The Role of Science in Politics: A Plea for Activism

Suppose that you are taking a walk through the hills above a town, and you reach the foot of a dam. There's a crack in the dam, and it's getting wider. You run back down to the town, and you knock on doors, and you yell and make a fuss, and you tell everyone that the dam is breaking. They thank you for the news, and go back to bed. What do you do next? Do you grab some tools and do what you can to fix the dam, or do you turn and walk away?

Strangely, a number of people (including ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet) seem to think that the role of the scientific community in those circumstances really should be to turn and walk away:

Let's agree that the goal of the science community is to educate and inform.

That's not just wrong, it's downright dangerous.

There are any number of issues - climate change, resource usage, conservation, species loss, energy policy, global epidemics and pandemics, and that's just the tip of the iceberg - where we, the scientific community, have said we see real threats. In some cases, the threat is distant and preventable; in others, it's a clear and present danger. In all of them, real people are really at risk. Why on earth would I agree that my goal should simply be to educate and inform others about the threats?

The scientific community is not some real grouping of beings that sits off somewhere isolated from the real world. As hard as this might be to believe sometimes, we don't live in a bubble. We don't live in some ivory tower, protected by moats and walls and gates. We really do live in the real world. When we're talking about threats, we're talking about things that will affect our world. They will affect our country. They will affect our neighbors, our friends, our families, and ourselves.

Our understanding of science makes it easier for us to see the threats, and it makes it easier for us to figure out what can be done to minimize the risks. We should not simply tell people what the threats are, and what can be done about them. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that the right steps are taken.


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So what shall we do? Do we as scientists rise up and lead a revolution and install a new government where only scientists may vote (something along the lines of the Govt portrayed in Starship Troopers where only citizens could vote and citizenship was attained by military service)?

I agree with the plea for activisim. I'm working in wildlife management. When the management plans are drawn up that is only one view that is considered, there are the needs of the stakeholders as well. At the end of the day the plan will be a compromise, which may or may not have undesirable consequences. My job is to evaluate the consequences of different management actions, but if I feel strongly about the issue then I can make submissions as an individual.

And this is the way it should be as like it or not we are part of a wider community. What we think are the right steps might not be (hard to believe though it may be), there may well be other compelling considerations. Does this mean that we should be quiet about our own preferred positions? No.

The science tells us what is, it doesn't tell us what should be. Your goals as a scientist and your goals as a person are not necessarily the same. I also think that it is problematic to conflate science and the solution. Science can identify the problems and solutions, but the solutions need to be implemented by the wider community as a whole. Science can educate people about the problems and the possible solutions and consequences. As individuals we can campaign for a particular solution, but we can't dictate a solution.

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality"

"Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"
Margaret Mead

"Everything that I did in my life that was worthwhile, I caught hell for"
Chief Justice Earl Warren

Start where you are. Do what you can, and when you think you've done everything that can be done ---- think again

If you think you can fix that dam by yourself, you're deluded - and you'll probably be killed when it bursts. The correct thing to do is try your hardest to inform everyone, and once they're informed, get the few who are concerned together and run.

You do not have a moral responsibility to spare people the consequences of their bad choices.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

I think that activism by scientists is counterproductive. I think science in general is better served by trying to be an objective source of knowledge. Activism is political. Being political reduces credibility for many people.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that something must be done; the question is who should do it? Or, more accurately, how ought you identify yourself if you do take action - as a scientist, an activist, or something else? I think that the problem lies heavily in the self-imposed identification of a scientist as an academic who works only with ideas.

I'm trying to figure out what my identity ought to be as I pursue studies in Bioethics and aspire to earn a PhD while turning that knowledge towards helping society as a whole in a more active way than merely through academic work. I will probably face ostracism as I refuse to subscribe to one or another identity to the exclusion of others, but perhaps I won't be alone. It is likely that the next decade will see changes in the way people, especially scientists, self-identify and interact with the greater part of society. Hopefully more will heed your call to action.

Society imposed strict productivity demand on scientists, who are rigorously judged by publication record. When you propose some "duty" of popularisation or activism, you want them to neglect their career. Nobody asks e.g. medical doctor to run anti-tuberculosis campaign overtime.

Actvism in spare time is also ineffective. You will not progress much beyond occassional e-mail petition.

I see here especially a need for higher university circles to realise something. Rather than worry about often anti-science public attitude, universities themselves should o establish proper program funded from public or university money. Older, tenured professors without pressure to perform could also have a role.

BTW, I take part in several NGOs. They all got proper grants for education (well, I'm not paid, but still it is the way to go).

To be more clear - if you are starting small NGO, do activism in your spare time. But quickly seek education grant and proper organization and funding.

I think the same should work in large scale - state and universities should find money specifically to educate public about science, rather than worrying how ineducate people are.

Actvism in spare time is also ineffective. You will not progress much beyond occassional e-mail petition.

Frankly this is hogwash. Spare time activism can be very effective if its done strategically.

In fact if you take a good look at how change happens in society, you would find that huge amounts can and are accomplished by people who are unpaid and with limited time. (Try reading Howard Zinn or Saul Alinsky.)

Yes scientists have a lot to do. Yes, they have important deadlines. But, honey, so do all those other folks out there who you seem to expect are going to fight for you.

I'm a fighter -- and after almost 15 years of being an effective volunteer (in addition to a job, and raising 4 kids). I now get paid to make change (not a lot by the way but paid). And believe me, we tackled and won dozens of victories that we were told were impossible

Why would you think anyone would invest their time and energy (which is just as precious to them as your's is to you) when those most directly affected are unwilling to.

They will however fight along with you.

So step outside the box. Do what you can. Even if all each of you accomplish is to convince one policy maker - you will reach the tipping point.

Do what you can do.

The only thing you have to fear is yourselves.

The only thing you have to fear is yourselves.

Absurd. The things we have to fear are without limit.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

Interesting that you post this just as our government up here is getting a failing grade on their attitude to science.

Among the other things Harper did was fire the scientific adviser and replace him with a think-tank stacked with Conservative Party policy wonks.

I disagree that scientists are the only ones who should decide these policies. First of all, government policies are not made in a vacuum. The public has to agree to them, first of all. Scientists aren't economists, perhaps most importantly, and they're not public policy experts, and I've noticed that some scientists around here shill for bills that don't have the meaning that the scientists apparently intend (which implies that the scientists didn't actually read the bill in question). For example, the Lieberman-Warner act is a huge handout to coal companies, which actually HURTS the environment, yet I've seen many scientists on here plugging away for it.

As a classic example, the original CAFE standards in the 1970s got rid of long station wagons and gave us SUVs (immune to the standards) instead. That would have taken a business mind to see that coming, not a scientific mind. SUVs may have been more damaging to the environment than the original cars in question. Some scientists have held studies also saying that now many more people die in car accidents due to the lesser weight of their vehicles after the '80s-- due to the CAFE standards. There are all sorts of bills where things like this happen, and a wide range of people need to be involved to figure out what the problems with any bill might be.

As another example, when children's car seats were mandated to be in the back of the car, we started the recent phenomenon of parents accidentally leaving their children in the back seat to die from the heat because they just didn't see them. The original writers of the bill didn't see that coming; perhaps that could be an area where scientists think ahead and come into play, saying, "This bill will have this consequence, so we need to think about it before mandating."

So before trying to make policy, scientists need to be aware of what that policy is. They have to read it, and they have to listen to other sectors to see what any problems might be.

I've got to agree with Libertarian Girl that science is only part of the decision making process, the other part includes relatively intangible weighing of economic, social and political factors.

Science and activism are two very different things. To combine the two undermines science in making it just another ideology. Not that an individual scientist might not also be activist, but the two approaches need to be kept separate.

Rarely, if ever, is a decision a strictly scientific choice. Thare are tradoffs in any strategy. Big decisions can be informed by science, but the final decision is not a scientific one. Sometimes I am amazed by arguments of scientists that seem to reflect how little they are thinking about how these proposals affect millions of other people (in a way like the Bushes).

How do you weigh loss of personal freedom, for example? How much loss is justified by combating a potential health crises? I am frequently aghast at how a small projected statistical improvement allows 'the overall good' to trump personal freedom. Politically, a scientist can be anywhere from highly authoritarian to highly libertarian, and still have the same science. The most science can do is inform about the relative risks from different choices, giving the people directly involved