Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies,” says Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol, thus reigniting for the eleventy-gazillionth time the argument about whether it is advisable for climate scientists to become “advocates.”

I’ve been through this debate so many times that I’ve come to disagree with just about everything everyone says about it, which probably means I should take a vacation. But in the end I just don’t think it matters that much whether climate scientists back particular policies or not. It’s unlikely to make much difference either way.

The core of Edwards’ argument is that “advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science.” Unfortunately, she offers no evidence to support that proposition. Instead her post links to a series of Twitter and blog conversations taking place among the comparatively tiny group of professionals who are involved with climate change and care about these kinds of things. (Note to Edwards: Drawing on blog comments to make one’s argument is not a sign of confidence.)

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In fact, polls show that the broad public trusts scientists more than anyone else on climate change. More broadly, Pew Research summarized a 2009 survey on Americans’ attitude toward science thusly:

Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investments in science, as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run. And scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions: Only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society’s well-being.

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If this attitude has changed substantially since 2009, I haven’t heard about it, and Edwards offers no evidence.

What has happened over the past 40 years is a steady erosion in the trust conservatives hold in science and scientists. That trust recently hit an all-time low.

Understanding that 40-year process, and where it has left the contemporary conservative movement, is an absolutely necessary precursor to understanding the fight over climate change, which is only one battle in a much longer culture war.

The story of the conservative movement — the early bits best told in historian Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm and Nixonland, the latter bits, well, still seared in living memory — is one of a beleaguered minority, through sheer persistence, money, and organization, moving from the periphery of American politics to its center. In the process, as it has purged its moderates, it has become ever more ideologically homogenous and extreme (see: asymmetrical polarization).

The process was accelerated in recent decades by the rise of a conservative alternative media, an entire ecosystem of radio shows, newspapers, and cable channels devoted to reinforcing conservative identity. That identity, so elegantly captured in Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” is one of victimhood and marginalization, being sneered at and dismissed by elites.

No one better captures the decadent end product of this process than conservative hero Rush Limbaugh:

We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. …

The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

This is the modern movement-conservative (now rebranded “Tea Party”) view: The world is composed of left and right; the left dominates society’s institutions and uses them primarily to increase government power and gain more control over citizens’ lives; it is up to the right to create alternate institutions. Science is among the elite institutions being manipulated by the left. It is science that deemed evolution the story of humanity’s origin, science that uncovered the health and ecological harms of unrestrained capitalism, science that arms the shock troops of Big Government.

Beneath everything else, that is the conservative objection to climate science: The left is responsible for science, so it’s responsible for climate science, which is just another attempt to expand government power. There was never any chance, in hell, at all, ever, that climate science would be coded as “neutral” or “objective” in conservatism’s decades-long culture war, no matter how scrupulously policy-agnostic climate scientists were.

Yes, I remember that George Bush Sr. (to the horror of conservatives) passed a cap-and-trade system for SO2. Yes, I recall that John McCain (to the horror of conservatives) sponsored a cap-and-trade bill. But those counterexamples are notable because they are exceptions to the rule, which is that the Republican Party, especially post-Gingrich, has been unremittingly hostile to environmental science and regulation. Witness what happened when Democrats tried to pass a cap-and-trade bill very much like McCain’s.

So scientists can be as studiously neutral as they want. It will make no substantial difference. The battle is over cultural identity; it will be long, and messy, and the outcome is unlikely to have much to do with how scientists behave.


UPDATE: I just happened to see this today and though it served as a fitting coda for the post: “Member of Congressional Science Committee: Global Warming a ‘Fraud’ to ‘Create Global Government’.” You see? I’m really not making this stuff up.