I want to clarify something about yesterday’s post that seems to have at least got one person up in arms. The key point that I was trying to get across (and that I think is the same as Michael Tobis’s point) is that, formally, the role of scientists/researchers is to try and understand whatever system it is that they are studying. They also have a role in informing the public and policy makers about their research. However, they are not responsible for whether or not what they present is accepted; they’re not salespeople trying to sell a product.
However, this does not mean that they’re absolved of all responsibility. I do think that scientists/researchers should (mostly) be obliged to speak out when they’re aware that our best understanding is being misrepresented publicly. This, however, does not mean that they should be responsible if the public remains unconvinced. It’s neither their remit, nor something for which we’d expect them to typically have the necessary skills. To be clear, if some scientists do want to try and convince the public, I think that’s fine, as long as they’re honest about what they’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with scientists becoming activists as long as they make their role clear.
I think there is also a few other things to bear in mind. Many scientists who do speak out, do so in a largely personal capacity; they don’t get supported, or rewarded, for doing so. It can therefore be very difficult. It’s time consuming and – certainly in my case – can be very stressful at times. I’ve learned – the hard way mostly – what I can do without negatively impacting my family life, my job, or my health. Even then I don’t get it right all the time. I’ve spent the last few days being verbally abused on another blog because – I think – I didn’t treat someone with the kind of respect they expected. Admittedly, it was my own fault for expecting anything different.
In my view we need to recognise some of this. Some people are doing the best they can and – in my case – don’t always get it right. It is a difficult topic and I think we need to spend more time supporting those who are trying to make a positive contribution, rather than criticising them for not doing enough, or for not getting it completely right all the time. I even accept that I’ve done some of this myself, and so certainly regret some of my own interventions.
A key reason why I think it’s important to distinguish between scientists’ role in informing (it is one of their roles) and their role in convincing/persuading (it isn’t formally one of their roles) is that I fully expect us to recognise at some point in the future that we haven’t taken this issue seriously enough. I also fully expect some to blame scientists for not having done enough. I think this would be wrong and I think we should be careful of laying the groundwork for this.