This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
A senior public servant thinks scientists should be passionate, engaged activists.
A few weeks ago an official based in Washington, DC touched down in Australia – 16,000 kilometers distant. She then traveled another 2,400 kilometers north to an out-of-the-way city named Cairns. With the Great Barrier Reef as a backdrop, she proceeded to deliver one of the scariest speeches ever.
The official’s name is Jane Lubchenco. As the Under Secretary of Commerce for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this woman heads a monstrous organization that spends $4 billion worth of taxpayers’ money each year.
In other circumstances, I might be inspired by Lubchenco. She has a high-powered position in the reportedly excessively macho Obama administration. Moreover, her paternal grandfather (like my maternal grandparents) emigrated to North America from the Ukraine.
Instead, I’m appalled by the influence this woman now wields over a field I once respected and admired – science.
Lubchenco’s opening, keynote address was delivered on July 9th. You can read the entire text on the NOAA’s website here (backup link here). She is one of those people who – despite the fact that she left the laboratory far behind in order to become a political wheeler-and-dealer – never misses an opportunity to remind us that she’s a scientist. This strikes me as analogous to a nun who, despite abandoning the convent, wants us to imagine that she’s magically insulated from the usual temptations in her new role as a politician.
Lubchenco had barely begun her speech when her political persona emerged. There it is in paragraph three, after her brief introductory remarks. What’s the first thing she says?
The world, its coral reefs and the millions of people that depend upon them need more bold action – action that is science-and ecosystem-based, action that is embraced locally and nationally, action that values tomorrow as well as today. And we need bold science – science that is use-inspired: i. e., it is cutting-edge but relevant and focused on solutions. [emphasis added]
In an address to “fellow scientists” Lubchenco didn’t emphasize the need for a careful, cautious, scholarly approach. She didn’t remind her colleagues that the only reason taxpayers are prepared to fund scientific research is because we have an expectation that it is being conducted in a disinterested and even-handed manner.
She didn’t acknowledge, as Roger Pielke Jr. does in his book, The Honest Broker, that the public will be far less respectful of science if we start to feel it’s being used to manipulate us:
If the public or policy-makers begin to believe that scientific findings are simply an extension of a scientist’s political beliefs, then scientific information will play an increasingly diminishing role in policy-making. [see page 95]
Instead, Lubchenco told her colleagues that the world needs action. She may have included the word science three times in those two sentences, but the word action appears even more frequently.
Her speech goes on to describe coral reefs as “Eden beneath the waves.” That’s hardly the sort of language one expects from a scientist.
Let us not forget that in the so-called Eden that is the Great Barrier Reef, thousands of living creatures meet their earthly demise every day when they are devoured by other living creatures. Humans snorkeling in the area have been maimed by sharks. The reef, like any other part of nature, deserves respect. Lubchenco instead chooses to romanticize it.
She then cites data compiled not by a respectable scientific body but by the activist World Resources Institute (WRI). In her words:
This map, prepared by the World Resources Institute in 2011, depicts the social and economic dependence of 81 countries, 21 island territories and six subnational regions on coral reefs.
On the board of directors of the WRI we find Al Gore – as well as the president of another activist body, the Natural Resources Defense Council. The WRI’s climate program is currently being run by Jennifer Morgan, who used to be the chief climate change spokesperson for a third bastion of green activism – the World Wildlife Fund.
In other words, the WRI is a highly politicized, highly suspect source of information. It is a lobby group with an agenda a mile wide (in the UK, the media uses the term pressure group to describe such organizations). The WRI is chock full of activists often equipped with minimal scientific training – according to the Washington Post, Gore received a C+ and a D in the natural science courses he took in college.
This is the authority on which Lubchenco chose to rely. In a major speech delivered in a foreign country she anchored her remarks to a map that was produced by an activist organization rather than a scientific one. In doing so, she signaled to her fellow scientists that it is OK to rely on activist-produced material.
Next Lubchenco argued that, “most of all” (my emphasis), the preservation of coral reefs “is about our collective commitment to one another, to the rest of life on the planet and to our future.”
That is not how a hard scientist talks. Whatever obligations we might have toward the future and to one another are a matter of philosophical and political debate. Lubchenco the scientist – and Lubchenco the US politician – should not imagine that her personal opinions in this regard are necessarily shared by the rest of us.
Soon after comes the overt moralizing:
Healthy reefs are more than the lifeline for local communities; healthy coral reefs are a moral imperative for the global community. [bold added]
In which college science courses did Lubchenco receive training in morality? Why does she believe that scientists are remotely equipped to make public declarations about moral imperatives? But it gets worse:
Scientists – YOU and I ! — with our knowledge of the threats, consequences, and likelihood success of options for solutions, have a particular responsibility to share our findings broadly, develop useful and useable decision-support tools, team up with local communities and industry partners, and help craft practical solutions.
Your knowledge and your passion are sorely needed. [bold added]
Excuse me, but the last thing I want from any scientist worthy of the name is passion. What I expect and deserve is the exact opposite – dispassion. I want scientists to go where the data takes them. Period.
This isn’t complicated. People who think passion is part of their job description are not scientists. Instead, they are using the good name of science to covertly advance another agenda. This practically defines unscientific behaviour.
Toward the end of her speech, Lubchenco declares:
Science does not tell society what to do, but it should give them the information, tools, understanding of trade-offs of different consequences that facilitate smart decision-making. [bold added]
That’s right. The job of scientists is to provide data and then to stand back and let the rest of us take part in a wide-ranging debate about the strengths and weaknesses of that data – and about how best to respond. It is not the proper role of a scientist to micro-manage the ensuing debate, to lead it in certain directions, or to frame it in subjective terms.
So what in heaven’s name does Lubchenco mean, a few paragraphs later, when she mentions “taking science to action,” when she tells her colleagues they shouldn’t be complacent, that “the urgency is real” and that they must be willing “to engage in a sustained fashion”?
What does she mean when she declares:
We need bold science and bold action…Each of you here can influence the rate of response by activating your science…I invite you to do more than create new knowledge. Share it! Put it to use with partners and a sustained engagement. In short, activate your science. [bold added]
Activate your science. Great.
America built the world’s most powerful economy on the back of hard-nosed, no-nonsense science and technology. And now one of its most senior officials is advising fellow scientists to abandon everything real science stands for. She wants them to be passionate, engaged activists.
If Lubchenco is arguing for some totally new approach to scientific inquiry that is separate and distinct from both the old scientific method and crass activism it certainly isn’t evident to this reader. Her 4,000-word speech contains no warnings about the dangers of full-fledged activism. She voices no concern about how activism betrays the public’s trust. Her speech issues no warnings about the good name of science being foolishly squandered by people who imagine that they are advancing a higher moral imperative.
In Lubchenco’s universe there is apparently no danger of scientists going overboard, of unconsciously biasing their research. She seems to think that earning a scientific degree somehow transforms individuals into infallible beings who will never fall victim to self-delusion, whose judgment will always be impeccable.
Activate your science. That was her advice.