Some random thoughts on advocacy

The following is just a collection of some random thoughts on one of the bigger twitter-discussions today.

Tamsin Edwards (or @flimsin) wrote for the Guardian about her opinion on advocacy, or rather her opinion on scientists voicing their opinions.

I would like to read the text as just her opinion, her way of dealing with requests to voice one’s thoughts on solutions to science-wise “defined” problems. However, she puts her opinion as an ideal for scientists: they (or Science) have (has) to be neutral, impartial since Science relies on being objective.

I would say: objectivity of science is only a perceived feature of “science”. We are always making subjective decisions which we have to justify, but that isn’t the point.

One of my problems with the idea that no scientist should participate in decision-making (i.e. all should be neutral) is: who then should participate in finding solutions to the problems science previously pointed to (whatever this pointing comprised).

I think, Tamsin’s text mixes two perspectives: the point of advocacy and the point of participation in societal decision-making.

I am going to follow this mix-up but want to agree on one main point: stealth advocacy is a problem. It is something we should try not to do, but which may be hard to avoid sometimes. Stealth advocacy is, as Roger Pielke Jr puts it “when scientists claim to be focusing on science but are really seeking to advance a political agenda”. The transgression from science to advocacy may happen or likely happens often subconsciously. We scientists should try to be aware of this and to be clear where we leave our expertise and voice “just opinions”.

That however does not mean we shouldn’t participate in the public discussion even if some may claim we digress from our “societal task”. If scientists “must not” voice their opinions, as Tamsin puts it, why should then politicians be allowed to make decisions on questions like “How do we weigh up economic growth against ecosystem change? Should we prioritise the lives and lifestyles of people today or in the future? Try to limit changes in temperature or rainfall?” If scientists have to be mum on this, why should then anybody else be allowed to speak. Scientists are part of society – or rather Science is part of society. We scientists bring skills, expertise, values and thus opinions to the table of societal decision-making which are as valuable as those of priests, CEOs, midwives or masons (and so on). We have to be careful not to overstate our expertise or to generate a false confidence in us (i.e. our opinion), but we have to be allowed to participate in decision-making.

In the end, it lays with every individual whether she wants to participate in the policy game. However, a functioning society depends on the participation of all actors. Science is not working outside the real world and explaining it by maximum objectivity. Science interacts with other societal actors over various loops. The sum of all loops may be called a reference to society.

So everyone of us is invited to participate but everyone of us has the right not to participate. But even saying that one has no opinion on policy options is participation.

Anyway, the following sentiments were stated today, and I think it is alarming if scientists decide not to contribute to the societal decision-making or try to remain in the ivory tower while participating because they worry about getting “harrassed or hounded through the courts or in the papers” or spending “all of my day responding to FOI requests and spurious questions”. I share these and I repeat, that is a problem.

The following in a sense comes back to Tamsin’s post but also goes beyond the post. Much of Tamsin’s text builds on the notion that climate science (and science as a whole) has lost trust or at least that advocating provokes loss of trust. As someone put it on twitter: Is there convincing (objective scientific) evidence for this? To be honest, I think there are a number of studies suggesting it, but let’s ignore that. So, to what extent is the notion that the public loses trust in science/climate science dominated by the personal environment, by to whom we speak rather than objective numbers? And, again as someone put it on twitter, isn’t neutrality possibly also causing loss of trust: what are they doing in the ivory tower, why don’t they participate in society, crazy scientists are only interested in world-domination (well that’s a bit too much Pinky and the Brain, but nevertheless). So, if science keeps mum in public, won’t the public then question even more how decisions on “policies” were made? Without knowing studies on this area I would suggest that taking part in the public discourse builds at least as much trust as supposed or real stealth advocacy destroys.

This could be the end of this brainstorming collection, but I want to add one final note: Indeed the concept for the German priority program on climate engineering explicitly aims at maximizing the transdisciplinary approach to ensure that findings on the risks and chances of CE versus mitigation vs adaptation or of combined approaches are conveyed reliably to all possibly interested actors. Furthermore there is another German priority program which concentrates just on the “interface” between public and science.


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