When should scientists be advocates? It’s a simple question that often raises a storm of controversy.
Some argue that scientists should not be advocates, period. According to this view, science is value-neutral — simply a quest for knowledge. Scientists should conduct research to reveal information about our world, but leave it up to society to decide what to do with that information.
Of course, such a viewpoint ignores the fact that no activity is truly value-neutral. Even deciding what research to undertake requires a value judgment. So for most people, the question is really — at what point should scientists take a stand on an issue?
Correcting misleading information in the media would be a good start. Right now, well-heeled groups that have a lot to gain from maintaining the status quo are actively funding campaigns of misinformation to confuse the public about science issues. Some of these campaigns are organized through conservative think-tanks based out of the United States. But their presence is felt in Canada too.
One of their most successful strategies in recent years was to have spokespeople consistently complain about the “liberal bias” in the media. It was like a mantra, over and over. Of course, there was no liberal bias, but by repeating the phrase ad nauseum, people began to believe it. They assumed it must be true. In response, media (in the U.S. in particular) took a sharp turn to the right.
Journalist Chris Mooney’s new book The Republican War on Science chronicles just how successful and far reaching these groups have become. He argues there has been a deliberate misrepresentation of science and an exaggeration of uncertainties that stretches all the way to the White House. From acid rain, to climate change, birth control, endangered species, stem cell cloning and more, Mr. Mooney says industry groups and the Bush administration have deliberately tried to keep the public misinformed.
Don’t think this doesn’t happen in Canada. Newsrooms across the country are routinely bombarded with articles from rogue scientists or “environmental consultants” who have a story to tell. These stories are usually the opposite of the prevailing scientific opinion, but because of this conflict, media often pick them up. That’s why, even though there is no debate about the existence of climate change in scientific circles, you still see one playing out in the editorial pages of newspapers. And that’s why television news programs still find a spokesperson with an opposite view to provide “balance” to a story — even if that opinion is patently absurd.
One could argue that it’s the media who are letting us down. After all, the task of disseminating information to the public belongs squarely in their hands. Having worked both as a scientist and a journalist, I can see why that argument is tempting. But journalists work on tight deadlines and with ever-shrinking resources. Reporters with specific beats who would get to know an issue in detail are becoming scarce. And science journalists are a rare breed indeed.
Perhaps journalists could be doing a better job, but so could scientists. It isn’t enough to do good work in the lab or in the field only to have your issues distorted in the press. If those who know the issues most intimately don’t set the record straight, who will?
In a recent essay in the journal Science, Philippine aquaculture scientist Jurgenne Primavera made the case for scientists in the developing world to speak up, but much of what she says is universal:
“We scientists in developing countries need to come down from the Ivory Tower and disseminate results not only in peer-reviewed journals, but also through advocacy and the popular media. We must not forget our hearts even as we apply our minds. We do not do science in a vacuum but against the grinding poverty and environment-unfriendly character of modern times, and we can use our scientific knowledge to reduce suffering and make life more full for fellow humans and creatures.”
When should scientists be advocates? Whenever they can.
David T. Suzuki PhD, chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.