The Dangers of Advocacy in Science
This blog is the last in a series by Steven Benner (the first can be found here), which can now conveniently be accessed in a Scholarly Essay. Throughout the series, Benner discusses the nature of scientific progress and the difficulty of defining what is and is not science. Discussion questions are included at the bottom of each post.
In my previous blogs, I outlined several reasons why non-scientists often have a difficult time understanding what scientists do. Scientists study many different things using very different techniques. Science cannot easily be pinned down by being stated in falsifiable hypotheses, and science is a thoroughly human endeavor. Sometimes there is sufficient real evidence to challenge a paradigm, but often this challenge is blocked by the sociology of the field.
Non-scientists rarely see the kind of uncertainty that drives science forward. The high school science classroom and the distribution science course in college are the end of science education for most lay people. Introductory science courses at both levels are all about teaching fact under the authority of the teacher. A good grade is the desired outcome. Belief in the authority of the teacher is a key to a good grade.
Nor is this perspective on science often on display in the popular press. When scientists appear in the news, they are generally sought for their advice on a matter of public policy. They are asked for certainty, not to express the uncertainty that is at the core of science correctly done.
Accordingly, the public routinely sees scientists as advocates. The supermarket checkout magazines have scientists in white lab coats announcing a new cure for cancer. Should we brush our teeth up and down, or side to side, or in circles? Chances are that someone in a white lab coat has told us to do each of these at some point in our lives. When President Obama appears on television with doctors to support health care reform, his staff has the doctors remove their jackets and don white lab coats. When I first blogged on this site, a principal complaint by intelligent design supporters was that the scientists that they saw were no less advocates than they were.
There is no mystery as to why non-scientist co-opt readily recognized symbols of science. Biology, physics, and chemistry have been empowering in society. Every politician, advertiser, or lawyer wants to have the respect offered to scientists to apply as well to the politics, product, or client that they are advocating. Creation science, Scientology, even social science—the names were chosen to appropriate the mantle of respect that out culture gives to science. It is no accident that Mary Baker Eddy founded the "Church of Christ, Scientist" in 1879, just as our culture was beginning to give science this privileged position of respect.
This provides another reason why it is easy to be confused about what science is and what scientists do. The imagery of science and scientists is widely expropriated in the public square by non-scientists.
The temptation to participate in the public dialogue as an advocate is considerable. I myself have been interviewed by reporters who become impatient if I actually practice science before their eyes. It is generally simpler give an answer rather than to present the context, including all of its uncertainty.
For this reason, it is important, here and elsewhere, for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.
So how do things every get settled in science, at least to the point where personal action or public policy can be based on it? As I described in my book Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method, science proceeds through the successive movement of the burden of proof from one side of propositions to the other as each side meets the culturally accepted standard-of-proof. That standard is met when a preponderance of evidence favoring one view over another is assembled to the point where it satisfies a community of interested people.
In law, the standard-of-proof is defined by statute. Proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" is required to convict individuals of a felony (O. J. Simpson was not convicted in criminal court under this standard). "Preponderance of evidence" is the standard-of-proof used in a civil court (O. J. Simpson lost his civil case to the Brown and Goldman families under this standard).
In science, standards-of-proof are neither legislated nor dictated by authority. Instead, they evolve as part of the culture of a community of scientists. That process is poorly understood, and does not follow clear rules. Because no authority stands above any field to legislate its standards-of-proof, many arguments in science are arguments over what those standards should be.
The intellectual discipline that allows our students to apply this process to come to believe things other than what they want to believe, is key to the training of practicing scientists. This process is not easy to teach, not easy to learn, and not painless to apply. It is as difficult for scientists to admit that they were wrong as anyone else. It is as painful to come to believe what one really does not want to believe. But this is the process that leads to knowledge, or at least a view of nature that, if not itself knowledge, certainly does what knowledge was supposed to do: provide predictive and manipulative power.
Discussion Questions: Dr. Benner states that “when a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.” Do you think it is possible to advocate for a particular view of science and still retain the ability to discern reality? Do you agree with him that politicians, advertisers, and others expropriate the image of science to gain a mantle of power in the public square?
Steven Benner is a Distinguished Fellow of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University. Benner and his group of researchers initiated synthetic biology as a field and invented dynamic combinatorial chemistry, which is currently being used in pharmaceutical development.