The P-Value Podcast

Do scientists have a moral obligation to be public champions of science?

October 25, 2022 Rachael Brown Season 1 Episode 8
The P-Value Podcast
Do scientists have a moral obligation to be public champions of science?

Hi and welcome to the P-Value. A podcast about science, philosophy and everything in between. 


I am your host Dr. Rachael Brown and today we are talking about the role of scientist in the public sphere. 





We live in interesting times.


Although we have more information at our fingertips than any other humans in history, we are also, depending on who you ask, least able to trust the information in our environment. From the sheer mass of information that we have available to us, to the number of deliberate falsehoods sitting innocently right by truth within that mass of information, it is sometimes incredibly hard to know what is, and is not, true and who to trust. 


This not a mere epistemic or theoretical crisis, a lack of trust and reliable information has already had all sorts of nasty social consequences. Famously, misinformation and shoddy science about childhood vaccines has led to significant increases in diseases like measles and whooping cough with dire consequences for some of the children involved. The preponderance of fake news and misinformation about climate change has contributed to what is arguably the greatest political failure of our time in our inability to get large scale climate action. During COVID times we have seen all sorts of fake and dubious science being pedalled on the public with real social harm. 


So where do scientists and science sit within all this. What role  (if any) should scientists play in fighting misinformation? Do they have any moral obligation or responsibility as advocates or even public policy makers? 





In a recent Nature commentary, a group of geneticists, motivated by the misuse of their research in a white supremacist manifesto associated with a deadly racist attack, argued that geneticists needed to push back against the politicisation and weaponization of their research. 


Pointing to several recent findings on global genetic diversity and ancient human migration which had been appropriated by neo-Naxis and others to justify their cause, they note this was only the most recent salvo in a a long history of misappropriation of research by the far right which has ramped up in the era of the internet. As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated to us all, the ease of access to scientific papers and the wide reach of social media make it very easy for misinformation based either in poor science or the misinterpretation of good science to spread both rapidly and to a very wide audience. 


Whilst the genetics are right here, the age of the internet has changed the face of science and its relationship with the public, it is important to that the long history of the misuse of genetics and evolutionary biology is borne out of some dubious parts of science itself. Several key figures in early evolutionary biology and genetics, were involved in the human eugenics movements of the 19th and early 20th Century and held views which were undeniably racist. Indeed, a great deal of the contemporary racist discourse harks back to this era and what is known as scientific racism. 


Scientific racism is the attempt to use the methods and legitimacy of science to defend white supremacist views and particularly the notion of there being fundamental and immutable differences between human groups on the basis of so-called “race”. 


This sort of racial essentialism has been thoroughly debunked scientifically—human diversity is rich, gradual in nature and overlapping and there is no biological basis to race. Put simply, there is no characteristic or set of characteristics of any sub-population of the great complexity of humanity on earth that allows us to carve up that complexity into anything like the racial groupings that far right activists rely on, nor the sort of superiority they attribute to white people. 


This is not, however, to say that there is no value in looking at diversity and variation within the human genome. For example, because of the nature of inheritance and mutation, our genes offer us a way of reconstructing the history of human movement across the globe. Whilst we share the vast majority of our genes, small differences geographic distances are reflected in small divergences in genomes and this can be used to pin point when historical migrations occurred and their nature. 


It is unsurprising, both given the content and the history that the work of geneticists on human genetic diversity is of interest to those who want to argue for the existence of intrinsic human difference. What is surprising perhaps, is that science is not really equipped to deal well with the challenge that this misappropriation brings. 


Whilst scientists, editorial boards, research groups and scientific societies have all released statements making clear that the far right is misrepresenting their research, this alone, at least according to the geneticists in Nature, is not enough. First, they say, scientists need to think carefully about the datasets they use, with less diverse data more likely to produce results which downplay the depth of human diversity in the world. Second, they should reconsider how they present their analysis in publications. With the ease of sharing images, it is infographics and figures that are frequently appropriated by white supremacists and used out of context to support racist claims. Thus, say the geneticsts, such visualisations need to be made in aways that make them less susceptible to misinterpretation when removed from the text around them. Finally, they argue that open access is fuelling part of this problem and that the use of pre-print and other open access serves needs to be reconsidered at an individual and community level. What do you think though? Should scientists change how they work and communicate because of the risk of misuse of their research? 




One of the key issues raised by the human genetics example is the role of scientists as communicators and advocates. Is there any moral obligation on human geneticists to ensure good communication of their work? What about to engage beyond science, with the public on their work? 


Some argue no. Scientists are not at all morally obliged to be advocates and indeed, perhaps they shouldn’t be. Sir Paul Nurse, Geneticist, Nobel prize Winner and former President of the Royal Society says of this “It is essential, in public issues, to separate science from politics and ideology. Get the science right first – then discuss the political implications.”. Here, Nurse draws a sharp line between the scientist and public policy maker with advocacy firmly on the public policy side of the ledger. There are several reasons one could give for such a position. 


First, and perhaps most obviously, advocacy looks to conflict with the norms of good science such as disinterestedness and objectivity. We have dealt with this sort of move before on the pod when talking about inductive risk and the value-free ideal of science. Alas, whilst intuitively appealing, there is good reason to think that it is not tenable in practice. There are many situations in which it seems morally required for scientists to consider the implications of their research or findings. The human genetics example from earlier is a classic example where this seems to be true — geneticists presenting work which could be misappropriated by white supremacists arguably should have a higher bar for publication or accepting those results than a scientist researching something less socially consequential like the favourite ice cream of the middle class or the nature of dark matter. Those interested in these arguments should go back a couple of eps for more detail. 


Another reason to reject the idea of scientists as advocates which is related but more instrumentally motivated concerns the credibility of science. Scientists are typically cast as the ”objective purveyors of truth” in society. Can they play that role adequately if also being activists? Indeed, one only need look at the level of vitriol and distrust in the debates about climate science to suggest that advocacy may not necessarily be in the best interests of scientific progress or social benefit. In that context, climate change skeptics often point to the role of scientists in advocating for climate action as a reason to distrust their objectivity.


Efficiency and effectiveness offer further reason to reject the moral obligation of scientists to be advocates. Advocacy is time consuming, and scientists are also ready time poor. Moreover, are they really the best people to do this job. Arguably, most scientists lack the training and knowledge required to be good advocates and any advocacy work they do do, will take them away from their research. Given this, whilst advocacy is clearly an important job. Perhaps it is not theirs? Surely bad advocacy is worse than none?


All these arguments generate a very strong division of labour between science and society. On this sort of picture, scientists as individuals and as a community are the ones responsible for producing good science, no more no less.  Society, on the other hand is responsible for ensuring that the results of that research are communicated well and put to good use. 


Are you persuaded by this type of picture? Do you think that scientists really shouldn’t be advocates?




One reason to be skeptical about the sort of view just outlined is that we have so many good examples of scientist advocates that have been incredibly effective. Whilst of course some scientists have lost credibility through their advocacy (not naming names, you know who you are!), many others have not. Think of Jane Goodall, Gus Nossal, Brian Schmidt, Ian Frazer, Elisabeth Blackburn, Peter Doherty. They are champions of science who have the trust of the public. Not only do we have stellar examples of credible science advocates but we also have examples of the power of such advocacy. Think of the great impact of the advocacy of Marine Scientsist Rachel Carson in the 1960s which led to the banning of DDT. Her book Silent Spring remains a classic and I still get students coming up to me having been inspired by her writing to work in conservation.


The work of the exemplary advocates just outlined makes clear that good science advocacy is possible and effective. Perhaps what is missing is giving scientists the time and training to be able to do it? 


Some argue that scientists, as citizens (and privileged one sat that), are morally obliged to advocate to the best of their ability in the interest of helping society. For them not do advocate is to reject a fundamental responsibility of any citizens of any democracy. 


As far back as the Greeks it has been though that active participation in processes of deliberation and decision- making is a fundamental part of being a citizen rather than a subject”. Thus, scientists have a moral obligation first as good citizens, second as good scholars and third as scientists. Their commitment as good citizens must override their scientific and scholarly interests. To quote author Susan Sontag on being an activist in Sarajevo during the siege said “Activism, strictly speaking, is what I do as a citizen and human being. And that has nothing to do with being a writer.... 


Whilst scientists have some sort of obligation simply as citizens, it seems reasonable to argue that they have an even greater responsibility as experts. We pretty much all agree that we want our public policy to be informed by our best science. But, Empirically informed public policy doesn’t just require that more “facts” become available to public policy makers. It requires interpretive work. Interpretive work which scientists are uniquely placed to carry out. The moral obligation on scientists as advocates here is twofold, not only are they valuable public experts but they also are the required interpretive gate keepers for scientific knowledge. Without them science has limited public and practical value.


A final reason we must consider in favour of scientists as advocates comes back around to the human genetics case and concerns the urgency of this dilemma. One of the striking features of that case is the power of new forms of communication to be used for misinformation. The fact is that this goes beyond human genetics. Important scientific work in all sorts of fields from the pandemic response to climate change is not adequately reaching those who can use it in the interests of positive change. It is arguably therefore the moral responsibility of scientists to be more forceful in communicating the important implications of their research to the public than ever before. 


What do you think? Where do scientists fit into all of this? Can they play a role in combatting false information? Should they?




You’ve been listening to the P-Value. The P-Value is an Intituative of the centre for philosophy of the Sciences at the Australian national university. I’m your host Dr Rachael Brown. Bye for now.