Should scientists be policy advocates?

ResearchBlogging.orgOn 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

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It's a tricky topic, but it seems to me that scientists who become advocates are performing a vital service, since the media (even if they show any interest) are often unable or unwilling to get the actual thrust of scientific findings across. Look at nutritional science for example - consuming cow's milk is a lousy idea, but it's rarely challenged in the mainstream despite there being tons of scholarly research on why it's a Really Bad Idea.

Carl Sagan did an amazing job in helping to cool tensions between the US & USSR by debunking Reagan's Star Wars (SDI) saber-rattling. And by using his science celebrity to directly educate the public on nuclear winter, he effectively created a situation where recalcitrant governmental leaders had to finally listen to the will of the people and back away from the nuclear escalation of the 1980's.

Scientists aren't obliged to become policy advocates. For those who think they have an important message to get out- good for them. A dedication to pursuit of natural facts should not be any kind of muzzle on public participation. An avocation shouldn't prevent one from being a good citizen and engaging in important matters. There will always be scientists who stick just with academics and avoid public policy matters. If that's their thing, fine. If not, that's fine too.

But Carl Sagan is ridiculed for the nuclear winter idea, particularly for predicting that Saddam's Kuwait oil fires would have a nuclear winter effect. Being famous does not correlate with being right. Just look at all the high-carbon anti-global-warming events which feature celebrities.

There is another potential pitfall. Policy is never (well at least almost) decided based on rational evaluation of objective evidence. Advocating for policy using such arguments is really ineffective. So to be an effective advocate, one has to argue in a non-scientific way... using anecdotes, emotion, politics, and appeals to narrow self-interests.

The downside, making these sorts of arguments is often seen as being lazy, sleazy, or even dishonest by lots of scientists. The culture clash means scientists who are effective policy advocates often loose credibility with their peers.

BTW: Regarding Sagan, Kuwait oil field fires and nuclear winter:
They did demonstrate a large scale (not global) man-made effect quite dramatically.
some data here
Sagan was wrong, but not insanely so.
Importantly, the nuclear winter idea itself isn't "widely ridiculed". Remember Pinatubo?

Getting policy right frequently involves many complex considerations. Scientists are rarely experts on all the relevant disciplines. (Ie, to evaluate a particular climate change policy you do not just need to know climatology. You would also usually need to know economics, political science, biology and perhaps more if you wanted to make a comprehenisive evaluation.) And scientists never have any expertise on moral matters that other people do not have.

If scientists choose to advocate I would hope they make clear the limits of their expertise. But frankly I see no reason for scientist to advocate on issues concerning their own area of expertise. If they want to become politically involved there are a million issues that they can become involved in where they do not contribute to the confusion of science and politics.

The article's author tries hard to present an overview of what is frankly a dead-simple topic. Should scientists be advocates for policy, regulations, laws, etc? The questions is: if their knowledge of reality is category based, proven, and genuine--then why should anyone else ever be listened to?... I've claimed for 40 yrs that true scientists alone, those who understand the prioritized 5--6 "normative basic conditions" of how things operate or are done in man-created situations should presents suggestions for regulations. What do political hacks, postmodernist reality-haters and fantasizing lobbyists have to do with regulations, knowledge, science or anything but their own criminal misbehaviors? But first--you need to nail down what science is. Psychiatrists for example do a dangerous, valuable job--but in the absence of a normative picture of the human personality as a self, not as a wage-slave learning to accept bureau-corporate tyranny as a way of life--they have a cure rate of 3 %. Enough said. Those who know are leaders. Everyone else is playing with our lives. I know.

By Robert M. Cerello (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

JR, are you saying that scientists will suddenly become more credible when they become advocates on issues which they're not experts in?

-- bi