- Concerned world citizen and professor of mathematical statistics (in that order)
- Fourteen months later I gave another public talk - connecting the dots from global warming to policy implications to criticisms of the fossil fuel industry for promoting misinformation. This time my grandchildren provided rationalisation for a talk likely to draw ire from the administration. I explained that I did not want [them] to look back and say: "Opa understood what was happening, but he never made it clear."
Consider the case of the late F. Sherwood Rowland, who, along with fellow chemist Mario J. Molina, first recognized the threat that chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFCs) posed to stratospheric ozone and potentially to life on Earth. (Rowland and Molina later won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work, along with Paul J. Crutzen.) Some of Rowland’s colleagues criticized him for publicly stating that CFCs should be phased out. Although he did not advocate a specific policy instrument, these colleagues felt that by calling for a policy goal Rowland was illicitly stepping out of the world of science into the world of policy in which he did not belong.
Imagine, however, that Rowland and Molina had published their research in a peer-reviewed journal and that, like most scientific work, it had then been largely ignored. Decades later, dermatologists and oncologists would have begun to notice an unexplained increase in rates of skin cancer. Epidemiologists would have analyzed the available data and concluded that there was in fact an epidemic of skin cancers around the globe, especially severe in Australia, southern Chile, and among white Africans. Meanwhile, plant pathologists would have noticed increased ultraviolet damage in agricultural crops; veterinarians would have noted increased rates of cataracts in farm animals. Scientists would then have searched for an explanation for this strange association of human, animal, and plant pathology. Eventually, someone would have come across Rowland’s work, connected the dots, and understood what was happening. Programs would then have been quickly put in place to measure stratospheric ozone, demonstrating that the ozone layer had been massively depleted. [...]
This thought experiment, while counterfactual, is not fantastic. It is essentially what happened with asbestos and tobacco, and it could easily have been the case with chlorinated fluorocarbons as well.
- Scientists and philosophers have long distinguished between descriptions of what "is" (derived from scientific investigations of the real world), what "ought" to be (based on one’s value system), and suggestions for what one "should" do in the face of this knowledge [...]. Despite this careful distinction between advocacy and facts, the term "advocate" is regularly used pejoratively in scientific circles and is frequently associated with the cherry-picking of science to support a preconceived idea. In order to avoid these connotations, scientists often go to great lengths to deny being advocates for specific policies.
In my view, it is impossible to divorce public communication from advocacy, and scientists should not even try. Instead, we should acknowledge and embrace the terminology and, in so doing, define clearly what our own values are and exactly what we are advocating for.
Responsible advocates are up-front about what is being advocated for and how the intersection of values and science led to that position. On the other hand, it is irresponsible to proclaim that there are no values involved, or to misrepresent what values are involved. Responsible advocacy must acknowledge that the same scientific conclusions may not lead everyone to the same policies (because values may differ). Assuming that one’s own personal values are universal, or that disagreement on policy can be solved by recourse to facts alone, is a common mistake.