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Scientists: Stay Quiet or Speak Up? post by Allison Lee

Scientists: Stay Quiet or Speak Up?

Scientists should not be ‘advocates’ or ‘activists’.

I’ve heard this argument over and over in the last couple of years, and more strongly since the elections and recent organization of the March for Science scheduled for April 22, 2017.

The discussion first came to my awareness back in January 2015, when I attended an Association for Women in Science (AWIS) panel called “Social Media and Activism in Science”.  The general feeling was that if you wanted to speak up, be careful about what you say. I was particularly inspired by Kathy Barker, author of At the Bench and At the Helm. She is an advocate for scientists being advocates.

During my 2016 summer graduate ethics course, we discussed that scientists, if they advocate or speak outside their scientific field, should make sure they explicitly state they are wearing different hats and sharing their opinions as “informed citizens”.

The conversation came up again in October during a panel at the inaugural celebration of California Leatherback Day hosted by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. One speaker adamantly stated that  scientists should not be advocates in any way to which one audience member publicly disagreed bringing up the point that scientists are the most informed and should be able to speak about what they know.

Then again, as tensions continued to stir amongst the scientific community with the new presidential administration disregard for science  (TimeThe Washington Post, The New York TimesThe GuardianScientific AmericanSnopes), scientists banded together to organize a march much like the Women’s March on Washington.

“The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.” ~March for Science 

I watched as my science friends circulated news of the march over Facebook.  Some shared confidently, others apprehensively. The reactions ranged, airing a plethora of concerns: from “A march will mischaracterize science”, “It will make science a political protest”, “A march will undermine [scientists] credibility”, to “Its a great thing”, “Shows solidarity”, “This will encourage the scientific community to publicly rally together”, “Science cannot be silenced”. Robert Young of the New York Times even wrote a widely circulated piece on why the march is a bad idea voicing his concerns and alternate suggestions for what scientists can do in the community.  In a Science article, Jeffrey Mervis shared Some Unsolicited Advice to the science march planners.

The whole time, I kept wondering: Why not? Why shouldn’t scientists speak up? And more importantly, I thought: WHO wants us to be silent? Our colleagues, the public, policy makers?

As a young researcher, with no credibility yet gained, figuring out how best to proceed on this facet of my career is a high priority for me.

In my reading of the freely available document On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, I hadn’t come across any mention to keep quiet. On the contrary, the guide addresses this issue in the section titled, The Researcher in Society (see page 48; for copyright reasons I cannot reprint any text without charge, and since I’m a poor grad student, I’ll just paraphrase.).  Scientists have a responsibility to share their knowledge with society. Researchers CAN assume different roles in public discussions and provide expert opinion and advice; they have a right to express their views and to work for social change. The guide even acknowledges the concern that colleagues and members of the public may perceive scientists-gone-advocate as a biased individual, but this perception should not come at the expense of objectivity in the scientist’s work.

In my opinion, scientists have devoted their lives to studying certain issues in their field. Their ideas are scrutinized by peer-review and the scientific collective. As professionals and the most “informed citizens” on the issue, aren’t they the bestgroup of people TO be speaking up about what they know?

This might also strike a chord with me personally because I am a naturally shy person. Speaking up has been something I’ve worked on since the awkward stage of middle school.  It’s also reminiscent of the time when I was learning to speak French and we were told the French are very particular about their language and do not like it butchered. The first time I ever traveled to France I was so paranoid I would mess up the accent that I didn’t speak for the first couple of days. Then I realized, many travelers were visiting France doing their best to communicate, botching the language left and right, and guess what? No one died, no one got beat up, people were talking! So I started talking too.  I had fun interacting with Francophones, and I got better at it over time. As an adult, the idea of “someone” now saying I should be quiet on certain issues, to not ruffle feathers, for fear of being misinterpreted, actually feels like a threat to my own growth as a communicative human. The more we take opportunitites to practice sharing our ideas with a general audience, the better we will get at it over time.

Going back to the issue of scientists being ‘advocates’ if they speak up, I finally gained clarity on where I stand on the matter after hearing speakers at two public events:

On February 18th 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists held a panel at the AAAS – The American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting titled Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of TrumpThe general consensus was that we should come together, stand up and speak up.

And most recently, I attended a very insightful public lecture by Naomi Oreskes on March 14th, 2017. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography Master of Advanced Studies in Climate Science and Policy (MAS-CSP) program  invited her to speak on “The Scientist as a Sentinel”.

Dr. Oreskes speaking at TED (Image credit: TED)

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science, a Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. She is also well known for co-authoring Merchants of Doubt,  a book that was required reading during our summer course.

I was excited to hear in person her elaboration of the invitation teaser:

“Scientists are often reluctant to speak in public on contested issues, for fear that this will “politicize” their science and have a negative impact on their credibility. During the lecture, Dr. Oreskes will examine these concerns by exploring historical examples of scientists who have spoken up on scientific issues of broad importance, including nuclear weaponry, ozone depletion, and climate change.”

The talk was solidifying for me. The biggest take-away I jotted down addressed the following:

“Scientists will lose credibility. If we speak up we’ll be viewed as activists or advocates.” 

She reminded us that this is not a modern issue.

Scientists throughout history have dealt with their work being silenced and the need to speak out. Traditional thought has held that ‘facts speak for themselves’. If scientists just put the facts out there, all will be good.

But the catch is, they don’t. #AlternativeFacts

As a historian, Dr. Oreskes looked at many individuals who were well respected in science, and who became strong public figures.  In no historical cases did speaking out undermine their credibility, and no nobel prizes were revoked. In fact, she deduced that scientists weren’t targets because they spoke out. They became targets because of the great implications of the work they were doing (theory of evolution, nuclear weaponry, ozone hole depletion, atmospheric CO2, etc.), which then drew them to speak publicly exactly because their work was being attacked.

Instead of two extremes: keeping quiet, or being so outspoken you get arrested, she argued for a Responsible Scientists Ideal, urging that we as knowledgable professionals have an obligation to speak up and advocate for specific policies that control matters which threaten human health and life on this planet.

And while we cannot specifically answer questions outside of our field of expertise, we can forge collaborations with experts who are able to address policy, economic, and social questions.  She encouraged us that it is OK to do some extra homework and look into what experts of those fields are saying; to offer some potential solutions to our human-caused problems. If we come across situations where facts are totally disregarded, like with the denial of climate change, we can flip the argument and instead talk about values. About losing freedoms, fairness, accountability, realism, leadership in advanced technology, and good ole hard work.

I want to echo what Naomi shared with us:

The facts don’t speak for themselves. Someone has to speak up for them…and that is us, [the scientific community].

I would love to know what discussions you’ve had about this topic and how you’ve approached the argument ‘To speak, or not to speak’.

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What should I write about? Examples from other scientists’ op-ed articles in the New York Times

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Write an op-ed! Op-eds and other newspaper articles are very effective ways to communicate a new idea or synthesis of ideas, or to remind a large audience of an issue you think they should consider.

But what should you write about? Easy- something you care about. It could be your work, someone else’s research, or a political issue.

Just some of the op-eds in the New York Times that are written by scientists in the last couple of years (2013- 2016), with the except of physicist Freeman Dyson’s 2000 op-ed “Science, Guided by Ethics, Can Lift Up the Poor,” are listed below. Many of the headline issues are here: elections, same-sex marriage, climate change, common core standards in public schools.

There are several observations one could make by a brief look. Op-ed contributors come from all over the world, though a majority are east coast scientists. Many of the articles are written by scientists who also have written a book or are in a non-profit in the field on which they are writing: perhaps they are comfortable with talking with the public. More cynically, I wondered, perhaps they are promoting new books? But I think many of these authors try to communicate a burning issue in every way they can, and so write books, write op-eds, give talks.

Sometimes people write about a concern not in a field of work that relates to their training. For example, Physicist Michael Riordan wrote an op-ed “Don’t Sell Cheap Coal to Asia” on the effect of such a policy decision on carbon dioxide emissions. But most write and relate their topic to their own experiences.

It isn’t terribly easy to have your op-ed published in the New York Times. Many issues are local, and writing op-eds for local papers might be a better way (and good practice) to communicate your thoughts as a scientist and citizen.

EXAMPLES OF NY TIMES OP-EDS WRITTEN BY SCIENTISTS.

Science, Guided by Ethics, Can Lift Up the Poor. Freeman Dyson, Professor of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study and the author of books on science and philosophy.  May 29, 2000.

How to Handle the Vaccine Skeptics. Saad B. Omer, Associate Professor of Global Health, Epidemiology and Pediatrics at Emory University.  February 6, 2015.

The Roots of Implicit Bias. Daniel A Yudkin, graduate student and Jay Van Bavel, Associate Professor, New York University in the Psychology Department. December 11, 2016.

Second Thoughts of an Animal Researcher. John P. Gluck, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico. September 4, 2016.

There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Neuroscience. John C. Markowitx, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University and a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. October 14, 2016.

Medicating a Prophet. Medicating a Prophet.Irene Hurford, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and director of a psychosis program at Horizon House. October 1, 2016.

If You See Something, Say Something. Michael E. Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”  January 17, 2014.

How to Stop Overprescribing Antibiotics. Craig R. Fox, Jeffrey A. Wonder, and Jason N. Doctor.  Craig Fox is a Professor of Management, Psychology, and Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Jessfrey Linder is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Jason Doctor is an Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical and Health Economics at the University of Southern California. March 25, 2016.

Evolution is Happening Faster Than We Thought. Menno Schilthuizen, Evolutionary Biologist at the Naturalis BioDiversity Center in the Netherlands and the author of “Nature’s Nether Regions” and the forthcoming “Darwin Comes to Town.”  July 23, 2016.

Are You in Despair? That’s Good. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the forthcoming “How Emotions Are Made.” June 3, 2016.

The Lost Culture of Whales. Shane Hero, Behavioral Ecologist and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.  October 9, 2016

Eliminate the TB Scourge. Uvistra Naidoo, Pediatrician and Research Scientist in Cape Town, South Africa. May 19, 2016

Climate Change in Trump’s Age of Ignorance. Robert N. Proctor, Professor of the History of Science at Stanford and the Author of “Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.” November 20, 2016

The Math of March Madness. Jordan Ellenburg, Professor of Mathematics at the  University of Wisconsin and the author, most recently, of “How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.” March 22, 2015.

‘Run, Hide, Fight’ Is Not How Our Brains Work. Joseph Ledoux, Professor of Science at New York University and the author of “Anxious” Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety.”  December 20, 2015.

Unequal, Yet Happy. Steven Quartz, Professor of Philosophy and Neuroscience and Anette Asp, a political scientist, both the authors of “Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World.”.    April 11, 2015

How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food. Mark Lynas, researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science and the author, most recently, of “The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans.” April 26, 2015

A Bird Whose Life Depends on a Crab. Deborah Cramer, visiting scholar at the M.I.T. Earth System Initiative and the author, most recently, of “Smithsonian Ocean: Our Water Our World.” November 27, 2013

Academic Science Isn’t Sexist. Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, Professors of Human Development at Cornell. November 2, 2014

An Epidemic of Thyroid Cancer? H. Gilbert Welch, Professor of Medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for health Policy and Clinical Practice and an author of “Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health.” November 6, 2014

Beware Marauding Carp. David Strayer, a Senior Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and the author of “The Hudson River Primer: Ecology of an Iconic River” and John Waldman, Professor of Biology at Queens College, City University of New York and the author of “Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations.” November 19, 2013.

Bring Back the Lyme Vaccine. Stanley A. Plotkin, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania.  September 18, 2013

Don’t Sell Cheap U.S. Coal to Asia. Michael Riordan, physicist and author of “The Hunting of the Quark.” February 13, 2014.

Fix the Flaws in Forensic Science. Eric S. Lander, Director of the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard and the co-chairman of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. April 21, 2015

Give the Data to the People. Harlan M. Krumholz, Professor of Cardiology and Public health at the Yale School of Medicine. February 2, 2014

God, Darwin and My College Biology Class. David P. Barash, Evolutionary Biologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. September 27, 2014.

How to Fall in Love with Math. Manil Sure, Mathematics Professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author, most recently, of the novel “The City of Devi.” September 16, 2013

Iowa in the Amazon. Stephen Porder, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University.   November 24, 2013.

Is the Universe a Simulation? Edward Frenkel, Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of “Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality.” February 16, 2014.

Let Math Save Our Democracy. Sam Wang, Professor of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology at Princeton and the founder of the Princeton Election Consortium. December 5, 2015.

Meet the New Common Core. Jordan Ellenburg, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and the author of “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.”  June 16, 2015.

Nature’s Case for Same Sex Marriage.  David George Haskell, Professor of Biology at Sewanee, the University of the South and the author of “the Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature.”  March 30, 2013.

New Blood Donor policy, Same Gay Stigma. I. GlennCohen, Professor at Harvard Law School and the faculty director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics, and Eli Y. Akashi, a professor and former dean of Medical Science at Brown University. May 21, 2015.

Our Lonely Home in Nature. Alan Lightman, Physicist who teaches Humanities at M.I.T. and most recently the author of “The Accidental Universe.” May 2, 2014.

Reefer Madness, an Unfortunate Redux. Carl. L. Hart, Associate Professor of Psychology at Columbia University and the author of “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self Discovery That Challenges Everything Your Know about Drugs and Society.” July 11, 2013

Predator and Prey, a Delicate Dance. John A. Vucetich is a population biologist at Michigan Tech , Michael P. Nelson is an environmental ethicist at Oregon State University,  and Rolf O. Peterson is a Wildlife Ecologist at Michigan Tech. May 8, 2013.

Stopping the Next Amphibian Apocalypse. Karen R. Lips, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland. November 15, 2014.

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Communication with community activists: class matters

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Whether applying to a foundation for a grant, or working with local environmental activists on a gas leak, you will need to be able to speak with a variety of people- and they won’t all appreciate your emphasis on data and agendas. And if your work outside the lab involves solidarity with people from a variety of walks of life, you will need to be aware of class differences in your behavior and communication if you want to be effective.

With a deep belief in the meritocracy of academia, and perhaps a belief in the commonly taught narrative of the USA is that there are no class divisions and that the founders came to avoid such class divisions, many scientists feel that a consideration of class (or race) is not necessary, that everyone regardless of background is on equal footing with everyone else. In a community setting, you may feel completely comfortable with everyone there- but that doesn’t mean everyone is comfortable with you.

For those who want to understand class issues, “Class Matters: Cross-class Alliance Building for Middle-class Activists” authored by sociologist and economic justice activist Betsy Leondar-Wright (2nd edition in 2014) is an amazing resource.

The Table of Contents (below) shows the comprehensiveness and detail of the book. From vocabulary to the race/class intersection to meeting behavior and on, “Class Matters” will help not just with your communication, but with your understanding of the world beyond the bench.

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Scientists may find immediately relatable  insights in “An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich” in the “Obstacles to Alliances” chapter. Barbara Ehrenreich is an author and political activist, and her books have been instrumental in understanding the impact of poverty in the USA. She has a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Immunology from Rockefeller University , where she was Zan Cohn’s first student.

Ehrenreich discusses the effect of the professional middle class (and scientists would fit right in there) ethos, and the deferred gratification and workaholism that is common among academics. Not everyone, though, has the luxury of believing in delayed gratification, and may look upon those struggling as undisciplined. Most truly believe that because they struggled through school, everyone could do the same thing, not realizing the advantages and privileges that gave them this ethic.

The academic mindset will even influence scientists’ expectations of meetings. Agendas, plenary speakers, and break-out sessions are not always the venue of choice, and and often not useful for a meeting designed to instill camaraderie, for example. There will be meetings without experts, which may seem rudderless to those used to academic conferences.

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Last tips- Don’t assume people are different than you, don’t assume they are the same. Don’t hide your class or be ashamed of it. Remember that you aren’t in charge and that there are many, many kinds of expertise. Don’t take hostility personally.

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