Thursday, October 1, 2009

Should scientists speak their minds?

Yesterday Dave Munger, an editor at, picked up on a post I had written for Tom Paine's Ghost about the implications of increased biofuel production in the United States. Munger furthered the discussion in an e-cover story published on Seed Magazine.

In the article he cites me as the one who drew his attention to the story then proceeded to ask the question of whether or not I have the right to insert my opinion. He ponders what role scientists should play in making policy decisions in light of newly uncovered facts.
"Shouldn’t scientists just be interested in giving us the facts, staying removed from policy decisions and letting the general public and politicians decide how to act? Doesn’t becoming an advocate introduce bias into the scientific process, potentially tarnishing results?"
I see what he is doing in trying to get a conversation started but his premise that working scientists should stay removed from policy decisions assumes that scientists themselves are  A.) not part of the general public and B.) not politicians.   These are both false assumptions. Our country started with a bunch of statesmen scientists interesting in forming a democracy.  I will never forget the words tacked to my undergraduate research mentor's office cork board.  It was a card from the ACS quoting Thomas Jefferson ~ "Science is my passion, politics my duty."  For some reason in the 21st century the idea of a scientifically literate politician has escaped the bounds of possibility in the United States which I see as a travesty.  Angela Merkel - the high chancellor of Germany got her doctorate in Quantum chemistry for crying out loud and we in the United States have this notion that scientists should stay out of politics?  Maybe that explains why the city of Munich alone produces more solar generated energy than the entire United States of America!  

Getting back to Dave's article. The facts are the facts are the FACTS.  No human has the ability to change these. I here argue that scientists should not be robots with binary brains sorting the infinite number of yes no answers floating out there in the universe but should actively use their brains to form opinions about the observations to drive the conversation of science and let those ideas survive or die according to the same evolutionary sieve our own genes pass through. Memetic cultural selection within the confines of scientific method.

Let me illustrate what I believe the role of the scientist should be with two images. The image on top is a protein called MeCP2 run out on a 12% SDS polyacylimde gel with apparent molecular weight of 71.5 kD (actual 53 kD)  while the image on the bottom is a cropped painting by Mark Rothko.  As an observer you would not be able to identify the one on top and you might be able to tell the one on the bottom but not unless you happened to have seen that painting before.  I can tell you that the band on top is MeCP2 protein but you have to believe me.  I can show you how I sequenced the plasmid, expressed, and purified the protein from E. coli and ran it through mass spec and loaded 10 micrograms onto this particular gel. But in the end you have to believe me that this is what I say it is.  And I say it is what it is because I believe in the central dogma of biochemistry.  I can not observe this nano scale assembly line with my eyes but I believe it because the stifling evidence for it has been explained very clearly, many times, by many apt mentors.  Interpretation of observation, in my mind, is THE central role of a scientist.   And if that interpretation is false then it will eventually be overturned by a better explanation.  That is at the heart of the the scientific method. In fact an idea must be falsifiable upon emergence for it to qualify as a scientific idea at all. When a human mind takes two or more ideas and synthesizes some conclusion from these data it must have the potential to be proven wrong! That is why truths such as earth's spherical shape and evolution by natural selection are so significant. They have survived the test of time. 

To say that scientists should not be involved in policy decisions sounds like something right out of George W. Bush's play book. Rule number one - keep any and all brains out of decision making offices. Yeah that seemed to work out great for the planet.

I would like to bring up a counter point to Munger's. Shouldn't there be more positive encouragement for scientists to publicly speak their minds?  A lot of government funded scientific researches have an invisible gag order on them politically.  Last April  Dr. Craig Martens of the  Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton, MT visited Colorado State, his Alma mater.   During the lunch after his seminar we were talking about politics and he mentioned that the National Lab there requested that all employees take off any political bumper stickers from their personal vehicles during election season.  This sounded mad to me.  He also told me that employees are prohibited from getting involved with city government in Hamilton.  Again to me  - madness.  Yes, just as a good journalist should stay objective, so must a good scientist but this does not mean he/or she should feel restricted in expressing thoughts.  Besides, new psychological research indicates that being an activist is good for vitality.

As Frances Moore Lappé said at the sustainable living fair in in Fort Collins, Colorado last week -
"When you feel the need to say something but it seems controversial think of that heart pounding anxiety you get in front of a crowd as 'inner applause'"  

1 comment:

Brad said...

As long as there are idiots who believe science is the tool of the devil and facts are how he destroys faith scientists must be involved in politics and share their opinions on policy.