Scientists are committed to tell the truth, as best they can from the measurements they make in the physical world. But you can’t apply a scientific statement, however true, to just any situation. A scientific “law” is a very concise condensation of an overwhelming amount of data about a narrow subject. So, it’s fair to ask, should scientists speak about broad issues like droughts and diseases and decaying bridges?
Scientists have some testable truths about physical relationships, such as how earthquakes are caused by moving rock and climate is driven by solar heating. If they see risks or impending disasters, do the scientists bear a responsibility to inform the public? Well, an Italian court said yes while sentencing a few scientists to six years in prison for NOT issuing notice of an impending earthquake. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) also says yes, scientists should bring both scientific information (e.g. how continents move) and predictions of risk (e.g. earthquake probability) to the public.
The AGU is the professional association of more than 60,000 persons concerned with earth and space science. The AGU now strongly urges its members to speak to schools, to civic groups, and to anyone else, presenting the speaker’s information on topics ranging from aquatic biota to rocks to climate change. Particularly, the AGU’s concern is directed to sustainability, water resources, energy, and environmental problems.
The AGU’s concern isn’t just an American fad. The secretary general of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, a major global geosciences organization, put it this way when speaking to a UN conference on disaster risk reduction.
“What am I doing as a scientist … if 200,000 –plus people within a few minutes lost their lives? … geoscientists need to work with social scientists and political scientists. … Disasters are not natural but social. If no people and infrastructure exist, there are no disasters. … (Disasters occur also} because of ignorance, corruption, and irresponsibility.”
The Italian court, the AGU, and the secretary general all regard scientists as irresponsible if they don’t speak out.
It might seem that scientists, especially those schooled or supported by public monies, have a social responsibility to bring their information into public policy-making. However, having been a scientist who spent a few years bringing data into state rulemaking, I see that a danger arises when scientists become advocates for prevention of social disasters. Often, the response to a scientist-advocate is to debunk the scientific arguments while stirring up public distrust of the science and the scientists. That’s why our society has the science wars, with distrust of vaccination, climate data, water management, and pollution control.
Science is always subject to question, but science is not just another political conspiracy. I find that when scientists become socially involved, opponents claim the scientists are conspiring to gain political control. Much of the public fails to distinguish the difference between technical advocacy and an organized campaign of disinformation. That’s what happened in the climate arguments.
I once served on a state governor’s committee for water. One committee member felt that “one drop of water in the river is one drop too many.” He urged “We’ll get our own science.” He regarded science as political opinion, the social system within which he operated. Although I want technical information be a reality check in social decisions, I don’t want the public mindset—often informed by a sound byte—to habitually regard scientific evaluation as political pandering.
How can we involve credible science in public policy?
Well, for example, the Wall Street Journal reports that there are only two natural scientists among the 535 senators and representatives in the 114th Congress. Look at how well the Congress solves our country’s problems now. Might we do better to elect technically qualified people rather than to elect more who obey party lines?