This provides another reason why it is easy to be confused about what science is and what scientists do. The imagery of science and scientists is widely expropriated in the public square by non-scientists.
The temptation to participate in the public dialogue as an advocate is considerable. I myself have been interviewed by reporters who become impatient if I actually practice science before their eyes. It is generally simpler give an answer rather than to present the context, including all of its uncertainty.
For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.
no, No, NO! This is totally wrong.
A while back I saw a panel discussion featuring various Nobel laureates in science. One of them was Murray Gell-Mann. The subject of hubris among scientists arose. As I recall, Gell-Mann suggested that, if anything, scientists suffer from excessive humility. All working scientists know the feeling of being proved totally wrong about something, and this sometimes makes them reticent in expressing certainty when it is appropriate to do so. He mentioned evolution specifically in this regard.
I’m with Gell-Mann! Responding to a journalist’s question is precisely the wrong time to equivocate, or to luxuriate in the sheer uncertainty of it all. Scientists are advocates, or at least they should be willing to be when the opportunity presents itself. If you are being asked for an opinion about evolution, or vaccinations, or climate change (to pick three big-ticket examples) you should be perfectly happy to take a clear stand, and to be very cross with the people on the other side. Sometimes there really is certainty, or something near enough to amount to the same thing, and in those instances it would be a mistake to pretend otherwise.
The only people you will turn off with excessive certainty are the ideologues from the other side. Most other people will equate an imprecise answer with weakness. When you have one side braying that global warming is a hoax, for example, you do not respond with a discourse on the difficulties of interpreting evidence. People are looking for answers, not science lectures.
Benner is also wrong, to put it kindly, when he says that in becoming an advocate you lose the ability to employ scientific discipline. It is not as though non-advocate scientists are perfect evidence sifters, after all. And being an advocate does not mean shutting off your brain to any new evidence relevant to he matter at hand. If the scientist is advocating for a good cause, he is probably helping other people to discern reality via science. The person who says evolution is solid science and creationism is nonsense has not sacrificed his objectivity on the altar of advocacy. Quite the contrary. He is the one perceiving things clearly and he is doing his small part to help other to the same clarity.
Benner’s essay has helped bring into focus for me what it is I find so objectionable about outfits like BioLogos (which is devoted to dialogue between science and religion). I have a low opinion of the arguments they make on behalf of reconciliation, but if other people disagree then what’s that to me?
The problem comes when they start telling people how to communicate. After all, they do not simply presume to disagree with people like RIchard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers. They then go on to lecture that they are “hurting the cause” with their bombast. This decays rapidly into claims that, to the extent that atheists are permitted to advocate for science at all, it should only be done from a position of such abject obsequity that there is no danger of calling much attention to themselves.
Benner’s essay is very much in this mold. Now it seems that is not just vocal atheists that are the problem, but vocal scientists of any kind. More precisely, if they are vocal and confident in their views. The whole attitude promoted by BioLogos and their supporters seems to be that scientists must constantly be walking on eggshells and measuring their words in speaking to the public. We are way beyond trivialities like, “Express yourselves in ways that are likely to resonate with your audience,” or “Don’t be needlessly insulting.” Instead we are perilously close to advocating a position of pure defeatism.
The anti-science forces have great success in getting their views across. Their success is not the result of an excessive concern for ambiguity or a lot of hand-wringing about what people will think of them. Perhaps we should take our cues from what works, and not from any armchair theorizing.