Scientists keep warning, I stopped signing

A guest post by Carsten Dormann (Uni Freiburg) / @CarstenDormann. Cover picture by Takver via Wikimedia Commons.

BioScience has just published the latest installment of “Scientists’ Warnings“. There have been two previous such Warnings, the latest organised by the same authors in 2017. Quite a few scientists have signed this Warning. I chose not to, although I had signed the previous one in 2017.

I have been hackled, by a colleague from the Economics department, why I don’t rush to present and justify my research activities to the public. Parttaking in societal deliberations about climate change is one such “outreach”. He implied that it is “irresponsible” to work in an ivory tower (although it may actually be more an ivory basement). Reading the repeated Scientists’ Warning, I got a better feeling for why I disagree, and why I didn’t sign this time round. And it has nothing to do with whether I agree, as a private person, with the statement (for the record: I do).

In Neal Stephenson’s book Anathem, scientist are separated from the rest of the world and live in cloisters. They work in different casts, if you like, differentiated by how often they have contact with the outer, secular world: every year, every ten years, every century and every millennium. In between, they receive no mail, no books, no information from the world outside (apart from hearing planes flying over and from discussions with their brothers and sisters in the other casts, who are forbidden to touch any topic topical and current in these conservations). As a result, the “uniarians” discuss and work on issues of near-term, almost immediate nature, while in the extreme the millennarians take the long view.

The explosion of human population size and the resulting devastation that we human inflict on ourselves and the plant (climate change, deforestation, desertification, water pollution, you name it) poses a challenge to those ecologists who sympathise with a 100- or 1000-year view of their research. I sometimes half-jokingly refer to science as that bit of research that is still true in 500 years. That over 11,000 scientists signed the last Warning is perceived as a very strong statement by the “general public” (or so my non-scientific friends tell me). The strength comes from the fact that scientists, by and large, are perceived as impartial, rational and as taking the long view.

I decided not to sign the latest Scientists’ Warning, because my long (or at least mid-term) view is currently extremely clouded. The cacophony of current affairs, media outbursts, scientific and funding rush to Climate Change and (loss of) Biodiversity pushes past reflexion, arguments and understanding. I perceive an increasing proportion of the work in my field to be tainted by advocacy and short-termism. I cringe at oversimplified podium statements of do-gooders of my own discipline, at newspaper interviews and podcasts, for example describing building dams as “destroying biodiversity” because several hectars of riparian forest are lost. (Here the term “biodiversity” is used as synonymous with “nature” or “wild stuff”, not in any of its already too vague actual meanings.) Asked something “simple”, such as “How can we decrease chemical contamination of our environment?”, stuff that we teach in the Bachelor programme, I drop my gaze and stare at my shoes: this is not the right question; this is about moral judgement, about societal values, about political attitude. But these are “short-term views”, and, in my above definition, not science. (The scientific answer is obvious, even to the layperson asking.)

So, for the time being, as a scientist I pull out of street marches, petitions, twitter tirades (well, that was easy) and public calls for “them” to do “something” against climate change and and insect decline. My (private, but science-infused) longer-term view identifies overpopulation, slack in social norms and socially encouraged egotism (“Get rich or die trying”) as underlying problems. As a scientist, I am not qualified to comment on this.

3 thoughts on “Scientists keep warning, I stopped signing

  1. Let me preface my comment by saying that I think it’s very useful for scientist to reflect about their role and goals; not only to do the right thing, but also because the way we see ourselves inevitably affect our motivation and acting. As such, I appreciate Carsten’s contribution, even though I’m sure that many people have a different view (I would appreciate those views here as well).

    But now to the text. For me, the last sentence of the text is the crux of the argument:

    “As a scientist, I am not qualified to comment on this.”

    I share the sentiment, actually. I view my job as a scientist to seek truth, not to tell society what to do. But I also recognise that this too is a normative view, and there is no scientific way to prove that this is what a scientist should do. And here, the cat bites its own tail (as the Germany saying goes): the argument that scientists should stick to objective claims and stay clear of normative claims is probably itself a normative claim.

    There are various justification for the objective science view. There is the utilitarian / consequentialist argument: “this maximizes the credibility of science in the long run”. There is the deontological argument: “science should be value-free”. There is also the argument that scientists are paid by society, and thus should act in accordance to what society expects from them.

    All these have been made, but ultimately, I find none of them convincing. In the end, where to build one’s house in science seems to me a personal choice. I personally have always felt more comfortable in the value-free area. Given my values, I do feel that there is a certain danger if scientists move too far in the are of norms, politics and activism. But I also understand the ivory tower argument: it seems wrong not to speak out if the house is burning.

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  2. Is it possible to be entirely value-free when you are a part of a society that is not value-free? I remember reading an introductory to Philosophy of Science that mention Thomas Kuhn’s work on the history of science. Even our choice not to engage too far in the area of norms, politics, and activism is itself a value (?)

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    • Can we be entirely fair to other people? Of course not. Should we try to be entirely fair to other people? Of course. Just because we cannot fulfill the challenge of full valuelessness (if that is a word) does not imply we should give up on it.
      And no, a choice is not a value. I guess you were short-cutting it, and I agree that due to my social norms (which are varied and even to myself largely concealed) my aim to obstain is value-driven. But restraint at least prevents the hysterical spiraling of emotion and hatred on a topic, possibly at the expense of complacent passivism.
      It seems to me that anybody drawn to activism should excercise more self-restraint, and anybody drawn to conservatism should try to reflect a bit more about the consequences of such “we have never/always done it that way” attitude for future generations.

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