Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Great Debate(Pro): Should Scientists Be Advocates?

A heated conversation, to be sure, was held between the GIS course and Landscape Genetics and Conservation Course. Should scientists act as advocates? Or does advocacy undermine the objectivity that is seen as an essential component of science?

First off, I would like to address that all that is to follow in this post is completely my own opinion. You don't have to agree with it, but I do ask that you respect it. To begin my argument, I would like to initiate this dialogue (well, monologue I suppose, internet) by stating my opinion that there is no such thing as objectivity. It is impossible for any human being (any sentient being, for that matter) to be objective given that the thoughts, motives, morals, and your overall character is informed by your upbringing and the culture that you are surrounded by. This is to say that while science may be based on the facts, data, and the scientific method, this information will mean a slightly different thing to every scientist who interprets these details even if they have been in the same class and instructed by the same educators since pre-school.

That being said, I think that it is a moral obligation of scientists to share their knowledge with the public. In an ideal world, each and every citizen of the planet would be able to interpret scientific articles heavy on data table, charts, and formulas on their own and evaluate methods with a critical mind. This, however, is not the reality. The reality is that many science journals are only read, appreciated, and understood by scientists who are literate in the theory, practice, and nuanced art that is science. Given that much of science is conducted with public money it is the responsibility of those doing the research to share their unbiased, factual information, but to also explain it in layman's terms. It is one thing to generate facts, but it is another entirely to be able to understand what science means. Just by opening access to science publications and saying that they are available for the public would not mean that the public would be able to interpret the information.

The love of science and research comes from learning about an issue or a need to learn more about something. How are we going to inspire new scientists to conduct research if there is no passion to explore, protect, and discover more about the world around us? In order to understand cause and effect of scientific research we need scientists who understand their findings the best (and who have followed all steps of the scientific method including thorough peer review) to inform the public of how these findings impact their day to day lives. If scientists did not advocate for clean air and clean water we would still be able to set our rivers on fire. To learn more about one of my personal heroes (and the most brilliantly intelligent scientist that I know), click on this link to read about Neil Carman- former scientific consultant for the EPA turned public advocate in the face of inaction.

In summary, we need to make sure that regardless of where funding comes from that scientists are able to advocate for the good of the planet and all of its inhabitants. We don't need more scientists being prevented from telling the people that industry is not looking out for their interest as happened in the mid 20th century with cigarettes companies paying scientists to lie and firing those who didn't. In order to protect our planetary health, scientists must be allowed to make recommendations in public forums to the people, for policy, and for further research. If scientists do not advocate for their findings then who will protect our planet from imminent degradation?

Works consulted:

Karr, James. (2006) When Government Ignores Science, Scientists Should Speak Up. BioScience. Vol. 56, No. 4 (April 2006), pp. 287-288


  1. I agree with you that it is impossible to eliminate bias completely. However I disagree with you that a scientist cant be objective because they are human and there fore have bias. Part of being a scientist involves using the scientific method. As an objective scientist, its important to limit bias as much as possible by using data from a variety of sources and including all results even you don't agree with or even like. Its also important as an objective scientist to be aware of where in your hypothesis you feel you would be the most biased and rectify that before you start your tests.

  2. There is nothing wrong with scientists sharing their findings with the public. This should be encouraged because the more society knows the better it can make informed decisions. If this is considered to be science advocacy, then there is no problem. Scientists can help policy makers make better regulations or understand the complexity of some problems. However, the problem arises when a scientist says their findings reveal that x will happen and we must do policy y to prevent it. The scientists should share their findings about x and inform politicians and the public about the consequences of x. That is perfectly acceptable, but it is not the job of the scientist to advocate that policy y will prevent it. This job falls upon policy makers who can make those value based decisions and determine if the benefits of policy y outweigh its costs. It is up to politicians and the public to decide what is the best path to take to remedy "x". The main job of the scientist is to inform the public about x and not influence the public on the best policy to solve x.

  3. I agree that there will always be bias, even as far as the topics you choose to study as a scientist, but it is still the duty of the scientist to be as objective as possible in presenting their findings. While it is true that scientific journals can be difficult to understand and have limited public access, that seems more like an issue scientists should rally behind rather than advocating for specific policy outcomes that may hinder the public's impression of scientists and their current role in the policy system.

  4. I agree with you, I think it's really easy to say we are objective, but when a situation presents itself we will revert back to what we know creating bias. The world gets nowhere without advocacy however, if someone be it a scientist or your neighbor next door doesn't do it things would never change. Without advocacy education that is vital to our survival would go unnoticed and unannounced. If a scientists' research needs to be presented to the public because it makes advances let it be biased at least it's being voiced.

  5. I agree with you, bias is what makes everyone different from one another. We can't help but be biased. And if you want someone creating policies, wouldn't you want someone who knows the most about the subject at hand? It seems like that's who you'd want calling the shots, but perhaps that's giving a scientist too much power.