There’s been some discussion about scientists being attacked for telling the truth. I do, of course, think that this is a real issue, but I also find myself somewhat frustrated by all of this. It’s hardly surprising to anyone who is aware of what has happened in the climate context.
Given that epidemiologists must have been aware that their research could end up being associated with decisions that some will find objectionable, why weren’t they somewhat more prepared for this? It’s clearly impossible to competely avoid these kind of attacks, but it doesn’t feel like much thought has gone into this at all. For example, it would probably have been much more difficult to attack the scientists if the advice appeared to be the consensus view of the relevant scientific community, rather than appearing to come from one research group (and, to be clear, I’m using the term appearing here intentionally).
I also find myself now to be somewhat more in agreement with those who object to the term listen to the science. I’ve never had much of an issue with it, since it is clearly a simpistic narrative intended to mean something like listen to the scientists and do something to address the risks that they’re highlighting. However, it’s clear that science doesn’t tell us what to do, and the responsibility for making decisions lies with policy makers, not with scientists.
The problem with promoting the idea that policy makers must simply listen to the science, is that they can point fingers at the scientists if their decisions are unpopular, or ineffective; “we just listened to the science”. So, you have to be careful that these simplistic narratives don’t end up being used against scientists by people who disagree with the decisions that were made, or who are trying to deflect the criticism from themselves back onto the scientific advisers.
To be clear, I do think we should defend scientists against unfair attacks by the media and we should continue to stress that scientists are simply advisers; the responsibility for making decisions lies with policy makers, not scientists. However, I also think it’s important that scientists who do engage publicly, especially with policy makers, are aware of the environment in which they were operating, and try to learn from other similar situations.