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The 'scientist-advocate' should be prepared for a rough time

STANFORD -- The Japanese have a saying: "The tall nail gets hammered down," a way of expressing how Japanese culture enforces conformism. The same holds true in the realm of science, especially when the scientist is also an advocate in a controversial field or tries to popularize science for the masses.

Climatologist Stephen H. Schneider said he has learned that the hard way. Schneider, one of the leading proponents of the theory of global warming, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford and a researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston Friday, Feb. 12, that young scientists need to be warned they can pay a heavy price for sticking their heads up.

"To be blunt, I'd advise any potential scientist-advocates . . . not to be naive about how extensive a career risk they may face," Schneider said. This is particularly true if they get involved with public policy controversy.

"What you quickly come up against . . . is the often skeptical attitude of your colleagues. And sometimes you face even overt hostility from other scientists who hold to different values or [even worse] represent opposing interest groups. The worst-case scenario, of course, is a linkup of the two, when skeptical colleagues and hostile, opposing special interests join forces."

The result can be character assassination by Ph.D.-wielding critics parading as defenders of the sanctity of science.

It all can be, he admitted, "pretty disillusioning."

'Affirmative action' required

When he was a postdoctoral scholar, Schneider said, and his work was becoming highly visible, he would get such comments as: "Good scientists work in the lab, not on the 'Tonight Show.' " Schneider said that traditional view of science is admirable and correct, but those scientists who feel they want to get their scientific message across on a certain issue can no longer just publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, sit back and wait for someone to notice.

"Instead, you have to adopt an 'affirmative action' policy that, some might say pejoratively, often amounts to public relations," he said. "You have to disseminate the message through the media." He even suggests that young scientists be given some training in how best to popularize their work.

If they don't take matters into their own hands, he says, they either will find they are ignored or will have their work and the policy implications interpreted by others.

Scientists who do get involved in public issues run into what Schneider calls "pathological opposition to popularization or policy advocacy." One hint that the opposition is pathological, he said, is if it is voiced despite the credibility of the scientist. He has found three patterns:

  • The first group consists of those scientists who oppose open advocacy in principle, people who "believe it is inappropriate for scientists to be meddling in such vulgar affairs." Since it's impossible for all the nuances and details to be explained in a public debate, these people think the proper role of the scientist is to stay out of the debate altogether.

Schneider said his response to them is that they are honest, naive and forget who is funding their research - the public.

  • The second group, Schneider said, is the small, vocal minority who is simply "jealous of the attention given scientists who get involved in controversial issues."

"When people like that get on proposal or promotion-evaluation committees, it is an outright threat to the career advancement of science-popularizers or scientist-advocates," he said.

  • The third pathological pattern comes from "special-interest scientists whose mission is to find alleged flaws with your arguments or, better still, flaws in your character, in order to discredit your views."

Surprised by attacks

Schneider said these ad hominem attacks surprised him. Some appeared in op-ed columns in newspapers written by "contrarian" scientists who distorted Schneider's position and that of other environmentalists, and then attacked him.

Sometimes, they were using information provided to them by special-interest "paper mills . . . that dig up this stuff and ship it out to people who often understand nothing of its content, but nevertheless use it in debates and arguments."

A small minority of scientists, using such information, frequently can outweigh the consensus of the rest of the scientific community, as is happening in the debate on global warming. This is particularly true with editorial or corporate boards, and congressional offices.

"It is my repeated experience that scientist-advocates or popularizers will encounter such opposition, and that it may cause them personal and professional harm," he concluded. "Quite simply, that's the price of being involved in public advocacy.

"The bottom line . . . is quite simple: If you choose to let somebody else popularize science or advocate with a scientific component, then you have little basis for complaining about the outcome. But if you try to do it yourself, I think you will enjoy the exhilaration of being part of the process of making a difference, tempered by the realization that the process is imperfect."



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