Scientists should speak up, Naomi Oreskes says

BOSTON – On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, scientists from across the nation plan to march together in Washington D.C. to advocate for open, inclusive, and accessible science, and to affirm science as a democratic value. However, some fear this march will only politicize science further and ultimately will do more harm to science than good.

So when should scientists speak up?

According to Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard science historian, the time is now. Oreskes urged scientists to speak up in public – even on controversial topics – in her plenary lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Friday, Feb. 17.


Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard, delivers the plenary lecture “The Scientist as Sentinel” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting at the Hynes Convention Center, Boston, MA. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Photography.

Oreskes addressed a large audience of scientists, science communicators, and journalists on the question of whether scientists should take a stand on politically sensitive and tricky topics, like evolution and creation, vaccination, and climate change. She urged the audience to be sentinels by defending their science when it comes under attack and speaking out about issues that are invisible to the public.

One view of the role of scientists is that they should purely stick to the science and let someone else communicate solutions and remedies. At the other extreme is the activist role, which Oreskes said encourages scientists to “speak out, get involved, propose remedies, maybe even get arrested,” like James Hansen, a former NASA researcher and climate change advocate who has been arrested several times.

Oreskes, however, argued for a position somewhere in the middle: the responsible scientist role. “Scientists need to speak, because facts don’t actually speak for themselves,” she said.

Some scientists wonder if putting themselves “out there” would tarnish their credibility. To answer that, Oreskes turned to history. Albert Einstein, known for developing the theory of relativity and discovering the photoelectric effect, strongly advocated for nuclear arms control after the Second World War. However, Oreskes’ research found no evidence that his groundbreaking work was questioned or challenged because of his political involvement. “The fear of losing credibility is exactly that: fear,” she said.

Oreskes is best known for her award-winning book, Merchants of Doubt, which she co-authored with Erik M. Conway in 2010. It was followed by a documentary film by the same name in 2015. Merchants of Doubt exposed how certain industries deliberately spread false information and sowed doubt about the dangers of tobacco smoke and global warming. More recently, she wrote the introduction to the Melville House edition of the Papal Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality in 2014. She has been widely recognized for her scholarship in science history and recently received the 2015 Herbert Feis Prize of the American Historical Association.

Oreskes and her team have tried to find out why ordinary people who don’t have a financial interest in fossil fuels fall prey to misinformation about climate change. She concluded the denier argument comes from a defense of free-market capitalism. “We have in the United States a deeply rooted belief that government that governs least governs best,” she said. “This is the key argument that we find repeated over and over: ‘If we regulate X, then the government will also regulate Y and Z. We will lose our freedom.’”

Freedom is a value that strongly resonates with Americans. And values are where we can find common ground amidst our polarized society, Oreskes said. She described four ways that scientists can invoke values as they explain their findings:

  1. Fairness: Protecting the innocent from getting hurt.
  2. Accountability: The obligation of solving problems that one has created
  3. Realism: Accepting the reality of market failure, and addressing problems the market does not solve.
  4. Creativity, technological leadership and hard work.

“In the long run, climate change deniers are not protecting our freedom; they are actually threatening it. As sea levels rise and hurricanes become more intense, people’s houses and communities get destroyed. We’re going to see more money being spent in the aftermath of these disasters. More than that, people will die. That’s why this is meaningful for us and not just polar bears,” Oreskes said as the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Scientists pondering her message may wonder whether they should participate in the March for Science or engage in other ways with their local communities instead. Either way, Oreskes suggests we can all serve as responsible sentinels for science using the values we hold close in our hearts.

Featured Image courtesy of Atlantic Photography.


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