Scientists as Advocates?

An interesting debate has taken place at the (Minnesota) Star Tribune.

Greg Breining loses some points with the inevitable Roger Pielke quote, a clear example that despite his protestations “I believe most of what James Hansen says and that science offers a uniquely profound way to understand the world” he is defending the Middle Mudddle. Still, he brings social science to bear in a contrived experiment:

Krosnick recently conducted an experiment that demonstrates that people are willing to trust a scientist who presents evidence for global warming and discusses the nature of a warmer Earth. But as soon as that same scientist urges listeners to write their politicians, people immediately began to suspect his motives and discount the accuracy of his scientific message.

Steve Kelley has no such study to bring to bear in his rebuttal. Rather, he shrugs off the study:

Eighty-one percent of the people who saw just the science video thought climate change was caused by humans, compared with 67 percent of those who saw the science and policy video. The data don’t support Breining’s statement that the people “who heard the political appeal were turned off.” These differences are significant, but even when science and policy advocacy were combined, a large majority still thought climate change was caused by humans.

I find the rebuttal weak because of this desperate attempt to wiggle out of the evidence. It’s possible that the scientist was not a good advocate. It’s possible that the situation was too contrived. Many possible sources of error in the experiment can be imagined, and it may or may not be the case that the experimenter accounted for them. Ironically, the experiment itself is a sort of stealth advocacy, but let’s leave that aside.

A better rebuttal is that science does not occur in a vacuum. The scientist does not generally have the choice to “let others do the advocacy”, much as he and everyone else wishes that were possible. The world is awash in information, in various claims and postures clamoring for attention. When the scientist has information that belongs in the public sphere, he or she has little choice but to play the game of competing for attention, both within and outside the scientific cloisters.

It would be better if we could organize ourselves otherwise, but how? And what is someone like Hansen to do in the meanwhile? Obviously we cannot rely on the press to carry the messages.


  1. Getting the term "advocacy" definitively pinned to the microscope stage would be helpful.

    It's my observation that often when a scientist identifies and then publicizes something as a hazard, some folks believe that scientist is advocating, operating beyond the proper scope of a scientist. That's plainly wrong. I'll hazard an intuition that this fallacy is positively correlated with the economic impact of acknowledging hazards.

    What about when our behavior moves something from being a hazard to becoming a significant risk? There's a "sciency" story behind that; should scientists remain laconically shy about pointing out the reasons why something that was merely hazardous is now known to be risky, perhaps trying to instill a sense of greater urgency in the public?

    A real dilemma might be when a public policy response to a risk is wrong in its basis of facts, meaning that somebody who is not just handwaving must offer clues and cues to the public about choices, possibly including a pragmatic suggestion to choose a concretely better and realistically available policy response. Is that inappropriate advocacy?

    Things are so darned complicated, once they're dragged from beneath the editorial instinct for concision.

  2. I'll add that if a scientist learns something about a risk and assumes the appropriate thing to do is to wait to be asked for suggestions, depending the situation that may arguably be a moral failure.

    In other words, if by circumstance society never asks the right person for guidance on a matter fraught with dire implications, what's that person's first responsibility? To honor an abstract code of proper behavior, or to tap society on the shoulder?

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