Friday, July 22, 2011

On activism in science

I have written a little bit about science and technology philosophy on this blog, and their implications to society. But one thing I haven't really touched on much (apart from this one previous post, What if scientists quit?) is what the role of scientists ought to be given what we know.

Much of science is based on incrementalism, and very little about the process of science itself is about disrupting the status quo in it. Scientists build upon the work of other scientists. The process feeds on itself. Of course, there are many brilliant people that have come and gone before us, and to discredit their work doesn't At the same time, science has done an acceptable job at describing, to a great extent, the world around us. Planes fly, computers send email. But it seems to me that this mindset of incrementalism, of not disturbing the status quo, of being the geek with limited social skills that sits at a computer, does a tremendous disservice to what the potential of scientists can be.

In his book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Robert Pielke Jr. elaborates on the various roles scientists can play in informing the governmental policy process. Scientists (and engineers, of course) can
  • solely provide data, and leave the answer of what to do about the data to the "decision-makers,"
  • be "stealth advocates," and fly under the radar while secretly helping some group's cause, or
  • be "honest brokers," and openly discuss data, and take public stances on what the data should mean for action.
Unfortunately, the roles that he talks about assumes that scientists rest within the current structures of society that lead to much inertia - the government-university-industry complex. Again, the status quo.

As I mentioned in a previous post, for those who know about ecological degradation, we cannot let others not know. I believe this to be a responsibility of knowing (to a certain extent) and understanding (to a certain extent) what it is that causes ecological degradation. This knowledge and understanding has philosophical and consequently scientific and technological dimensions to it. It therefore allows us to be empathetic with those who have borne the brunt of ecological degradation. So why aren't scientists out there protesting and shouting on the streets, other than a few here and there (James Hansen chief among them)?

Further thoughts tomorrow.

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