Paulina Essunger sends along this quote for the quotations file:
“We need to adopt a broader view of what it means for researchers to fulfill
their obligations to society. It is not enough for them to make findings and report them in the scholarly literature. As citizens in a democracy, they must engage, and not just when their funding is at stake.”
Hmm. I don’t entirely agree with this as stated. It confuses the singular and the collective. It seems to me to claim that each researcher must engage in democracy as a researcher. It seems clear to me that the resulting cacophony would help very little; it’s hard to imagine any broad issue on which scientists’ opinions would not span an enormous range. What the democratic process needs to know is the narrow facts; what’s deemed certain, what likely, what plausible, what unlikely, what impossible.
On climate change, IPCC (and especially WG I) has done a creditable job on reporting these things, notwithstanding the Himalaya glaciers blunder, and yet they are busily being discredited anyway. So one wonders what the point is; one could do worse that to take the IPCC position and defend it even though it rather understates the risks. Those of us who are willing and able to engage the public’s confusion ought to do so, and if I may say so, ought to have some way of being rewarded for it.
But it should be noted (and in some circles it isn’t noted) that this itself is a radical claim. The primary role of scientists has always been to impress other scientists in a scientific meritocracy. A very few of the most elite scientists are then consulted by the policy sector. This is seen as an end-of-career perk for the best of the best, and is conducted outside the purview of the scientific culture. From the point of view of science, being appointed to a national or international commission is a hobby, and being appointed to the cabinet is a form of retirement.
It is only recently that the substance of specific scientific issues have become matters of policy-relevant general public interest. This has created a role for propagandists, in some disciplines including climate well-funded ones. And this is responsible for the emergent gap in the set of necessary roles.
Simon Singh made a similar point in the recent Wired interview you shouldn’t miss.
A researcher could be doing really important work on global warming, and then somebody writes a column in a national newspaper that completely undermines what they’re saying. But the scientist doesn’t think the column is important—it’s just some nincompoop writing a column—so they don’t take that writer to task in the way they should. It’s a case of saying, “How do we make a difference?” We certainly don’t make a difference by just moaning over coffee the next day.
These ideas, with which I agree, are totally in opposition to traditional scientific culture, and with good reason. Once you say something like “I can’t believe Tom Fuller’s latest, um, topsy-turvy piece. He really has hid head, um, in the sand, that guy.” you are doing two things. One, you are calling additional attention to something that you don’t feel deserves much attention. But more important, you are taking a public position outside the peer review process on a matter that itself is outside the peer review process. That is, you are stating an informal opinion, and therefore calling the neutrality of the scientific process into question. It’s nowhere stated in some indoctrination session that you shouldn’t do this. But it’s important to realize that until recently this was the expectation.
Indeed, this is the nugget of truth in Roger Pielke Jr.’s meandering and ultimately unsatisfying book “The Honest Broker”; that an advocate cannot be a scientist and that a scientist cannot be an advocate. On this key point, Roger is not saying anything new or controversial. On the contrary, it is people like Dean, or Singh, or myself who are searching for something new.
A scientist is a person who wakes up every morning asking “How could I be wrong?” Such a person cannot hold their own in a public debate against an advocate who wakes up asking “How could the scientist be wrong?” Yet, the scientist who surrenders to the conventional techniques of public relations and influencing public opinion, that is, to politics writ large, really does end up surrendering objectivity.
The public is more and more alienated from the scientific method and the scientific world view. (The ivory tower is increasingly populated by second and third generation academics.) The desperate need is for more people to understand not just what we know and what we suspect, but why we know and suspect these things. This is a non-trivial task, and doesn’t get any easier.
Defending science is not about yelling back. It has to be about the nature of objective inquiry. Not everyone is going to be interested or capable of understanding this very well, but there are smart people everywhere. We cannot afford to lose them. Winning them back is more than a matter of making counterclaims.
On the other hand, we have to remain willing to say “no, that’s wrong”, in other words “science is open-minded but skilled; our skills do not allow room for your hypothesis”. And we have to claim that authority. A model of biology that does not include evolution is simply wrong. We should not be taking polls to establish how many people “believe in” evolution. The press and the schools and the political elites should be treating this as fact.
Authority is not authoritarian. We are not telling people what to do about evolution. We are simply stating the facts.
We have reached the point where superstition has better marketing than science. Fantasy may have better appeal than reality at first blush. Reality is a refined, developed, adult taste. We can’t live on candy bars forever, and a society that tries is not long for the world. Why can we sell olives but not charts and graphs?
Does advocating for science undermine scientific objectivity? I think this is a pointless paradox. The missing role must advocate for objectivity and yet connect objectivity to real-world situations where advocates for fantasy are prevailing.
Can we call the missing role “science journalism” or “science writing” or “science outreach”? Perhaps, but its funding model and its conduct are obviously in great need of redesign.
I don’t find this role among Pielke’s taxonomy. It’s crucial. It isn’t really policy advocacy. I think it needs to be distinct from the role of those conducting the scientific enterprise. I think that the failures of the recent past are to be blamed on people deliberately muddying the waters, but it’s foolish to ignore the fact that no serious resistance to organized misinformation came from either the scientific community or the press.