No, you won’t sacrifice scientific objectivity if you advocate

29 08 2019


Despite a lot of rather uninformed people out there who might view scientists as just flesh-covered automatons lacking the customary set of feelings, we are in fact normal human beings embedded in the same society as everyone else. We own houses, drive cars, have sex, have children, eat out in restaurants, drink, dance, vote, pay taxes and utilities, do sport, take vacations, see the doctor, laugh, cry, love, and all the rest of it.

As such, we have just as much stake in society as everyone else, and we are very much at the mercy of government policies, cultural norms, and other limitations that everyday life presents us. If we happen to discover through our research some aspect of our society that can be approved, does it suffice merely to publish the material within the academic literature and nebulously ‘hope’ someone else does some good with it?

It is a short, metaphysical step to entertain the idea of advocating for change more proactively than a random Tweet or a newspaper interview might imply. I appreciate that the ‘a’ word strikes fear and derision in the hearts of many scientists, for I too was once under the impression that it was not my job to advocate for anything beyond good scientific practice. Indeed, I practically insisted that my role was uniquely to develop the tools, collect the data, design the experiments, and elaborate the intricacies and complexities of the results to test hypotheses. No more. No less.

Even the thought of mimicking those placard-holding street protestors (my rather naïve impression of what an advocate looked like) used to revile me, for I had formed the (incorrect) opinion that any scientist who took up the protestor’s mantle had clearly abandoned her claim to be an intellectual.

In my view, once one crossed that intangible line into advocacy, the objectivity of all previous intellectual pursuits was immediately compromised, if not abandoned entirely. For me then, ‘advocacy’ equalled ‘subjectivity’, and that was not consistent with what I understood science to be.

I have since done a 180-degree turn on that innocent and narrow-minded perspective. First, I have since come to realise that true objectivity is beyond the reach of any human being, and that science can only provide the tools to reduce our innate subjectivity. As human beings, even scientists have all of our species’ weaknesses and limitations of perception, but science allows us to get as close to objectivity as is humanly possible. So, science is not the pursuit of objectivity per se; rather, it is the pursuit of subjectivity reduction. Errare humanum est.

Whether or not you are willing to admit it, your experiences, culture, and even your language all subtly modify your perception, so given exactly the same question, different scientists will not only try to solve it in different ways, they will also likely come up with slightly different answers. The best we can therefore hope to achieve is to approach some sort of general consensus on how the physical universe operates as all of our different ways of testing approximately converge. Wildly divergent answers to the same question therefore suggest that our biases at least temporarily limit our capacity to understand the ‘truth’.

Having established that even you are susceptible to the biases of perception, it might take a little bit of your intellectual elitism off the top. Irrespective of this admission, the next argument for advocacy represents the opposite sentiment — that as a scientist you are, in fact, an ‘expert’. In other words, for the topic you research the most, it is likely that there are few others who understand the subtleties, complexities, and intricacies of the problems as well as you do. This places a certain onus on you, the expert, not only to identify where the problems lie, but also what to do about them.

Politically ideologies notwithstanding, the scientist is therefore ideally placed as the best person to advocate for the solution to a particularly hairy problem. For example, suppose a toxicologist is testing the effects of various industrial chemicals on the development, health, and survival of some aquatic animal, such as a frog. During the course of her investigations, she discovers that a chemical previously dubbed ‘harmless’ by its manufacturer, actually compromises the physiology and health of the frog species in question. These effects are known only to her, and perhaps to a small community of other toxicologists once she publishes her results in the peer-reviewed literature. But if that is where she left it, it is unlikely that the negative results would fall into the hands of an environmental advocacy group, even if they managed to decode the statistics and complicated scientific jargon. It is even more unlikely that a regulatory government agency would act on the information to limit the distribution of the chemical, and it is preposterous in the extreme to contemplate that the manufacturer itself would pull the product from the shelves after perusing the latest toxicology literature.

However, if that scientist decided to take a stand against the manufacture and distribution of the harmful chemical by going public with the results and pushing for someone (i.e., government) to do something about it, she would then have a much better chance of seeing positive change compared just to resting on her intellectual laurels. Interviews, submissions to regulatory agencies, opinion editorials, expert testimonials, and other grass-roots pushes to publicise the problem, and to advocate for change, are not only within the remit of the scientist, they are arguably a moral obligation for the people best positioned to alert society to the problem. Just as we have a moral obligation to publicise our research to the people who pay for it (i.e., in most cases, the taxpayer), we also have a moral obligation to notify them when we discover that something is not quite right in the world.

Now for the big one — that your objectivity as a scientist is somehow compromised or weakened by your decision to take a stand. But let me be crystal clear here — how you do your science, and what you do with the results, are two completely different things. This does not, of course, excuse behaviour like painting yourself into an illogical corner by refusing to follow the dominant evidence — some scientists have been caught out here by going so far down the advocacy line that they become bound to their ideology just to save face, rather than follow what the science actually says. While such people may have started to advocate based on the best-available information at the time, the absolute bottom line of the scientist-advocate is that the best-available evidence must be wielded at all times.

If you forget, deny, or ignore that simple tenet, then you essentially cease to be a scientist and your advocacy takes on an entirely ideological purpose.

On the other hand, if you do your science to the best of your ability, and you back each of your advocated positions with the dominant scientific evidence, then there is absolutely no chance that your advocacy will compromise the quality or integrity of your work. I am not suggesting that your ideologies will play no role, for the simple choice to advocate itself has an ideological (or at least, moral) foundation.

I return to my central position that separating the how and the what components is the holy grail of the successful and effective scientist-advocate, and that these are in fact rather easy to keep apart as long as they are constantly queried within your conscious forethought. The only real dilemma remaining then is which instruments and actions allow the scientist-advocate to achieve his aims in the most effective manner.

Slightly more demanding than armchair advocacy (open letters, petitions, social media, etc.) in terms of your time commitments, joining forces with advocacy groups, such as non-government organisations or special-interest societies, can provide you with a veritable army of advocacy expertise and critical mass. At the same time, your scientific expertise can lend credibility and integrity to the group. Exploiting the people-power of the large memberships such groups often enjoy, as well as capitalising on their political contacts and lobbying experience, can launch your evidence-based position to orbits of influence that as an individual you would likely never be able to reach alone.

Of course, it is even more important in such relationships to remain vigilant about not compromising your scientific integrity to ideological pressures, and instead insist on following the evidence above all other aims.

On the other hand, effective, science-based advocacy does not necessarily mean that you have to go on the offensive. In fact, some of the most influential advocates are the scientists who work directly with government agencies to change policies ‘from within’. Rather than banging on the bureaucrat’s door or holding a placard screaming for a politician’s head, offering to assist policy-makers by providing data, analytical capacity, or just an informed opinion, can be surprisingly lucrative. Of course, an open-minded and forward-thinking government agency should be inviting scientists to do this sort of thing all the time, but given the political climate in many countries today, it is much more likely that you will be required to be more active and solicit the opportunities yourself. A little savvy positioning and meeting the right people will help, which might be beyond most early-career scientists; however, it is definitely worth keeping in mind that operating collaboratively is sometimes the better option.

Of course, there is nothing stopping the high-integrity scientist-advocate from participating in more traditional forms of activism that involve actions like street protests or sit-ins. I know many of my own colleagues who have done exactly this, and some of them have even been arrested.

While that might be taking your average scientist too far out of his comfort zone, it can again be remarkably effective to demonstrate how important a particular issue is to the scientist studying the issue. I would of course advise against throwing Molotov cocktails and looting, but taking part in civil disobedience protests, making conscientious objections to war, or blocking a railway against coal-carrying boxcars do make a decidedly stronger point than signing a petition or complaining online.

I hold the strong opinion that many of civilisation’s ailments today are at least partially the result of so few scientists taking a more prominent role in the societies in which they live; remaining passive and passionless observers in the false expectation of preserving objectivity has allowed too many economically and ideologically exploiters to take control.

Our privilege, knowledge, and education mean that we are morally obliged to assist our fellow human beings by taking, translating, and applying our work to the needs of society as a whole. Without intellectually based solutions, we run the risk that suboptimal and unjust policies will dominate. I am personally not willing to stand idly by, and I encourage all scientists to consider doing likewise where the opportunities present.

(modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)



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