Wednesday, February 26, 2014

PRO: Scientists should be advocates if they so choose

In many cases, professionals are held to higher or different standards than the general public because of their expertise. By this I mean that a scientist for instance, will be taken more seriously when discussing a subject they have researched than a non-scientist who has looked up information about a subject. The years of training and expertise give scientists words extra weight; they are supposed to be the most informed, the most objective, the “smart ones”. Some argue that this extra weight and supposed objectivity means that scientists should not be advocates. What if scientists propose bad policy? What if they propose a biased opinion? Etc. But is this fair?

Is it fair to tell a scientist that they are not allowed to be an advocate for policy? The general public is encouraged to be informed about the world around them and advocate for policy which they believe in or feel is right. Scientists are told no. They are told that this is wrong; advocacy is not your place. But if you have spent time studying a conservation issue, for instance, and have shown that a species or population is dangerously close to becoming endangered, then why should you not say something? If you feel strongly about the issue and believe that some policy needs to be put into place to stop something disastrous from happening it is your moral obligation to do so. Not every scientist has to be an advocate for policy, but if a scientist is informed about an issue and is able to make good recommendations, why would we not let them? They have gathered information and are in the best position to interpret it and distribute that information to the public. I do believe that it is important to indicate the difference between what are facts and opinions. 

Scientists should report their facts and then make recommendation on policy on what they believe will help, clearly indicating that these recommendations are just that—recommendations. Not facts.

One example is a study that looked at the effect of policy meant to reduce lead poisoning in the California Condors in Arizona and Utah. The study found that the policies that had been put into place had made a difference in reducing condor mortality rates and recommended the policy to be expanded because they expected that this would further decrease mortality rates. In this case, the scientists presented their results and advocated for policy based on their findings. They stated that they would expect the policy to reduce mortality rates but in made no guarantees and did not state it as a fact. If these distinctions are held between fact and opinion there is no reason scientists should not be allowed to advocate if it’s something they wish to do.

Green RE, Hunt WG, Parish CN, Newton I (2008) Effectiveness of Action to Reduce Exposure of Free-Ranging California Condors in Arizona and Utah to Lead from Spent Ammunition. PLoS ONE 3(12): e4022. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004022

1 comment:

  1. As a person who wrote in favor of scientists NOT being advocates, I believe you made a lot of valid points. Since scientists are often held to higher standards because they have spent time studying the issue, why not let them advocate? It's a tricky situation. We worry about scientists becoming corrupt because of money, but what about all the corrupt politicians out there? You are making me second guess my belief!