Science in the crosshairs: the public role of science and scientists--a reply

Author: Jessica Hellmann

I delivered the following comments today as a reply to a conference presentation by Ken Miller (Brown University). Maybe these comments will stimulate thinking by others on the topic of science and public outreach. I'm not a scholar in this area, but I have spent some time thinking about how I plan to negotiate the public sphere as a scientist myself.
April 23, 2013
Miller's title: "Science in the Crosshairs: the public role of science and scientists"
I agree with Dr. Miller that many scientists shy away from the limelight implied by the term “public intellectual,” preferring that data carry the public debate over personality and sound bites. But I want to spend my few minutes suggesting that this disinterested view has serious short-comings, and I want to suggest another type of public scientist, one mentioned but not expanded upon by Dr. Miler. This other type of scientific public intellectual is one who has a seat at the table of democratic decision-making. Like Dr. Miller mentioned for role of scientific popularizer, I think this policy-engaged scientist has been undervalued or unappreciated by fellow scientists, by academia, and by politicians. I hope that this can begin to change, and there fortunately are several role models who are leading the way.


Definition of “scientist”
First, when I refer to “scientist,” I am thinking primarily of academics or government individuals with PhDs in natural science who pursue or oversee some original research in the natural sciences. This participation in the research process and in the scientific literature provides topical expertise. One can find scientists in other roles, of course, such as in non-governmental organizations, and my thinking may or may not apply to them, depending on the degree to which they pursue research and how much they advocate for particular outcomes.


Information deficit—a model debunked
To argue for my view of the scientific public intellectual, I first have to dispose of the passive view that science by itself can affect social outcomes. The view that information alone when presented to those who “need” it will catalyze change, innovation, or progress has been roundly disproven. Known as the information deficit model, it assumes that the public has insufficient knowledge about science and that public opinion would be swayed if only people were supplied with reliable and accurate information about nature. But more information often does not change people’s views because opinions are often formed by intuition, religious belief, personal experience, and other cultural and psychological factors. This implies a need from more steady engagement by scientists to interweave scientific information with these other opinion sources.


We can see belief in the information deficit model in much of science communication and science outreach, but many scientists do—myself included—dosee a more active role for science in social deliberations. In other words, it is not just that science is relevant and could be informative in the right hands but that science is a central and essential tool of public problem-solving. A variety of data suggest that some key scientific issues are underappreciated, misinterpreted or misconstrued, despite an abundance of data and countless reports written for policymakers. For example, recent public surveys by the PewResearch Center suggest that 70% of Americans believe that average global temperature is increasing, but there is a large partisan divide over whether there is solid scientific evidence that human emissions of greenhouse gases are causing modern climate change. 57% of Democrats think that recent climate change is caused mostly by human activity, but only 19% of Republicans think that. It appears that party membership affects one’s adherence to natural laws. Much more engagement, probably with a wider range of people, appears necessary to convince people about the state of scientific knowledge.
Politization of science
At the same time, science in policy feels dangerous to many scientists. The features that Dr. Miller described about science—uncertainty and unending progress—implies that science never really knows anything, and this makes it an easy political target. There is risk in saying “there is a 95% chance”—some interest group unbound by the necessity of revealing its assumptions and uncertainties can step in to fill a perceived certainty void. In addition, scientists are often poor competitors in the public sphere. For example, they often lead with the details instead of the main conclusions, and they don’t have much practice speaking in a non-technical language. Scientistsmust find ways to simply communicate but not mislead. This is hard to do in the era of the sound bite, dueling cable channels, and social media. Thus, being an effect participant in the social dialog on science takes time, training and practice.


Scientists as valued stakeholders, not “deciders”
In my argument for scientists as policy participants, I’m not saying that scientists should be the “deciders.” I agree with Dr. Miller that scientists have no more knowledge about right and wrong, just or unjust, than anyone else (and, in fact, they might be quite uneducated on some of these issues). But I do believe that science should have a seat the social table.


In other words, I am not arguing scientists should have the last word on climate change, the Keystone XL pipeline, or childhood vaccinations, for example. But I do feel that scientific insights, embodied by individual scientists that we might call public intellectuals, should be an integral part of social debate. The should engages not as outside consultants who pop in and out with their data—the information deficit model—but as knowledgeable experts, armed with a useful philosophical method—the scientific method—that has been shown to have social value for millennia.
In my view, the public intellectual should not craft or advocate for particular policies but offer a sustained voice that raises key issues and keeps an emphasis on scientific issues that affect the public interest. They also can help to analyze the efficacy of particular policy tools. The policy environments in which scientist can—and I think should—engage do not need to be highly charged, and they could be narrow or broad in scope. But the hallmark is engagement rather than consultation.


Necessary institutional change
To achieve my view of the scientific public intellectual, a couple of changes are necessary. I mention them briefly, but these changes are not easy or quick. First, engagement has to be rewarded by the institutionsthat hire and employ scientists. Engaged scientists also need institutional support so that they can sustain active research programs, because research directly informs and continually shapes their expertise. Second—and perhaps more importantly—we need some kind of political transformation that views science and scientists as something other than another special interest group, with knowledge and information that is just as good as the next voter or lobbyist.


Public intellectual role models
Many scientists used to worry about being called a Carl Sagan—someone more interested in TV ratings than pursuing scientific discoveries, an ego looking for public validation. But this negative view of public science figures is changing, particularly with the rise of more and more role models who show it is possible to mix science with public education and outreach. A few examples from my own field of environment and energy come to mind: JohnHoldren [physicist and science advisor to Pres. Obama], Jane Lubchenco[ecologist and former head of NOAA], Paul Ehrlich [ecologist, author, and public figure], Stephen Schneider [climatologist, author, and tireless popularize of climate change and climate science], and Rachel Carson.


But these models are more than just popularizers. They are more like medical clinicians, family doctors with information at hand and an established method for obtaining and interpreting that information. The doctor’s opinions should be adjudicated with other important voices, not just as a popularizer or a thought-provoker but as a useful stakeholder that improves the outcome of deliberation. 


On this subject, see also a recent panel at the University of Notre Dame conference, Climate Change and the Common Good about science as a public interest.