There was an interesting panel discussion, as part of Andy Revkin’s #SustainWhat webcast, involving Naomi Oreskes and Mike Hulme. Andy was highlighting it because of what Naomi Oreskes was saying about people staying in their lanes. There can be a tendency for scientists who are noted for having expertise in one field, thinking they can speak confidently about topics outside their immediate area of expertise. I think this was partly motivated by Steve Koonin’s latest foray into climate science.
Although I do agree that this is something to be cautious of, I don’t think we should immediately dismiss something because it’s being presented by someone who isn’t recognised as an expert in that field. People can clearly make contributions outside of the field in which they have expertise. However, I do think it’s important for people to acknowledge their expertise when speaking publicly.
However, as Gavin Schmidt pointed out, why is this so often targeted at scientists? It’s not as if scientists are the only people who ever speak confidently about topics outside their immediate area of expertise. Also, if you discourage those who know something from speaking broadly about related topics, there will be plenty of people who know nothing who will happily take their place.
After that rather lengthy introduction, what I actually wanted to highlight was what Naomi Oreskes says later about the is-ought issue. The is-ought issue is the idea is that we should distinguish between what is (scientific “facts”) and what we ought to do, given those scientific “facts”. Even though scientists claim to be clear about the distinction, they don’t always make this distinction clear when speaking publicly.
What I found interesting, though, was that Naomi Oreskes then suggested that the distinction isn’t always clear. In some sense, we can probably always distinguish between the scientific evidence, and what we should do given that evidence, but sometimes (given our morals and shared values) the scientific evidence very clearly indicates that we really should do something.
If a highly transmissible virus that could kill 1% of all who get infected starts spreading through the community, then we really should do something to limit the spread of the virus. If we discover our emission of gases into the atmosphere is changing the climate and that this could have severely negative impacts, then we really should do something to limit the emission of these gases.
If distinguishing between the is and the ought was straightforward, why is there a tendency for those who oppose some action to attack the science (dismissing the scientific evidence), rather than accepting the science and simply arguing against the action? That they attack the science, suggests that the science (the is) is, to a certain extent, defining what we should do (the ought).
So, maybe we should be careful of trying to constrain what scientists – or anyone – should say publicly. However, I do generally agree that people should be clear about whether or not they’re speaking within their area of expertise and should also try to distinguish between when they speaking as an expert, and when they’re speaking as a concerned citizen, even if their expertise does give them some relevant insights.