Arbiters or Agitators? Why Perception Matters for Science Advocates (Part One)

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With an impending protest march and scientists unsure about taking a public political stance, striking the balance between objectivity and activism has rarely been more salient in modern America.

From grade school, we’re taught that science is empirical. Objective. Unbiased.

By the time we reach graduate school, we’re fully steeped in this maxim. We accept as a given that science is driven by a dispassionate pursuit of truth. Our training reflects this belief, the scientific method our guiding principle: we observe the world around us, make testable predictions, and assess them through rigorous and broadly accepted methods.

Anyone who’s actually conducted research knows that it rarely works like this in practice. Nevertheless, the underlying ideal persists among scientists. We try to avoid creeping bias and are forever striving for objectivity.

This ideal lends itself to a natural corollary: that science has no role in partisanship. That, in fact, ideological fervor is antithetical to the very nature of science. Science is pure. It ought not bend to the political class, whose actions—whether motivated by ideology or self-interest—often fail to follow the evidence. As a scientist, then, better to lower your gaze downward at the laboratory bench—where truth is actually uncovered.

While the modern practice of science is not without problems (exhibit A: systemic irreproducibility), on the whole it has proven remarkably successful. We’ve experienced an unprecedented outpouring of technology since the Industrial Age, not to mention greater life expectancy than ever before and heartening strides against food scarcity and poverty. Given the track record of science, it’s easy to see why some practitioners are not compelled to engage in politics: the truth will eventually out, and discoveries cannot ultimately be stopped from enriching society.

At the same time, discovery breeds societal ramifications—and these can be far-reaching, deep, and disruptive. Paradigmatic shifts in our understanding of the world, ushered in by science, create difficult questions that often cut to the core values of a culture. Over a century ago, Darwinian evolution posed an existential challenge to the edifice of Western theology. In a future replete with CRISPR, gene therapy, and synthetic genomes, humanity may someday grapple with the ethical choice of controlling its own evolution—or perhaps of even altering human nature itself.

In the current age, science has presented us with the irony that the burning of petroleum, the historical lifeblood of global economic prosperity, can alter the landscape of ecosystems and the trajectory of the global climate. This discovery challenges us with fundamental policy choices—choices that collide with the cultural values of many Americans.

This line of thinking leads to quite a different corollary: that science is intricately woven into society, and as such must inevitably become political. After all, what is politics, if not a means to make decisions about the nature of the society we wish to live in?

So we hold two values in our hands—the need for objectivity to drive science, and the need to navigate societal concerns that guide and are guided by science. These values are inherently in tension with one another, and will always burden each scientist with a choice: toil in the comforting shadows of the laboratory, or step into the blinding light of public opinion and political controversy.

A 21st Century Balancing Act

The tension between disinterestedly discerning truth and guiding sociopolitical change is as old as written history. (Socrates would certainly attest to this.) Within the modern American political context, though, it has developed an increasingly sharpened edge. Many scientists are beginning to feel threatened by what they perceive as a growing political movement that is fundamentally at odds with their empirical value system. (Whether and to what degree this is actually the case is a debate for another day.)

The response by the scientific community? A March for Science in Washington, D.C., with satellite marches planned across the country. The event is fairly unprecedented in modern memory, not only in its scale but in its well-credentialed support—the organizers of the march have received the endorsement and outright partnership of distinguished American scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society for Cell Biology.

As with any political movement, entry into the public limelight brings risks. Some scientists fear advocacy may deliver repercussions to their professional lives. (As indeed it can. See, e.g., the case of Dr. Michael Lubell). Others, perhaps interpreting the early action against EPA communiques as a sign of things to come, fear political retribution against the scientific community as a whole—in the form of spending cuts or other regulatory maneuvers.

These are important risks to consider, but are focused predominantly at the top of the national power structure. Ultimately, political strength rests in the hands of the people. Every politician is replaceable, given enough political will. This means that, in the end, successful advocacy means persuading the public—and doing so over the long term.

This is where the deepest risk of a protest march lies. It reflects, to some degree, a clash of values. And like any skirmish in a culture war, such a clash holds the potential to damage the credibility of its participants in the eyes of voters.

It’s a concern, then, that strikes squarely at the heart of that timeless impartiality/advocacy balancing act: as I march across the National Mall, what will become of my credibility as an impartial arbiter of the truth? And as a representative of the scientific community, how will my actions affect the public’s perception of scientists as a whole?

David_The_Death_of_SocratesAncient activism was also somewhat risky.

New Findings in Advocacy

With this specter lingering beneath the surface of the March for Science, some have taken comfort in an exquisitely timed study dealing with just this question:

Scientists have long been afraid of engaging in ‘advocacy.’ a new study says it may not hurt them.

Do scientists lose credibility when they become political? A new study suggests that, contrary to common fears, the answer is no.

Those news headlines come from the Washington Post and The Atlantic, which put a spotlight on new research examining the relationship between science advocacy and public perception. As the headlines intimate, the study offers hope that the reputations of scientists who act as political advocates won’t suffer among their American compatriots.

Both stories provide the obligatory caveat that the study, a controlled experiment, may not directly apply to the unique sociopolitical context that defines the March for Science—a fairly high-profile street protest occurring just months after an acrimonious presidential election.

Still, the overarching message being imparted is clear: the fear to commit to advocacy is largely unfounded.

That message is quite bold, and the implication—go ahead and protest, stand up for science, and don’t dwell too long on the downside—will certainly resonate with many scientists. Some may take it as a green light to protest without hesitation. Moreover, as significant news outlets whose reach extends well beyond the narrow sphere of influence held by science bloggers, their message will likely impact a wide audience of would-be science advocates.

Given this, and considering the importance of the subject matter—building trust and understanding between scientists and the public—it’s imperative to look at such a study clearly and critically. We’re scientists, after all, and  it behooves us to exhibit some skepticism. Does the research actually demonstrate what it’s purported to by the media?

In the next post I’ll take a closer look at the study’s findings, to see whether they stand up to the hype. (Spoiler alert: the message being spread by these outlets may be overstating the case.)

The Perennial Divide

The debate hardly rests upon one study; even after the march is over, the appropriate public role of scientists will remain as unsettled as it has always been. It is a multifaceted question, touching on pragmatic goals and deeply held beliefs—and in large measure boils down to one’s own personal disposition towards advocacy.

It’s certainly not an easy dilemma to decipher; it will continue to vex scientists over the course of this administration, and long after the current political contest has become an entry for the history books.

3 thoughts on “Arbiters or Agitators? Why Perception Matters for Science Advocates (Part One)

  1. Looking forward to the next post! I’ve wanted to dive into the methods of the study that supposedly shows it’s not detrimental scientists’ reputation to advocate, but haven’t gotten to do so yet. Maybe you’ll beat me to it 🙂

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