Eugene Skolnikoff on The Honest Broker

January 29th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

It is really an honor to see MIT’s Eugene Skolnikoff review The Honest Broker in the January Review of Policy Research of the Policy Studies Organization. Professor Skolnikoff has been a leading scholar of science and technology policy for more than four decades. He served on the staff of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and as a consultant to President Carter, in addition to playing many other roles in the academic and applied communities.

He has these nice things to say about the book:

. . . Pielke’s book is a primer that can be a valuable introduction to clarifying the wide roles scientists can and do play, and can be useful in explaining what lies behind some of the controversies so evident today.

The bulk of the book is devoted to elaborating these four roles [of Pure Scientist, Science Arbiter, Issue Advocate, and Honest Broker], providing some background on what earlier scholars have written, elaborating the roles with illustrative issues, and discussing the important underlying elements of values and uncertainty. Pielke clearly has been through the wars on science policy issues and shows his experience and, by implication, his frustration with those scientists who advocate policies they argue are dictated by the scientific facts, without recognizing (or admitting) that their views are a result of their commitment to certain policy outcomes. He demonstrates a solid grasp of science and policy interactions, a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. science policy and institutions, and can write and express important ideas clearly and convincingly. For those reasons, the book is a valuable addition to the science and policy scene.

Professor Skolnikoff takes issue with several aspects of the book, such as its lack of discussions of engineers and technology. More importantly he suggests that I am “arguing that all scientists who call for action, some action, to deal with what they see as possible consequences of emerging evidence have become advocates, whose scientific views can thereby be considered to be politicized.” This is indeed what I have argued. He concludes that “Pielke appears to tar all scientists who have strong views on a controversial issue, notably climate change again, with the claim they have simply become advocates and thus closed to alternative evidence.”

I actually do not assert that advocates are closed to alternative evidence nor do I cast advocacy in such a pejorative light. In fact, I make a strong case for the importance of advocacy in democratic politics. It is not “tarring” someone to identify them as participating in advocacy, which I define as working to reduce the scope of political choice. What I do take strong issue with is what I call “stealth issue advocacy” in which an expert claims to be focused only on science (or more generally, truth), while really working to advance a specific agenda. Unfortunately, Professor Skolnikoff does not discuss this distinction among advocacy activities.

Overall, it is a thoughtful review, in which Skolnikoff describes the book as “generally valuable and occasionally provocative,” which sounds pretty good to me.

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