Do scientists have a moral obligation to speak out?

As Leopold Fellows, where do you draw the “advocacy” line?  What do you tell your graduate students about advocacy? Where do you encourage them to draw the line?  Below is an excerpt of a blog I co-authored with John Abraham.

John Abraham:  We scientists talk to each other…a lot. Usually it is about breaking studies or techniques that can help us better understand the world around us. On occasion, however, we talk about how to communicate our science to the world. We believe that our research is critical to helping us all make better decisions now to preserve the future for all of us.

During one such conversation I had with a colleague, Dr. Andrew Dessler, we got onto the topic of how scientists should advocate to the general public. In particular, we focused on a shortsighted article recently published in the Guardian. After our conversation. Dr. Dessler wrote his thoughts which are contained below as part of this blog post. Take it away Andy…

Andy Dessler: “In a recent Guardian post, Dr. Tamsin Edwards argued that scientists should scrupulously avoid advocating for particular policies — going so far as to say that this is a “moral obligation”.

The foundation of Dr. Edward’s argument is that the general public is too dumb to understand the difference between a scientist talking science and one advocating policy. While it is certainly true that most members the general public are not scientific experts, they are experts in figuring out who the experts are and in discerning what the practical importance of expert opinion is. Arguing that we must filter what we tell the general public so as not to confuse them is patronizing and greatly underestimates their intelligence and abilities.

Given that values play a huge role in policy debates, it is certainly true that scientists have no special claim to authority in policy debates. And the fact that, decades after scientists recognized the global-warming problem, we still don’t have a climate policy in place, is evidence of this. But this does not mean that scientists therefore have NO authority. The values held by scientists are as legitimate as the values of any other citizen and scientists have as much of a right to advocate for policy as anyone else. The argument that I gave up my rights to engage in the policy debate when I became an expert in the science is, to me at least, both offensive and absurd.

A more interesting question is whether, from a practical standpoint, scientists do more harm than good when they advocate for policies. For example, Dr. Edwards claims that “much climate skepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence.” She certainly may believe this, but it’s wrong. Cognitive research has shown that views on climate science can be almost entirely explained by an individual’s values — e.g., their view on the proper role of government.
The argument advanced by skeptics that “scientists are political advocates” is simply a post hoc rationalization for rejecting the expert opinion of the world’s scientific community, thereby allowing the skeptics to reach a conclusion consistent with their values. If scientists stopped advocating for policies, skeptics would simply come up with another excuse to reject expert scientific opinion. Blaming scientists for skeptical irrationality is hopelessly naive.

So what do I think scientists should do? First, I think it is up to every individual scientist to decide where to draw the line. If Dr. Edwards is uncomfortable talking about a carbon tax, then she should certainly not talk about it. When I talk in public about climate change, I’m comfortable saying that, as a citizen who happens to know a lot about the science, I strongly support action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. If people want more details, I add that the policy experts agree that the key policy action we need to take is a price on carbon, which could be accomplished to either a carbon tax or a cap and trade system.

As a citizen in a democracy and as a father of two young boys, I feel I have a lot invested in getting the policy on climate change right. Sitting on the sidelines and refusing to answer questions about policy is simply not an option. For me, speaking out is the moral obligation.”

John Abraham: And I agree with Dr. Dessler. It truly is absurd to argue that the people who know most about the problem should be silent about potential solutions. It is also incredibly naïve to not acknowledge the role of funded sources who systematically attack and harass scientists. When the history books are written (they are being written right now), we will all wish the climate scientists had spoken out more, not less.

2 thoughts on “Do scientists have a moral obligation to speak out?

  1. Pingback: Is it the climate itself that makes climate change communication so difficult? | Leopold Leadership 3.0

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