This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
I’ll be speaking in Calgary on Wed., October 17th at the Friends of Science annual luncheon. The scientific method needs all the friends – and defenders – we can muster.
Most of us assume that scientists are rigorously impartial. That’s what the white coat signifies, right? But a new breed now seems to be wearing those coats – people who want all the respect and authority that comes with the “scientist” label yet aren’t prepared to honour the most basic scientific precepts.
Science isn’t about achieving the answer you expect, want, or believe will support a cause to which you are sympathetic. It’s about recognizing that, in the words of the late great physicist Richard Feynman, you yourself are the “easiest person to fool” and that every precaution must therefore be taken.
A while back I pointed out that a 1976 book authored by the Club of Rome spoke approvingly of political machinations within the scientific community. Page 133 of the Signet paperback edition of RIO: Reshaping the International Order (Chapter 7, Section 5) includes the following quote:
In many branches of science there are radical movements. Increasingly, both in the rich and poor worlds, scientists are involved in active advocacy which they see as an intellectual and ethical duty. [bold added]
What this means is that, for the past four decades, a question mark has hovered above the remarks of all scientists. The public has had no way of knowing whether the expert currently being interviewed is a dispassionate investigator – or whether we’re being fed active advocacy by someone who considers themselves a member of a radical movement.
It’s astonishing to me that scientific bodies have chosen to ignore the immense damage this inflicts on all scientific endeavour. In Chapter 6 of my book I write:
The activist scientists who emerged in the 1970s have been working their way into high-status, leadership positions. Rather than keeping its distance from those whose careers have been associated with activism, the scientific establishment now honors, celebrates, and promotes such people.
But this has consequences. The public is supposed to accept the [findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report] because it is a scientific document written by the world’s top scientific experts. What happens when the public discovers that those involved are actually brazen activists? What happens when it discovers that the world’s most illustrious science bodies have themselves stopped drawing a line in the sand between activists and those who strive to pursue science in a genuinely neutral and unbiased fashion?
If scientists want us to trust their expert opinions they need to behave in a trustworthy manner. If they want us to be impressed by their high standards, they need to enforce these standards.
Science isn’t a game. Nor is the scientific method negotiable. It is the only reason we should pay the slightest attention to what anyone wearing a lab coat has to say.
The world needs people who loudly and publicly defend the scientific method. If you are unable to attend my Friends of Science talk, please consider supporting that organization financially.
Postscript: To date I’ve addressed audiences in Munich, London, and four Australian cities (selling out in Sydney and Melbourne). This talk will be my first on Canadian soil.