That doctor’s analogy again

During a web search I came across this page: Climate Change Communication: Taking the Temperature (Part 11) with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. It seems to be part of a series consisting of interviews with 12 different climate scientists about climate communication. The answer on the second question was really interesting, I recognized immediately the often used, but flawed, doctor analogy:

2. How do you view your role in communicating science?

I see the role of a climate scientist as similar, in some ways, to that of a physician. We might suspect something is wrong with our bodies; but until we go to the doctor, take the tests, and wait for the evidence, we don’t know what is going on for sure. In the same way, we might see something changing in our climate; but until scientists collect the observations, analyze the evidence, and draw conclusions, we don’t know for sure what is happening. As climate scientists, we are the “physicians of the planet.”

With that role comes responsibility: to tell people about what we find. Imagine if you went to the doctor and they found something wrong, but didn’t want to tell you about it – because they were afraid you might react badly to hearing the news, or it would be against your religion or your politics to receive treatment. That scenario may seem far-fetched to us. In the same way, though, I feel that as climate scientists we have a responsibility to tell people: what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the outcome of our choices as a society will be.

In a way I could understand that both doctors and climate scientists are studying complex systems. But even then there are differences that prevent the analogy to fly.

Let me first admit that I have no problem going to a doctor when something is wrong, undergoing tests and wait for the result. If the doctor makes a conclusion from those results, I have no problem accepting his advice and doing what is necessary to get better.

I know there is an incredible amount of knowledge into our current medical science. It is a science that is already going on for at least a millennium. Doctors can built on an incredible amount of accumulated experience with the human body, on billions of people of different gender, age, race,… Patients are studied by comparing with healthy individuals, therefor a correct diagnose could be made. Interaction with medication is studied already a long time. If I take medication I have a pretty good chance that it will work. So if I am ill and the doctor prescribes some medication, I would have no problem following his advice.

With climate science I wouldn’t be so sure. It is a relative new science, reliable data is only be collected for (a couple) decades and there is only one “patient”, Earth. Actually we don’t know it Earth is actually a patient at all. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Was that “fever” of our planet a real symptom that happened when we incidentally started measuring temperature? Or a normal part of some cycle that we couldn’t detect yet because we only just start measuring? Even if we want to “treat” the patient, we never ever did something like that before, so we don’t know whether it could work or whether it would make it even worse.

So going to a “physician of the planet” is a quite different than going to a doctor. Suppose you have to go to a doctor and you knew that the medical science had only limited experience of half a century with one human body and with all limitations above.

I am not really sure that I would go.

Suppose you do go and that doctor says, according to his limited experience with the human body, you might be very ill and although you don’t realize it now it might take a couple decades before you realize it. Would you take his advice and start an (expensive) cure for that potential disease?

I am not really sure I would.

I think she strongly overstates her case and completely ignores the huge uncertainties, inherent to the climate system. Not only in this answer, but also during the entire interview. It is of course a smart move to piggyback on the credentials of a mature science, but analogies only goes so far.


2 thoughts on “That doctor’s analogy again

  1. manicbeancounter

    There are distinct differences between the doctor and the climate scientist.
    It is a good analogy, but I think you somewhat understate the differences.
    To become a fully qualified physician requires studying foe a number of years, followed by a number of years of supervised clinical practice. The study is of accumulated established knowledge of millions of experts over many centuries over many specialist fields. In particular it is learning the latest techniques and learning from the errors of the past.
    Along with this is the study of a strong ethical code developed over millennia, where the duty of care towards the patient is paramount.
    The first part is accurate diagnosis. If that cannot be obtained, further tests are carried out and where the diagnosis is still unclear a second independent opinion is sought. In proscribing treatments that are potentially harmful or painful, a true physician will try to minimize the risks and pain, whilst maximizing the effectiveness of the treatment program. Use of untried, speculative and risky treatments would get a physician struck off. Proscribing of untested medications, without knowledge of the dosage and adverse side effects would lead to imprisonment.
    All of these are totally absent in climate. To be an expert climate scientist means knowing a lot of stuff, put having no proven expertise in understanding climate. By the latter definition “the expert climate scientist” does not exist at present. The diagnosis is continually exaggerated, and anybody who contradicts that diagnosis is shouted down. There is no learning from others in diverse fields, no cross-checking of results from independent sources, and no duty of care in policy formulation that ensures a reasonable expectation that the people of the planet will be better with policy than without it.


    1. trustyetverify Post author

      I agree with you that there are more differences between climate science and medical science. In my post I tried to focus on the most fundamental differences like it being a relative new science with much less accumulated experience, reliable data on a global scale only collected since recently and there being only one “patient” (from which it is not really clear if it is actually a patient or not). Most things could be derived from these. For example a correct diagnosis will be difficult when having no previous experience and when only started to measure reliably when the assumed “fever” was already in progress, prescribing a cure when there was no previous case will lead to an unprecedented experiment,…

      But of course, many more differences could be found.



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