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Scientific Trust vs. Public Expertise?

Is there a conflict between a) making a public pledge about the goals you’re pursuing as an expert and b) being true to the scientific pursuit?

If there were, would it matter?

David Chapin, list member and CEO of Forma Life Sciences Marketing, sent this response to my email last Tuesday on setting a course for your public expertise:

This dichotomy (between stating your goals and staying true to the supposed core tenet of science — which is that we’ll only follow the facts, and not be twisted by confirmation bias) seems pretty significant to me.

Since scientists have been trained to pledge themselves to following the truth, anything less than that might feel like you’re abandoning the core ideal of science. So no wonder people don’t want to make a public pledge. …

Science isn’t supposed to “take sides” But taking sides, and stating your position, is exactly what you are (rightfully, IMHO) asking/telling/demanding people to do.

That seems like an insurmountable divide. So, does the definition of science need to grow up?

I replied to David that I thought he was thinking about this from a strictly “science communications” POV instead of a “public expert” or “thought leader” POV.

A sustainability energy systems scientist, for instance, could pledge as a public expert to develop and communicate implementable low-carbon solutions that ensure low-income countries both develop quickly and contribute as little as possible to climate change.

That pledge doesn’t make them less of a scientist. It doesn’t mean they don’t call balls and strikes on whether there is evidence for any particular solution.

It does mean that their science and their public engagement are in dialogue. The science finds and confirms solutions that they then promote publicly; the public challenges they pledge to grapple with inform their research agenda.

I just produced a podcast with the climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who (among other things) was one of the first experts to warn of climate change’s impact on ocean acidification as well as one of the first experts to calculate how sweeping the energy system transformation would have to be to keep global warming within acceptable limits.

In other words, Ken has had a habit throughout his career of articulating important problems so that others can see them. The reason more scientists don’t have this habit, he implied a few years ago on his blog, is that they get married to tools instead of focusing on important problems:

The world is replete with pressing problems. If you are not working on at least one of these problems, there is a good chance you are wasting your time and you should be doing something else.

Notice: Ken didn’t say “science is replete with pressing problems, so focus on those.” He said, “the world.”

Choosing to work scientifically on a problem the world faces — and saying you are working on solutions for that problem for the public good — doesn’t make you less of a scientist. It usually makes you a better one. It certainly makes you a better (more engaged) expert.

Your pledge of what you are pursuing as a public expert isn’t a pledge to any particular answer to the challenge — that would be unscientific. It’s a pledge to work in a direction, toward solving the challenge.

Here’s the catch: Either you get the importance of this or you don’t. Either your colleagues get the importance of it or they don’t. No amount of persuasion will convince them or you otherwise. Your challenges lie elsewhere.

So stop wasting your time. Go be a scientist who can comfortably co-exist as a public expert, or a scientist who will struggle to be a public expert except on your own terms.