There’s an interesting article discussing some research that seems to suggest that there is a socially constructed silence. The basic suggestion seems to be that
[t]he scientific community is profoundly uncomfortable with the storm of political controversy that climate research is attracting.
This is based on interviews with 6 UK-based climate scientists and the article is simply a summary of what they claim to have found. The sample seems a bit small and the arguments seem a but apocryphal, but it is still an interesting issue; are climate scientists really reluctant to speak out and, if so, why?
One of the suggestions is that many climate scientists still identify with the idealistic view that they should undertake their research dispassionately. Consequently, many are uncomfortable with how their research is becoming societally/politically relevant. I, of course, think that researchers should aim to be objective and unbiased, but dispassionate? I think most researchers are passionate, even if their aim is to be as objective and unbiased as possible. Although I can understand why many may be uncomfortable with implications of their research, I don’t think that there is much one can do about that. We (researchers) don’t do research purely for our own benefit; we do it to gain understanding, and we have an obligation to make that public; by publishing our results, speaking at conferences, and communicating with the public and – if necessary – policy makers.
I, of course, don’t think that all researchers should be obliged to engage publicly; some aren’t very good at it, and others probably don’t enjoy it much. However, they still have an obligation to publicise their results; that’s why we fund research in the first place. As long as they present it as clearly and honestly as possible, they aren’t responsible for how it could be used. They also can’t stop it from being used; they have no control over how it might be used once public.
The other suggestion in the article is that those who do engage publicly end up being attacked by the media, and – in some cases – also by their own colleagues. There is certainly a theme in some parts of the media that those scientists who do engage publicly are advocating, and that their research is now suspect; that they’ve illustrated their lack of objectivity and their inherent bias. It also seems that the one thing that many researchers fail to agree on is how best to publicly communicate science. Either what was presented exaggerated the results, or it over-emphasized the uncertainties, or it didn’t present the whole story, or it gave too much credence to unlikely alternatives, or….. It certainly seems that there is some merit to this suggestion and I can certainly see why many might prefer not engaging publicly for these reasons.
I actually find this quite an interesting issue and some of what is suggested in this article seems quite plausible. My own view is that, for climate scientists, engaging publicly can be a bit of a lose-lose situation. If you choose to do so you run the risk of being attacked in the media and, possibly, by your own colleagues. On the other hand, if you don’t, but think this is a serious issue that we’re not addressing adequately (as the article suggested that many climate scientists do) then you run the risk of being criticised in future, if the impacts do turn out to be severe and it becomes clear that we should have acted sooner. I don’t think the latter possibility would be fair (I think there is plenty of information out there), but I can see it happening anyway.
Personally, I think each should do whatever they think is right and what works for them, and the rest of us should maybe put a bit more effort into recognising that communicating science to the public is difficult, and that there isn’t only one way in which to do so; most are simply trying to do their best to communicate a difficult, and complex, topic, and just because we might disagree with how they did so, doesn’t mean that what they did was wrong.