Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Con: Scientists should not be activists

I believe that scientists should not be activists because the field of science is based off of one's ability to quantitatively analyze natural occurrences in an unbiased way that can be repeated with consistent results. Advocacy goes against this (for which the definition I use is "a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy") because advocacy is a form of bias. By supporting side over another (such as in policy decisions), a scientist is putting the value of one side as greater than the other. There are two main consequences that would arise if scientists are activists. The first being that scientists will likely loose credibility and that scientists are not as knowledgeable about policy decisions as legislators.

If a scientist begins to publicly support a particular policy goal, people will start to think that the scientist is biased toward that particular policy goal. The problem is that people will also think that any research done or data collected is done with the goal of supporting that particular policy. Even if the research conducted in a completely unbiased way, there will always be opposition that will point out the researcher's affiliations and lead to a loss in credibility. A very controversial topic was that of the Spotted Owl which makes its home in the old growth forests of the north-western United States throughout the 1990s even going to the 2000s. Conservationists argued that the owl is an important indicator of ecosystem health and should be protected, while opponents in the timber industry argued that the logging of old growth forests is critical to the economy and protection of the forests would lead to job losses (Andre and Velasquez, n.d.) This was a topic which grabbed the attention of the entire nation and which unbiased scientific data was critical to the decision making process. Scientists which skewed data in this case where highly criticized. In essence, it is critical for scientists to be unbiased in their collection of scientific data or risk of loss of credibility.

Another problem with the idea of scientists being activists is that scientists have a great amount of knowledge about their field of study, but do not know much about policy decisions. Although they may have some great ideas of ways to preserve old growth forests, scientists often do not take into account the amount of work that needs to be put in to enact those measures. Some things that need to be considered when enacting a policy is how much money it will cost, amount of man power, the constitutionality of policies and public support. Legislators are better suited to make those decisions.
Andre, C., & Velasquez, M. (n.d.). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Ethics and the Environment: The Spotted Owl Controversy. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from


  1. Although I agree that scientist should be very concerned with their public relations and credibility (as it is a means to secure grants and funding) I disagree in that credibility should be an end and not JUST a means.

    A scientist who is working in a particular field ought not advocate for that field because it might hurt his/her PR? Concerning yourself with public relations goes both ways. For instance, recently in a major compilation of scientific works on climate change articles were included from the climate change opposition EVEN though those articles did not meet the standard level of scientific integrity. They included these weaker articles in order to APPEAR unbiased and to LOOK like they were not advocating for climate change.

    Whether or not scientist are attempting to advocate or not advocate the largest threat to the scientific community is sacrificing integrity. If good science is used and results published than it ought not matter how or if they advocate.

    Secondly, relying on legislators to make scientifically literate decisions without scientist pushing their data seems awfully scary to me.

  2. While I agree that scientists are likely not qualified to understand all the work that is needed to enact certain conservation policies (or policies in general) I don't agree with the idea of leaving these decisions completely up to the legislators. I think your argument about scientists could be turned around to be about the legislators. Legislators making policy are likely unqualified or will not understand all the implications their policies will have on scientific issues especially in the realm of conservation biology. I think this is why scientists and legislators should work together to make the best decisions and take into account the whole picture.

  3. I agree that legislators are better at making and enacting policy than scientists for each is an expert in a separate field. However, I do not think that just because a scientist is unfamiliar with legislative processes that they should not be able to influence and contribute to policy making decisions. Many legislators are unfamiliar with scientific methods and processes that go into research, but the importance of using pertinent research in making policy decisions, especially in conservation, is not undermined by this lack of knowledge. It should be the scientists responsibility to educate legislators and the public about research through advocacy. Effective communication between scientists and legislators will lead to better policy decisions. The protection of a species, an environment, or humans should morally outweigh any potential threat of loss of credibility that a scientist may face by becoming an advocate.