by appeal to evidence. The official statement thereby supplies a fallacious rhetorical device to one side in a political debate.

Perhaps some climate scientists think the benefits of issuing official statements outweigh the loss of collegiality, and the discouragement of free and informed discussion. For my part I prefer the official neutrality of economic societies.

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Filed under Climate Science Reporting, Guest Weblogs

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