Does demonstrating dent a scientist's credibility?

Can a scientist, politician, journalist or policymaker take part in a demonstration? Why yes, if you go by the letter of the law – the right to demonstrate is universal – but can it have an impact on their credibility. If you have just demonstrated to save the climate, will you be taken seriously when you next publish a study about the climate? This issue will be debated on June 15th as part of Green Week. Taking part will be TU/e professor and climate researcher Heleen de Coninck.

photo Anonieme Demonstrant

Clearly, at GO Green Office this year climate activism is high on the agenda. Debating this topic seemed a logical next step in view of the many protests taking place both at TU/e and nationally. It will be addressed during Green Week – which was opened Monday June 12th by rector Silvia Lenaerts – with a debate on June 15th with student members of University Rebellion and scientists Heleen de Coninck and Pieter Pauw.

Event manager Pim van Wershoven outlines the schedule: “We're holding a discussion event about the ins and outs of climate activism. There'll be a panel seated up front in the lecture hall and they'll hold a discussion (14:00-15:45 hrs) for the first half of the event. Afterwards (16:00-17:00 hrs) there will be time for questions and a free-ranging discussion with the audience. We want to discuss the good and bad aspects of this kind of activism.”


Can a scientist remain credible to their fellow professionals and the general public if they demonstrate to save the climate? De Coninck thinks they can: “You demonstrate because scientific results have given you insight and understanding. But still, you have to be careful about using your title. Presenting yourself as a professor automatically confers a certain authority, but people won't necessarily know what your field is. When I'm wearing my professor hat, I'm only entitled to speak about my own field. Demonstrating is one way of taking part in a process of societal change. I'm privileged to be able to do that in other ways, such as through my own research, by co-authoring IPCC reports and being on the climate council.” For Coninck, losing credibility as a scientist isn't what's at risk when demonstrating, rather it's the scientist's credibility in their other roles. “If as a scientist you're involved in climate negotiations, you have to remain a credible interlocutor for all parties. Demonstrating can get in the way of that.”

The TU/e professor acknowledges that the situation may be different for people in other professions. “Journalists have to be objective but this is certainly something they can write about. Politicians, on the other hand, need to have an opinion, but you'd have to question the wisdom of a mayor taking part in a demonstration. In a sense, that office holder should be above taking sides. And, of course, it would be odd to demonstrate against policy that you've helped shape. The main issue here is the need to be keenly aware which role and responsibility you're representing when you speak. I helped write the IPCC report and I give presentations as an IPCC author. When I'm representing the IPCC, it's purely about the science and I don't offer policy advice because the IPCC isn't a policymaking body. But sometimes I do help formulate policy recommendations and when I do that I'm in my role as Professor of Socio-Technical Innovation and Climate Change. Occasionally, too, I'll give a talk as Heleen de Coninck. I'm very aware of my roles, but we're all just people and everyone has their own frame of reference. We shouldn't act as if science is entirely objective; every scientist has been shaped by a background that has colored their thinking. It's important that I'm transparent about which hat I'm wearing so that people can put my words in context.

Taking part herself

De Coninck has not yet taken part in any climate demonstrations and currently has no plans to do so. Could that ever change? “Good question. Let's be clear, there are plenty of reasons for demonstrating. For now, weighing up what I can contribute as a demonstrator against my contribution as a non-demonstrator, the scales are tipped in favor of my not demonstrating. I can well imagine that some scientists might make a different choice. If for me the scales were to tip the other way at some point, I can see that my choice could change.”


Looking ahead to the debate on June 15th, De Coninck hopes that “this will be a respectful discussion offering the scope to talk about what really works. Climate change has both a climate aspect and a social aspect, but can we solve all the problems in one go?” Negotiating is always demanding work, but it's also fascinating, says De Coninck, thinking of the UNFCC meetings at which 195 countries have to reach agreement. “They speak a sort of ‘UN language’, a language they've developed among themselves to foster communication. And that's an exceptional achievement because they're bringing together any number of religions and backgrounds. From poverty-stricken countries at war to the world's richest nations and yet they all address each other on the same level. They have to reach agreement. To reach a consensus they can't lose anyone along the way. When that succeeds, at such an intercultural gathering, it's a wonderful thing to see.”

Criticism of the IPCC report

Here and there news appears of criticism of the IPCC report: claims that it contains errors and exaggerates climate change. What are De Coninck's – co-author of the report – thoughts on this? “Twenty years ago I was prompted to become a social scientist after speaking to a climate skeptic. At the time I was still working as a physicist and I read a piece in the newspaper that was full of untruths about climate science. In the email I sent to the author I used science to refute his claims and wanted to give the true picture of the situation. But he wasn't interested. That's when it struck me: some people just don't want to make decisions based on science.”

“I wanted to make a difference and that wasn't going to happen in the chemistry lab. I decided not to study for a doctorate and redirected my career towards climate science, but I also stopped taking climate skeptics seriously. They've had plenty of opportunities to contribute their arguments, but time and again their reasoning is baseless. In scientific terms, it's nonsense. No doubt there are errors in the IPCC report, but at the same time it was widely reviewed, resulting in no fewer than ten thousand (!) comments from every pocket of society and every country in the world. And yes, a number of authors influenced the content, and the scientific literature is always a little behind the facts. But don't forget that every country agrees this is the current state of scientific knowledge, from Saudi Arabia to Germany. One of my email sources is Clintel , almost daily I see messages from climate skeptics. They keep me on my toes, but I've never yet received any convincing scientific evidence from them.”

Like to join the debate? You are welcome on Thursday June 15th at 14:00 hrs in Auditorium 6. The event runs until 17:00 hrs and is open to the public and free of charge. More information about this and other Green Week events can be found on the Green Week website. Green Week was officially opened on Monday June 12th at 12:30 hrs in the Blauwe Zaal.

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