Keith Kloor has an article in Issues in Science and Technology called The Science Police. I became aware of it because he linked to one of my posts so as to highlight a comment by Michael Tobis. I tried to leave a comment, but it hasn’t appeared, so thought I’d write this instead.
The general gist of these science police type arguments is that there is some group of people who police what it is acceptable to say and who do their utmost to prevent those, who don’t toe the line, from speaking publicly. It will typically involve examples of supposedly biased reviews (of papers or grant proposals), difficulty getting a place to speak at meetings, and criticism that supposedly crosses some line.
Some of these may well be examples of poor practice, but sometimes (often?) not. Sometimes reviews can be justifiably negative and sometimes you just don’t get selected to speak at meetings. It doesn’t necessarily imply some kind of insidious attempt to silence those who might present alternative views; it could simply be that the person’s work isn’t very interesting/good, rather than because it challenges the orthodoxy (I would argue that the former is much more likely than the latter).
My objection with RC is not that you guys act politically, but that you act politically but claim not to be. This mismatch is what I have argued is a factor that contributes to the politicization of science.
It seems Keith Kloor might have a point, but not in the way he intended. There do appear to be people who try to police science, but they’re people like Roger Pielke Jr who think that they get to define what is acceptable public behaviour by scientists. The above not only accuses the Realclimate contributors of being dishonest (not acknowledging their political activities) but that their activities contribute to the politicization of science; their activities are damaging science and, hence, they should behave differently.
Roger’s overall argument appears to be that as soon as a scientific topic becomes politically relevant, any public engagement related to that topic is immediately political. Most scientists would argue, however, that informing the public about a scientific topic is not inherently political, at least not in the sense of it being a form of advocacy; that would require having an explicit policy preference. In fact, most scientists would argue that it’s crucial that scientists engage publicly so that the public and policy makers can be suitably informed about a topic.
Of course, scientists who engage publicly should be clear about the role that they regard themselves as playing. There’s nothing wrong with a scientist advocating for something specific as long as they make clear that they’re presenting their own views about a topic, rather than presenting some kind of summary of our scientific understanding.
So, my general view of these science police type arguments is that they almost do what they claim others are doing; rather than engaging with one’s critics, it’s an attempt to deligitimise them by suggesting that they’re trying to close down/control the discussion. It’s unfortunate, because some of those being criticised do cover topics that are worth discussing, and do have some interesting views. However, rather than considering what their critics are saying, they seem to prefer spending their time complaining about how they’re being treated, while appearing to avoid considering that maybe the responsibility lies mostly with them. If your critics are having success, yet you regard what you’re saying as consistent with the evidence, then maybe you need to find a way of saying it that is still consistent with the evidence, but that is harder to criticise?