Michael Nelson on scientists as advocates

September 21, 2010

Over at Age of Engagement, Matt Nisbet interviews Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, about the role of scientists in a democracy. Here’s an excerpt:

You argue that scientists have a “special responsibility” to engage in advocacy.  Can you explain?

I shutter [sic] when I think about the implications of stripping scientists – those who might know more about some given topic then anyone else – of their citizenship.  I do not think people know what they are saying or implying when they say scientists should not be advocates, or when scientists justify their lack of advocacy or criticize their peers on this basis.  I can hardly imagine anything more undemocratic, unhealthy, and un-American than knowingly stripping someone of their citizenship, or knowingly giving it up.

As we argue in our Conservation Biology paper [pdf], citizens in a democracy have a moral obligation to actively promote within their society that which they are justified in thinking is right or good and to actively opposing that which they are justified in thinking is wrong or bad.  Consequently, because they are citizens, every scientist has an obligation to be just and transparently honest advocates. Societies behave unethically when they expect or encourage their citizens to abdicate their privileges and responsibilities as citizens without adequate justification. When scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject a fundamental aspect of their citizenship.  Rejecting one’s responsibility as a citizen is unethical.  An important part of this, however, is the manner in which scientists, as citizens, are obligated to be advocates: in a justified and transparent manner.  We have too often seen scientists, and others, not advocating in this manner.

(Any idea who he’s referring to?)

You also argue that if advocacy is done effectively by a scientist, they are at little risk for losing their credibility.  But what about universities or scientific societies: If more of their faculty or members are engaging in advocacy, does this jeopardize the reputation or funding support for a university?  Or the reputation of a scientific society?

I do not really believe that scientific credibility is as fragile as other people seem to believe.  Scientists can be terrible people and still do good science, or they can be wonderful people and do bad science, and we can all make that distinction.  Moreover, we sometimes forget that it is the scientific community that is the gatekeeper of credibility.  If a scientist or scientific community cannot draw a distinction between a person and their advocacy on the one hand, and their science on the other, then shame on us.  If we give away the control over our own ability to judge credibility, then shame on us.

I actually think that universities, especially land grant universities, would gain some credibility in the eye of the public if they became more engaged.  Certainly if they advocate without transparency and in an unjustified manner that would be a terrible thing – and we see some of that today.  But can you imagine a university where scientists worked with communication specialists, philosopher of science, ethicists, writers and poets and film makers, to consider and craft messages relaying the results of their work in a justified and transparent manner?  Where we all took engagement as a sacred duty, as a way to justify and measure and test our work?  Can you imagine what an example that would set in a culture that currently struggles so much with basic notions of civility?

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