On one side we have a long list of scientists who are known, and respected, by the wider public primarily because they have chosen to venture beyond the confines of the laboratory or the classroom into the realm of policy advocacy. Think Carl Sagan (nuclear winter), Sylvia Earle (marine conservation) or Albert Einstein (atomic warfare). On the other are a comparable list of lesser-known but accomplished academics who insist scientists should keep to the facts for fear of tarnishing the reputation of science itself as a neutral arbiter.
An almost-recent paper in Conservation Biology (Conservation Biology, Volume 23, No. 5, 1090-1101 doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01250.x) that I’ve only now read examines the arguments for and against and finds almost all of them come up short. More recent events involving NASA’s James Hansen, who has clearly decided that advocacy is at least as important as his science, and drawn a fair amount of criticism for his participation in rallies against coal mining, getting arrested and wading into energy tax policy debates, makes the paper more relevant than ever.
In “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How,” Michael Nelson and John Vucetich of Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University, respectively, find a long list of what they conclude are specious arguments against the scientist-as-advocate. Allow me to summarize.
First, we have the argument that speaking out as an advocate undermines the reputation of the individual or an entire field of science. That’s an easy one to demolish (the use of boldface is my idea):
Consider for example Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, Linus Pauling’s unwarranted advocacy of vitamin C as a cure-all, and the advocacy by apologists for special interest groups (sometimes dubbed “biostitutes”).These scientists did not lose scientific credibility merely because they advocated. They lost credibility for doing bad science, advocating ridiculous positions, or advocating in ridiculous ways.
… sociological surveys indicate (Lach et al. 2003) that most of the attentive public either agree or strongly agree that scientists should “work closely with managers to integrate scientific results into management decisions,” and many representatives of special interests and the interested public are neutral or favorable about the idea. There is some reason to think that the reputation of scientists among the public is enhanced (or at least not harmed) when scientists advocate (Steel et al. 2004).
What about the implicit or explicit requirement of scientists to stay neutral?
Neutrality is appropriate only under particular, although not uncommon, circumstances. Neutrality is sensible for positions without a moral dimension (e.g., I am neutral about your preference for strawberry ice cream) and is sometimes allowable, even demanded, given certain kinds of uncertainty. I may be neutral about your expectation that the next president of the United States will be a woman. It is unethical, however, to be neutral about whether a woman is capable of being president.
the appropriateness of a neutral position depends on the nature of the issue, not on the nature of the person (i.e., whether one is a scientist).
The most promising argument against getting involved, I think, concerns the tricky issue of uncertainty:
P2 (7) Advocacy conflicts with science because, although the nature of science is to draw conclusions only when it can be done with a relatively high degree of certainty, conclusions about the appropriateness of policy do not typically entail certainty. (The participation of science in making uncertain conclusions risks science’s reputation and may implicate science in harming society).
To which they reply:
To successfully argue against advocacy arguments rooted in P2(7) one would also need to distinguish between uncertainty about the truth of some scientific claim and uncertainty about the value of a specific policy. The first kind of uncertainty does not necessarily imply the second. For example, although there are important uncertain aspects of future climate change, the value of policies encouraging wealthy people and countries to emit less carbon is not uncertain. In this case there seems little reason for scientists not to advocate such policies.
At the end of the day, Michaels and Vucetich conclude:
It seems unfair or inappropriate to expect a group of people who participate intimately in the formation of the premises used in arguments for policies to then recuse themselves, or allow themselves to be recused, from participating in the policy development process, especially because no other citizen has more or less stake in a public policy than a scientist…
To be sure, Michaels and Vucetich do take apart and dismiss several poor arguments in favor of advocacy, but that analysis, which dealt primarily with logical flaws, isn’t as interesting. What we’re left with is one powerful case in favor of dipping one’s feet into the rough and tumble world of shades of gray that is policy-making:
… scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities and in a justified and transparent manner. Importantly, arguments against science advocacy are valuable for offering insight about how one should or should not be an advocate, not whether one should advocate. If these conclusions are accurate, then [Garrett] Hardin (1998) is correct: “[O]ne of today’s cardinal tasks is to marry the philosopher’s literate ethics with the scientist’s commitment to numerate analysis.”
Which brings up the whole question of how best to communicate science, which just happens to be a big deal these days. Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s make it a central theme of their book Unscientific America and so does Randy Olson in Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist. I reviewed the former a couple of months ago, and I’ll have a review of the latter in a few days.
NELSON, M., & VUCETICH, J. (2009). On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How Conservation Biology, 23 (5), 1090-1101 DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01250.x