The question of scientific neutrality vs scientific obligation to the greater good comes up constantly.
As the title and explanatory anecdote of this blog allude to, one of the most irritating aspects of denialism (which is to say, about deliberate lying regarding science) is the suggestion that controversy advances one’s career. In fact, it is always safer to pick the strict neutrality position for someone pursuing a conventional career in science. People like Joe Romm have a different career path; people like me, not conventionally ambitious, have less to lose. The career scientists who are the mainstay of RealClimate, though, get no advantage for their efforts: time spent on taking a position, even a position that is totally in line with scientific evidence, is time at best wasted in advancing a career in geophysics.
(It may be different in biology, particularly wildlife ecology, for reasons which are interesting.)
The usual person who comes to mind in this context is James Hansen, who has clearly become an outspoken advocate. Even some of his peer reviewed papers have a tinge of advocacy. Is this the right thing to do?
On the one hand, one wants a body of knowledge that is reliable and as untainted by custom, culture and opinion as is possible. That is what makes science science. On the other hand, eventually matters reach a point where one has to begin to insist that society is grossly mishandling a situation, is severely out of touch with the extent of risk that is happening.
I received via email a pointer to an interesting debate on this subject involving my correspondent and the the Texas State Climatologist, who is a meteorology faculty member at Texas A&M and a blogger at the Houston Chronicle.
The question is to what extent the State Climatologist’s job is to rub the government’s nose in the mess it is leaving on the carpet, fully aware that doing so may lose one the title and the modest funding that I am guessing goes with it. To suggest that this is part of the role of the State Climatologist is itself interesting; certainly that is not the traditional role of that position. A case can be made. On the other hand, if the SC is so outspoken as to lose his or her position, the replacement is likely to err on the side of caution.
Max Planck found himself in a similar quandary. The question of the extent to which to defend Einstein and Haber as contributors to physics in the light of a certain lack of respect from the German government for people of Jewish descent turned out to be a major theme in his later life. He avoided speaking out. Wikipedia has the following anecdote:
Hahn asked Planck to gather well-known German professors in order to issue a public proclamation against the treatment of Jewish professors, but Planck replied, “If you are able to gather today 30 such gentlemen, then tomorrow 150 others will come and speak against it, because they are eager to take over the positions of the others.” Under Planck’s leadership, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG) avoided open conflict with the Nazi regime, except concerning Fritz Haber. Planck tried to discuss the issue with Adolf Hitler but was unsuccessful.
All of this is discussed in detail in the remarkable biography of Planck: The Dilemmas of an Upright Man (J. L. Heilbron, 2000).
Science, properly construed, is neutral, and the main goal of the scientific community must be to protect that neutrality. The question is what is the right thing for an individual scientist or a scientific community to do when society’s relationship to that neutral science goes awry. Such quandaries go back to Copernicus. I don’t think we have an easy answer.