Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Con: Scientists Should Not Be Advocates

I believe that scientists should not be advocates based on the nature of science and advocacy. First, the nature of science is empirical and objective. Oxford dictionary defines it as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In stark contrast to the systematic study involved in science, advocacy may be defined as “public support for or recommendation of a particular cause or policy.”
My argument is that scientists may be advocates, but they cannot be scientist and advocate at the same time. Take Climate Gate for example, a situation in which hundreds of emails between top climate scientists were hacked and spread throughout the internet (Revkin, 2009). While climate change is now a widely accepted view, at the time it was still very controversial. The scientists that believed in the concept of climate change integrity and empiricism were compromised from the data breach and they came under serious fire for the emails that conspired between them (Revkin, 2009). The biggest problem arose from emails discussing other scientists that were opposed to climate change and using “tricks” to make their statistics look a certain way (Revkin, 2009). Additionally, they called into question the work of scientists that opposed their view on climate change, even bringing up the idea to challenge their PhD (Revkin, 2009).

Clearly from this example, these scientists’ advocacy got in the way of the proper use of data and even made them behave with a sense of immaturity towards scientists who did not believe in their data. Instead of using the other scientists’ research to better their own, they chose to call in to question the education of scientists that opposed their view. In science opposing results create evidence for further investigation, therefore these scientists left the role of scientist and can no longer be considered the scientific advocates that they claimed to be.

Advocacy creates a need for moral, ethical, and political views to be involved to influence your position on a policy. Although science may be used concurrently with these other things, scientists should present any and all results and not tell policy makers how to make decisions. To be a scientific advocate one must leave the realm of systematic study and then can no longer be a scientist, but an advocate lobbying a specific position. In sum, scientists should not be advocates because there is an innate conflict between advocacy and the scientific communication of information and the concept of science itself, both key roles that scientists must fulfill.

Revkin, A. C. (2009) Hacked email is new fodder for climate dispute. The New York Times. Retrieved 
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  1. Are science and advocacy mutually exclusive? What you described is a situation where scientists let their personal bias get in the way of their science. Scientists are trained not to do this, and to use the scientific method to reason about problems. Therefore the scientists you referenced were acting outside of the scientific code of ethics. Most scientists are able to separate themselves from their personal views, so they could maintain a barrier between their identity as a citizen and their identity as a scientist. There is nothing mutually exclusive about behaving like a scientist sometimes and a advocate at others.

  2. I agree. Scientists cannot be both an advocate and scientist at the same time. One is a nonobjective view and the other is an opinionated view, and the two do not go together. The climate change example was very good. It shows a fine example of how scientists biased results and thus made the concept of climate change even more controversial as a result. More people in the public wondered if more scientists were skewing data about climate change for a financial or social gain, and started to question whether scientists should be able to advocate such a hotly debated and controversial topic.