Scientist as activist

By Grant Jacobs 05/05/2011 10


I’m opening this as a discussion, taking my lead from a couple of comments made by readers in another thread (Wakefield autism studies slammed as fraud by BMJ, if you really must know).

Carol starts with:

‘[…] It is not usually a good thing when scientists get estranged from the scientific community and go out on their own as activists. In fact I’m struggling to think of an example when it has been a good thing.’

and Michael chips in reply:

‘I would suggest that most activists engage in propaganda of one sort or another. In my opinion the moment a scientist uses propaganda rather than facts in her or his arguments she/he no longer deserves the be called a scientist.
‘But then perhaps after a long tiring day, I’m being a bit harsh :-)’

I’d like to open the comments to anyone’s thoughts.

In particular, what I’m thinking of another related situation: when an active scientist in their own time is activist for some position or cause, for example opposing (aspects of) genetically modified foods, particular treatments for disease and so on.

The reason I raise this is that it blurs the line.

For the person who has clearly left science (or medicine) behind, it’s relatively straight-forward. But what of the person who still has a role in science?

Should they stand down from all advocacy?

At what point does advising or informing others become activism?

I’ll get out of the way* and leave you to it.

(* I have the annual tax summary to finish off…)


Other articles on Code for Life:

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media

Feynman on appreciating things and other stories

Wakefield autism studies slammed as fraud by BMJ

Changing the Ph.D.

“Knowledge is merely opinion.” Storm – in cartoon and words


10 Responses to “Scientist as activist”

  • Hi Grant,
    I think as you suggest it is a very blurry line. Virtually every line of activism works by engaging people emotively and will often engage in propaganda.
    If I ever found myself knowingly using propaganda to advocate a particular position when I know that science showed something different. I would seriously question whether I could still refer myself as a scientist.

    However, to balance this I think we can no longer have scientists hidden away in labs ignoring the consequences of their work or how science is being used. Scientists need to be active politically and socially.

    So long as a scientist uses facts and logics in debates then I think he/she is safe. Though ot could be argued that in activism that is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back.

    A very provocative topic :-)

  • “For the person who has clearly left science (or medicine) behind, it’s relatively straight-forward. But what of the person who still has a role in science?”
    I think I see it the other way round, Grant. I see more problems with activists who are ex-scientists, particularly if their views diverge from conventionally-accepted science. I’m thinking of rogue doctors who become anti-vaxers, the antifluoridation activist Dr Paul Connett, and so on. They use the mana of their scientific qualifications to influence the gullible and lend weight to their agendas, even if their views on a particular topic are not well supported by evidence.

    OTOH, someone like Jim Hansen is clearly an activist as well as a scientist, in that he has written popular books about climate change and has worked tirelessly to try and get politicians to understand the threat of climate change. I don’t find this problematic at all as he is supported by the weight of evidence.

  • (Wrote the bit below before Carol’s comment.)

    Just to encourage people, aka being a stirrer… 😉 :

    Consider a topic with several points of view, i.e. the science isn’t fully resolved yet. The scientist personally favours one of view and, intentionally or not, “leans” their presentation that way. Or they push concern about a possible set of issues (for GE, say), which in time may or may not prove to be an issue.

    I would have thought the issue would be setting the wider context – making clear the ‘state of play’, that there are several possible positions and that the differences between them are not yet resolved. (A media issue I’ve touched on before; ironically for the topic at hand here, the comments thread of that article drew the attention of advocates…!)

    Once you out as far as straight propaganda—blatantly pushing one line—it’s beyond the pale, but this might be a finer line – ?

  • Carol,

    I meant it’s clearer where they stand – on the wrong side of the fence as it were. (Mind you, that’s the point of view of a scientist. As you can say, they can wave their “badges” around, make nice-sounding words, etc.)

  • Carol – or even folks who are still scientists and in fact use the ‘weight’ of that role to support some frankly out-there stuff: Montagnier on the ‘memory of water’ stuff would be a case in point. Then we get supporters of homeopathy saying that since a Nobel laureate is in their camp, it must be true…
    Sorry, very tired this morning, I hope that makes sense!

  • Alison – for your reading enjoyment:

    http://luizmeira.com/water.htm

    Even better than the memory of water are the experiments of Dr Masaru Emoto, who is really, er, something. He believes that water responds to human emotions and conducted a series of trials where he taped words onto bottles of water, froze it and took pictures of the ice crystals. Yes, really.
    Turns out water likes Bach and Beethoven but not heavy metal! Who’d have thought it was so judgmental? heh.

  • I’ve been politically active in the US (as a liberal) in general. But I feel responsible to speak up for science issues that I know very well too.

    I’ve seen anti-GMO activists try to get academic funding to Africa stopped, based on flat-out lies they are perpetuating. I have every right to stand up for what’s right in that case. And I did. Even when that’s not popular on the US left.

    I’ve been in the room when the US CDC tried to communicate with the public on H1N1 vaccinations. If I hadn’t been at the table I was sitting at, there would have been nothing but anti-vax moms and conspiracy theorists there.

    I understand why scientists have typically stayed a bit out of activism. But then our funding kept getting hit because people didn’t appreciate what we were doing. And creationists tried to take over the school boards. And anti-abortion activists got stem cell research blocked. Standing aside did not serve us well. At all.

    I’m out in front of political activism, while still practicing science. I feel it’s my duty, actually.

  • Propaganda is (and I quote from wikipedia “is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself.” It often lies by omission. It doesn’t have to though.

    There is no problem with scientists being activists and using propaganda. It’s just that one would expect a scientist to step up the game and present all the facts. Doesn’t stop one from using those facts to present an activists point of view though. The blurry line, I would have thought is between selective use of the facts and presentation of all the facts – a problem for all activists, not just scientist.

    I can’t find the link atm but there was a discussion about scientist entering politics in the US last year. One pertinent point I thought was that when you become a scientist, you don’t give up the rights of a citizen. You’re still just as entitled to participate in the political process as any other person. Personally, I’d go further and say that with the amount of knowledge scientists have, within their field of expertise more scientists should be activists.

  • Ben,
    “The blurry line, I would have thought is between selective use of the facts and presentation of all the facts – a problem for all activists, not just scientist.”

    I think this is the key point for me – the selective use of facts is crossing the line.

    “Personally, I’d go further and say that with the amount of knowledge scientists have, within their field of expertise more scientists should be activists.”

    I agree

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