Feather Ruffling: Scientists Advocating Science

Many of the people I follow on Twitter were at the 41st Conference on Broadcast Meteorology in Nashville, TN last week, and I enjoyed following their live-tweets of the presentations. As you may be able to tell from this blog, science communication is important to me. My various followers/followees represent different segments of the meteorological community and have different opinions on how important topics should be approached.

I waited a week to decide whether I should tackle this topic, but since it is still hanging in my mind I figured I should put it out there.

Mike Smith from Accuweather gave a presentation about “Questions for Climate Science,” which I’m certain made for a lively discussion.

Here’s the post disclaimer: I’ve not heard or seen this presentation, so I’m basing these comments off a single slide I saw posted on Twitter. That slide suggested that scientists cannot also be science (specifically climate science) advocates.

I respectfully disagree.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal, Science, provides the following as its mission statement (emphasis mine):

AAAS seeks to “advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.” To fulfill this mission, the AAAS Board has set these broad goals:

  • Enhance communication among scientists, engineers, and the public;
  • Promote and defend the integrity of science and its use;
  • Strengthen support for the science and technology enterprise;
  • Provide a voice for science on societal issues;
  • Promote the responsible use of science in public policy;
  • Strengthen and diversify the science and technology workforce;
  • Foster education in science and technology for everyone;
  • Increase public engagement with science and technology; and
  • Advance international cooperation in science.

Phew, that was more highlighting than I expected to do. You can argue that I’m reading into it and projecting my own science communication goals onto the AAAS mission, but everything I highlighted is crucial to advocacy.

If we’re going to argue semantics, I may as well ask Wikipedia how it defines “advocacy:”

Advocacy is a political process by an individual or group which aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions. Advocacy can include many activities that a person or organization undertakes including media campaigns, public speaking, commissioning and publishing research or polls or the filing of an amicus brief.

Anyone paying attention right now knows that anthropogenic global warming has been a hot-button topic for awhile now. Hell I just watched a West Wing episode from 2002 focused largely on climate-based policy decisions.

Who better to help shape policy than the experts in the field, using science to influence the course of history?

Oh, Mallie, now you’re just being silly. Scientists should just keep to the science and let the policymakers interpret the results.

I’m sure that misinterpretation has never led to issues over the course of science. Certainly not to the point that Harvard would offer a course called “History of Science 145v. Advocacy, Activism, and Social Movements in Medicine.” Let’s see what that course covers:

Modern medicine is often viewed as a system in which the few dominate the many in socially acceptable ways. By virtue of their expertise, doctors are given the right make life-changing decisions about people with relatively little say from those affected. Yet power relations between doctors and patients have historically been far more complicated, as non-experts have long strove to find a place in decision-making about medical research and treatment. With topics ranging from medical consumerism to targeted disease advocacy, this course examines the historical processes through which non-experts have sought to shape the course of medicine around their own beliefs, values, and goals.

I don’t think I have to stretch too much to make the connection between the last sentence and the current state of climate science and policy. Actually, since I think this is an important point, let me rephrase: the science is doing its own thing, as it should, so its ever-present state of “science” should not be changing significantly. Policy, however, has a much less stable demeanor.

Something that is perhaps impacting many of us more directly is the debate over teaching evolution in schools. You know, the “theory” of evolution pitted against creationism. Certainly there has been no precedent set by professional organizations in that field getting involved in a debate, right?

 In an unprecedented move, the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Teachers Association assembled and presented a joint statement regarding their displeasure with the decision and the impact of decisions of this type on U.S. students (Joint Statement from the National Research Council, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Science Teachers Association Regarding the Kansas Science Education Standards – September 23, 1999National Science Teachers Association Issues Joint Statement with National Research Council and American Association for the Advancement of Science to Deny Kansas State Board of Education Copyright Permission: Absence of Evolution in State Science Standards Key Reason for Rejection . The main concerns of the organizations are summarized below:

  1. By selectively removing specific standards and indicators that correspond to the origins of life and the Earth, many Kansas students will not have formal opportunities to explore and think critically about the evidence for or against one of the most important set of ideas to be developed in the history of science. The elimination of selected aspects of evolutionary theory is thus anathema to both the vision and content of the sceintific organizations’ publications.
  2. Teachers will not be expected to address questions that are likely to arise from discussions of aspects of evolution that are part of the current Kansas science standards.
  3. Some statements in the Kansas Science Education Standards appear to directly contradict each other, epitomizing some of the serious shortcomings of the document.
  4. The teaching and learning of science are unnecessarily politicized.

Hey look, the AAAS was involved in that too.

I think I’ve hammered home the fact that “real” scientists and scientific organizations do get involved in science advocacy, but perhaps I’ve missed the real question–should we be doing this?

Hell. Yes.

Who better to explain the science than those directly involved in the science? I know that any time a severe weather outbreak occurred, the press would hurry to talk to my advisor, Jeff Trapp, about tornado safety and warning policies. Harold Brooks is often doing the same on national media, as is Josh Wurman. Not once have I heard anyone complain that they should “stick to the science” and not act as “advocates for tornado safety.” That would be absurd.

So why is climate science different?

It shouldn’t be.

Just because a scientific topic like climate change or evolution becomes highly politicized does not mean that scientists should step out of the picture. Quite the opposite, I would argue. I think it is our responsibility as scientists to reach out to the public, to the policymakers, to the media, and talk about the science.

I think “talk about the controversy” is some sort of buzz phrase right now. No. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Talk about the science.

In doing so, like it or not, you are being a science advocate, based on the definitions we’ve already covered.

Science without reaching out isn’t even science at all. That’s why we publish papers, to say to the community, “Hey, look what I found!” Then the community gets to yell at you about it. Isn’t that the fun part? Isn’t that why we’re all here, to get our work and words out there?

It’s why I’m here.

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