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Risk: Reason and Reality

Scientists as Scientists, or Advocates, or Both?

            Should scientists advocate on policy issues, or, to protect their personal credibility and the credibility of their findings, should they just quietly do their work and avoid making policy suggestions about what they learn?

     Aren’t the experts who have done the research uniquely qualified to offer trustworthy advice about which policies might best help protect human and environmental health? Or do they lose that trust as soon as they go from reporting the facts to promoting their opinions?

     And, regardless of risks to their personal reputations, don’t scientists have an obligation, as particularly well-informed citizens, to offer society not only their evidence but their suggestions? Wouldn’t they be complicit in the harms they are researching so we can prevent them, if they only supply information but don’t help society understand what that information means, and help us think about what we ought to do? 

            These questions come up a lot among scientists in climate change research community, and different people have different answers. Some are all for full-throated civic participation, like James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who quit his full-time science position to free himself to do more frequent and forceful advocacy. Or Michael Mann, a prominent climate researcher who wrote in If you See Something, Say Something

There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

            On the other side are those who think that scientists, and their evidence, are only credible - and therefore of value to society - if they stay out of the fray…neutral. Andy Revkin in his Dot Earth blog cites the example of climate scientist Susan Solomon who was asked about how urgently society needs to worry about climate change;

 …it’s not my role to try to communicate what should be done,” Dr. Solomon said. “I believe that is a societal choice. I believe science is one input to that choice, and I also believe that science can best serve society by refraining from going beyond its expertise.

      In the middle are those like Gavin Schmidt who, in a recent talk What should a climate scientist advocate for? The Intersection of Expertise and Values in a Politicized World.” (summary here) made the case for what now-deceased climate scientist Stephen Schneider called ‘responsible advocacy”; speaking up, but separating the “is” (the facts) from the “ought” (what should be done about those facts.) The guidelines for ‘responsible advocacy’ are;

  • communicate one’s values fairly and truthfully;
  • make the connections between one’s values and policy choices explicit;
  • make sure to distinguish personal conclusions from the scientific consensus;
  • acknowledge that people with different values would have different policy choices;
  • be aware of how his/her values might impact objectivity, and be vigilant.

      The Schmidt/Schneider middle ground helps answer the question about whether scientists should advocate, and how, because it recognizes these debates are about both evidence and values, facts and feelings. To be credible, the scientist has to acknowledge the feelings he or she brings to the issue.

      The importance of this openness is established by what various findings from cognitive science teach; that facts, alone, are meaningless, in the purest sense of that word. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio writes in Descartes Error,  facts only have meaning when we sense how we feel about them. Psychologists Melissa Finucane and Paul Slovic note that our judgments and behaviors are guided by what they call the Affect Heuristic, a combination of what we know, and how we feel.  How we feel about the facts is shaped by powerful emotional and instinctive filters that operate beyond consciousness and which dominate objective conscious reason because, as neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux writes in The Emotional Brain,   “…at this point in our evolutionary history…connections from the  emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.” Finally, these emotional filters help us interpret information in order to keep us safe…to help us survive…arguably the most powerful motivation for the motivated reasoning  we all do. The feelings we have about risk have arise out of our risk perception instincts to keep us safe. We fight fiercely to preserve those feelings. Information that challenges them literally feels threatening.

     So it doesn’t matter if Dr. Solomon offers only her evidence and not an opinion, or if Gavin Schmidt is open and honest about how his values color how he sees the evidence. A scientist’s personal credibility and integrity will be questioned by anyone whose views are threatened by what the scientist offers, even if evidence is all the scientist offers. (Michael Mann and his ‘hockey stick’ chart, for example.)  The mud’s going to fly no matter how far from the policy debate the scientist tries to stay. There are no sidelines to hide beyond in value wars.

     That means the answer to the question of whether scientists should go beyond merely describing their evidence and contribute their views on what society ought to do about that evidence is…yes, they should. It will provide them the opportunity to explain and defend their evidence, and integrity. And beyond that, it will allow scientists to fulfill the obligation to society that comes with their expertise and profession.

     As the challenges we face become ever more complex in a scientific, technological, globally interconnected world, we need the guidance of well-informed experts, not just their knowledge but their suggestions, to help figure out what to do. The policies we choose will reflect our values, of course. But with the full participation of scientists, those policies will come closer to doing us the most good.

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