The default mode, politically-speaking, for most scientists seems to be professionally neutral. In other words, most scientists would tend to see their personal political beliefs as more or less completely separate from their work as scientists. Even for politically sensitive topics like climate change, the tendency is to focus on the the best available evidence rather than commenting more directly on the potential policy implications of that evidence. Only by maintaining that politcal neutrality with scientists will be able to maintain their surface veneer of objectivity. If you’re too political, maybe the public will stop believing that your evidence is disinterested.

Of course, how well is that working for you, scientists of the world? Especially with regard to those politically sensitive topics such as climate change? Maybe not so well as we would all hope.

But maybe there is another way, a way to use that evidence to be bolder and more engaged directly with the social and political implications of evidence? To forge a science in the public interest. Perhaps there’s a risk involved, but maybe it’s worth it.

Or at least that’s the main thrust of the provocative new book by Michael Riordan, Bold Scientists: Dispatches From The Battle For Honest Science.

In his book Riordan takes a look at the lives and political and scientific work of a group of active scientists who are also active politically, or at least active promoting science in the public interest. Through their case studies he tackles very serious questions such as the relationship of science and society, the purpose of scientific research and mostly the very human aspects of the scientific enterprise that skew and bias the how science works, how evidence is constructed, what counts as evidence and importantly, what science gets done and who decides. At the core, Riordan is a science skeptic, leery of the undue influence that government and industry science have on our lives.

But.

And it’s a big but.

Where once a healthy skepticism of science was a progressive impulse, more recently a radical, dangerous and insanely unhealthy skepticism of science has become very much a fact on the conservative side of the ledger. Which is the balance that Riordan is striving for in his book: the need to really understand the biases and unspoken politics of science — the relationship between nature, power and science — but at the same time we need to respect and understand the process of science. Scientific consensus has a value in helping us understand the world. In particular for many environmental issues such as climate change and resource exploitation, scientific evidence is the best bet we have to help us understand the past, present and future of our fragile planet. Riordan sees a need to be honest with ourselves about what science is good for. We need to have an honest perspective about the place of humankind in nature. We need a science in the public interest.

And over all, I have to say that Riordan does a very good job of finding that balance.

Here’s a quick recap of the case studies he describes, 1 per chapter:

  • Henry Lickers on Canadian First Nations environmental issues.
  • Ann Clarke on post-oil farming.
  • Craig Holdredge and Curt Meine on keep humanity’s place in nature in perspective.
  • Asociación Pro-Búsqueda and others on using DNA find disappeared children in El Salvador.
  • David Lyon on government surveillance and threats to our privacy in the online world.
  • Bruce Levine questioning the chemical basis for psychiatric treatments.
  • John Smol speaking truth to the power of the Canadian government about the tar sands.
  • Tony Ingraffea on speaking the truth about fracking
  • Diane Orihel rallying to save the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area from Canadian government budget cuts.

Each and every one of these chapters tells an inspiring story. Probably the most inspiring and wrenching one concerns the efforts of El Salvador’s Pro-Búsqueda and others to untangle the chaos brought on by so many kidnapped children who were forcibly adopted into families not their own. It’s the longest and most involved chapter but it is well worth the time to explore.

From a Canadian perspective, the two of the final chapters were the most relevant and the ones that provoked silent cheers while reading. Both John Smol and Diane Orihel are heroes of Canadian science for standing up to a furiously anti-science government which would prefer that inconvenient scientific facts just not exist. And what better way to make those facts go away than to muzzle scientists and shut down research labs. Both their stories are wonderful to read. Orihel in particular, only a PhD student and still stubbornly rallying the public and taking on the Canadian government is beyond inspirational.

Overall a very fine book. I would have appreciated an index and perhaps a list of additional readings at the end. As well, the chapter titles could be more descriptive and at least from a reviewer’s perspective having the profiled individual’s name and cause front and centre a little bit more in each chapter heading would have been nice. But these are quibbles.

I would recommend this book to any library that collects about science and society or science policy. This book would also be appropriate for any public library and perhaps even high school libraries where young minds could be inspired to be fearless, speak truth to power and change the world.

(Review copy provided by the publisher.)

Riordan, Michael. Bold Scientists: Dispatches From The Battle For Honest Science. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2014. 256 pp. ISBN 9781771131247.

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