The Advocacy of Scientists

This post is one of several intended to provide some starting points for the session John Timmer and I are moderating at Science Online 2012, “You Got Your Politics in My Science.” The general topic has to do with when scientific findings call out for advocacy, and when advocacy is appropriate in the reporting of science. Feel free to join the conversation even if you’re not part of Science Online. This is an unconference that works to see as many viewpoints expressed on its topics as possible.

We are generally wary of mixing our politics with our science, and that is probably a good thing. One of the points of the scientific process, as imperfect as it is, is to reduce the impact of our biases on the production of human knowledge. Political beliefs are, of course, a major source of potential bias. But what happens when a scientist’s findings call for political action?

It’s hardly unheard of for scientists to get involved in political action as a result of their research. Elizabeth Loftus‘s work on “recovered” memories and the creation of memory by suggestion has led to her expert testimony in numerous trials. It has also led to her participation in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of those accused of child abuse based on recovered memories in adults.

James Hansen‘s work on the atmosphere of Venus led him to look at the greenhouse effect in Earth’s atmosphere. From there he moved on to making policy recommendations for the U.S. government and writing the advocacy book, Storms of My Grandchildren. He’s also been arrested at environmental protests.

Scientists on both sides of the adult business debates lend their expertise to court cases and lobbying efforts. Evolutionary psychologists testified on both sides in the recent Canadian polygamy trial. Researchers into rape myths have long lobbied for the use of expert witnesses in rape trials. Biologists studying wild animals work very hard for conservation.

We want our scientists to be as neutral as possible in the practice of science, but at the same time, it seems ridiculous to suggest that they be neutral about the results. Knowledge frequently has concrete implications. Scientists are closest to the sources of that knowledge. How long should they stay neutral?

On the other hand, does there come a point where advocacy threatens the neutrality or the apparent legitimacy of further research? Are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed? What are the downsides to scientists of taking on an activist role? Are there other considerations that scientists should be evaluating when contemplating advocacy?

Next up: Reporting science in context, including political contexts.

The Advocacy of Scientists
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4 thoughts on “The Advocacy of Scientists

  1. 1

    I bet those people in the examples you named took action because they felt morally obliged to do something. Perhaps that’s what it is, an individual choice when not to stay on the sideline any longer.

  2. 2

    Scientists should have the same free speech rights to advocate for things they believe in as anyone else. If they say something irresponsible or wrong, other scientists in equal roles of authority should challenge them. Yes, you’re going to get a few loud Wakefields. But overall, I think more conversation is better. And wouldn’t it be great if people started to demand evidence for public figures’ positions? Hey, a girl can dream.

  3. 3

    Scientists aren’t a privileged class, nor are they a class that has given up their rights (and obligations) of citizenry.

    If the most highly educated among us abandon the political stage to the least educated, we truly get the government we deserve…and less.

  4. 4

    Surely the critical point is that when politicians or business leaders say things and base policy on claims that are demonstrably not true, scientists should be unafraid to say: that claim is not true. By unafraid I mean that we can be proactive in contacting e.g. media outlets. If a major politician announced a major new initiative to send a team to the edge of the world to find out what’s underneath, I think some pushback would be justified.

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