How political should scientists be?

Keith Burgess-Jackson questions in his TCS column whether we should listen to people like Noam Chomsky's opinions on politics -- a realm notably outside their stated occupational expertise. I must admit that I haven't read what Noam Chomsky's opinions are lately -- although it is my suspicion that with respect to the present administration, they are hardly complimentary. To whit:

Noam Chomsky is, by all accounts, a brilliant linguist. Let me stipulate that this is the case, since I'm not a linguist myself. Let me also stipulate that he is a competent philosopher of language, although he has no philosophical credentials. Does either of these facts give his opinions on foreign policy (or political morality generally) any greater weight? (By "greater weight," I mean greater than that of any randomly selected individual.) I don't see how it does. Chomsky's training is in linguistics, which is a social science. He is familiar with the literature of that field; he understands and applies its concepts and methods; he contributes to it in accordance with discipline-specific standards. Qua scientist, his job is to understand the world, not change it. He is to conduct his investigations dispassionately, impartially, and without bias. Scientists who exhibit bias in their scientific work are violating a basic norm of the scientific community. They are injecting their opinions (values) rather than letting the facts speak for themselves. Science (from the Latin word for knowledge) is about getting things right, not setting them right. Its direction of fit is word to world, not world to word. It is informative, not directive.


Chomsky's expertise as a linguist (or as an amateur but competent philosopher of language) has no bearing on anything moral or political, including matters of foreign policy. These two aspects of his life are, quite simply, unrelated. That he has strong opinions about American foreign policy in general or the war in Iraq in particular is no more significant than that others, such as classicist Victor Davis Hanson, have equally strong but opposite opinions. So why does anyone care what Chomsky thinks? I suspect it's because people commit a fallacy. Expertise (or the authority that rests on it) is not transferable from realm to realm. It's realm-specific. Imagine if it were transferable. Stephen Hawking, the great physicist, would be authoritative on baseball, plumbing, and economics. Bill James, the baseball statistician, would be authoritative on the war in Iraq, botany, and campaign finance. David McCullough, the historian, would be authoritative on wine, women, and song. Expertise in any area would make a person expert in every area.

I'm not saying that Hawking, James, and McCullough don't, can't, or shouldn't have opinions about these matters. I'm saying that their opinions, if they have any, are entitled to no more weight than anyone else's. If I want advice about wine, I'll consult a vinologist, thank you. If I want information about plants, I'll consult a botanist. If I want to know about NASCAR, I'll consult a racing expert. If I want to understand some arcane linguistic phenomenon, such as anaphora, I'll consult Chomsky. On matters that require expertise, either become an expert yourself or consult someone who is. On matters that require no expertise, such as morality, make up your own mind -- after gathering all relevant facts.

As today seems to be Ethics Day, let's look at this issue more closely. Why should people like Noam Chomsky not be outspoken about their politics? He is a citizen of this nation, and by all accounts an intelligent and well-educated citizen. Furthermore, one thing that you learn about neuroscience rather quickly is that genres of education -- economics as separate from linguistics, biology as separate from physics, etc. -- are not nearly as strict as you would think. Should we discount Mr. Chomsky's opinions because he is attempting to be a dilettante? If we did that who would we listen to about politics. Would we only listen to political pundits -- the stated experts on the subject?

I think there is a very reasonable argument that scientists should not be silent on issues of politics. We are educated individuals with a sense of civic duty that demands that we participate. However, Mr. Burgess-Jackson does have a point is that we should not listen to scientists more than we should listen to anyone else -- as they possess no direct line to truth when it comes to moral and philosophical issues.

Further, I think that Mr. Burgess-Jackson highlights one of the dangers of scientists becoming TOO political. I would list three reasons why scientists should not be outspokenly political on nonscientific issues:

1) Distraction -- The public has a limited attention span anyway. When we use our rather large microphone on issues not related to science, we are wasting the opportunity to use it on science.

2) Credibility -- When we attach ourselves too forcefully to one particular point of view or candidate, it can draw our scientific opinions into question because people may find them biased. While we may be effective in getting what we want at that particular moment, over the long run people may listen to us less.

3) Mixing Values and Facts -- Scientists are concerned with facts. We live for facts and with the understanding that what we say does not willfully exclude some facts while including others. Political participation by its very nature mixes facts and values. Political argument relies on the exclusion of some facts at the expense of others. Politics is by its nature unscientific. When we place ourselves in the political arena, we confuse the public as to the function of science and lend credibility to our critics that science is representing a set of values rather than a set of factual propositions.

In listing the above reasons, I am again not suggesting that scientists shouldn't vote or should keep their opinions to themselves. I am just saying that in their capacity as scientists, they should keep their opinions to themselves. This is a tough tight-rope to walk, but I think it is important for us to try. I see a lot of the political positions scientists adopt as eroding our arguments against anti-scientific activists by adding weight to the argument that we are biased.


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It seems to me that, in a democracy, everyone should be political. Apathy is death to a system like ours. Chomsky is a bit of a special case, as he has in effect changed careers, or added a second career to his work in linguistics. However anyone could do the same thing, and perhaps more should.

I think that the dangers you mention are well taken, though. I believe that scientists wear two hats: scientist and citizen. There are times when they can wear both at once: a scientist offering public policy advice based on his or her field of expertise, for example. In a case like that, the scientist needs to make sure that his audience knows where one stops and the other starts, as in "This is what science tells us about global warming/bird flu/earthquakes," followed by "And as a citizen, this is what I think we should do about it."

The worst thing a scientist can do is to say anything that sounds like "This is my solution, and you should take my advice because I'm a scientist." One way to avoid that is to restrict one's public role to advising policy makers, giving them strictly scientific information to help guide their decisions, then exercise one's political opinions more privately (among friends and through blogs, for example). The other way is for scientists to make policy recommendations as a group, ideally through some large assocation such as the AAAS. The AMA and the American Lung Association have done this sort of thing for years. I believe that in the eyes of most people the personal political biases of individuals are cancelled out in the group, so that what comes through has a more objective relation to the scientific facts.