Sunday, February 23, 2014

Abstention: Scientist should be advocates.

After the Great GIS Debate of 2014 the opponents to the Resolution “Scientist should be advocates” were announced to be victorious although the proponents “had better argumentation”.  While I would love to agree with the judge’s verdict after the debate I was left with two sincere beliefs; 1) Debating is a terrible way to convey information and that absolutist normative arguments ought not be applied to very broad situations.  Kai Chan helps illuminate the arguments in her editorial Value and Advocacy in Conservation Biology: Crisis  Discipline or Discipline in Crisis?.

Kai Chan major argument is that scientist are willing to produce biased science in order for short term gains; dogmatism, mixing facts and values, and pushing conflicting agendas all lead to short term successes but ultimately lead to long term failures (Chan 2008, 1-2).  “Of course our values influence our science” was also an iterated sentiment expressed by the Con side and the majority of the arguments seemed to stem from the idea that science should be inherently objective (Chan 2008, 1).  That scientists who are funded by corporations seem to consistently show results that are in favor of their employer and that these scientist give scientists a bad name.  Chan claims that scientists “should should not restrict ourselves to the use of only value- neutral language” because “terms such as degradation, good, and healthy convey values” and that objective science should be given to the general public (2008, 2).  That scientists ought to be intelligent automatons selflessly working for the good of the planet with federal funds (but who are too illiterate in the world to advocate plausible policy changes); after all if they actually had their own opinions they might intentionally bias the data.  

Lukeprog. (2012, March 7). How to Fix Science.Less Wrong. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

However, if scientists are cold distant automatons that only publish to peer reviewed journals and steer clear of politics than who will speak up for the declining Ozone layer before it is gone?  What champion will stand for the San Marcos Blind Salamander?  Who will urge our legislators to put healthier food in school cafeterias?  If a scientist makes a discovery that is relevant shouldn’t they “dumb it down” enough for the layman to understand?  Scientists have to be advocates; otherwise those who do not have voices will be trampled.  That scientist are experts in their field and are the most literate when it comes to policies affecting their very narrow specialty.  Legislators, although elected to serve the public good, are bombarded with request and simply lack the resources to read through Nature magazine or peer reviewed sources looking for information to make policy out of.  If scientist do not dumb down their science and give it to the public their area of study may be put into jeopardy due to faulty existing policies.

So in the end, should scientist be selfless automatons without options or individuals who are invested in their specialty?  Neither.  Chan cites Noss’ work in that “there are advocates and there are sloppy or dishonest scientists, and these groups differ” (2008, 3).  Scientist, definitionally, are individuals who are seeking truth.  Their information can be skewed by journalist and politicians or they can forgo being a scientist entirely and provide faulty information.  In a normative debate such as this it would seem that in theory people who ascribe to a life of scientific discovery ought to attempt to spread truth and knowledge.  It hardly matters whether they are in a lab testing how to make a synthetic fabric for socks or in the streets of DC protesting coal power as long as their results are good science then the ultimate goal of a better and more knowledgeable world is reached.  Not all scientist should be advocates (although all advocates hopefully have some science) but some should.  It would appear that the real world is slightly more complicated than a single hour of debate can break down.

1 comment:

  1. I love the terminology "cold distant automation." I would like to ask why should we care about the blind san marcos samander or why we need individuals to convince us why we should care? Or, I can side-step this and ask whether or not the public connection is even necessary, Should the scientists who choose to be advocates mainly focus on proselytizing to those who possess the power routes for change? Too many questions. I quit now.