December 26, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making science public: The science and silence conundrum

The issue of science and advocacy is a complex topic and has led to heated discussions amongst scientists, science communicators and commentators of different persuasions, especially this year it seems. There was first a flurry of debate provoked, in July this year, by an article written by Tamsin Edwards who argued that climate scientists should not advocate particular policies, and then another one towards the end of the year triggered by a talk delivered by Gavin Schmidt at the American Geophysical Union, who argued that honesty is the best policy in the context of science and advocacy. Both these debates took place in the context of climate change, where science and society seem to clash most frequently in recent times and where science communication is confronted by a long list of problems.

Then, at the end of December 2013, Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre claimed that scientists working on climate change and who remained silent implicitly advocated the status quo. He said in an interview: “I think the scientists – particularly those of us who do work at the interface between science and translating that into a language that others can engage with – not just policy-makers, but broader civil society, businesses and so forth. For those of us to stay quiet about our work, that is political. […] So we may think we’re doing this neutrally, but we’re not at all. That silence is an advocacy for the status quo. So there are no such things as scientists that are not political. Scientists by their nature are being political, whether they engage or do not engage in the wider debates. And I would argue that the ones are who are the least political are the ones who engage in it.” Silence in the context of climate change is seen as a political act, an implicit act of advocacy.

This intervention in the growing debate around science and advocacy in turn provoked a lot of discussion, and I don’t think that this will be the last time the science/advocacy debate has flared up. Interestingly, one commenter speaking out for speaking out was completely misunderstood by a moderator. The commenter’s argument was that breaking the silence on climate change should indeed come from the community of climate scientists and not be left largely to others; and that one part of this communicative activity should be to point out and correct errors or erroneous information which, if perpetuated, repeated and amplified, may distort the debate as it is being carried out openly and in public. In his own blog the commenter also argued, very reasonably in my view, that “it does seem unfair to suggest that those who choose not to engage are advocating for the status quo. There are many reasons why people may choose to engage or not and we should be willing to let people do what they think is best. That doesn’t mean that they’re beyond criticism, but a blanket judgement seems unjustified.”

Science and silence

Interestingly, Kevin Anderson intervened in the science/advocacy or science/communication debate on the same day (17 December, 2013) that an AHRC funded workshop took place at Imperial College London entitled Silence in the History and Communication of Science .This was the second in a series of workshops organized by Dr Felicity Mellor on the topic of The Silences of Science. This second workshop dealt mainly with historical examples of silence and science. It seems to me that the work carried out in the context of this workshop programme might be a good place to focus on more contemporary debates (and perhaps this will happen in the third workshop scheduled for spring 2014 on The Role of Silence in Scientific Practice: Spring 2014), and deal in particular with the issue of science and silence in the context of climate change.

Felicity herself pointed to some of the dilemmas inherent in science and silence in her invitation to the first workshop: “Restricted access to scientific knowledge becomes the object of moral censure, whilst maximised communication is frequently taken as an unquestioned social good. However, science – and its communication – depends as much on discontinuities, on barriers and lacunae, as it does on the free flow of information. Contrary to the Mertonian ideal, scientific innovation and scientific commerce rely on the constant use of moral, legal and technical devices that restrict, rather than encourage, the sharing of ideas; a feature highlighted by those historians of science who have studied secrecy in science. A number of recent events – from the so-called ‘Climategate’ affair through to debates about open access – have highlighted the need for a critical examination of the role of silence in science. Whilst the public communication of science and public engagement with science are important ideals, there are times when it is expedient and appropriate for scientists to withdraw from the public sphere. The qualities of such withdrawals will vary, from professional silences prompted by competition and fears of plagiarism, to reticence in the face of uncertain knowledge.”

Are these some of the reasons why some, but certainly not all, climate scientists, especially those scarred by the climategate affair, are reticent to break their silence? Are these some of the reasons, but certainly not all, why some shy away from advocacy (which may however be an impossible position to take, as Kevin Anderson argued)?

Making science public

These recent debates make public some of the dilemmas at the heart of making science public. These are particularly problematic in the context of climate change, where speaking up, from whatever perspective and position, can lead to being shouted down, but where speaking up is increasingly demanded of scientists in particular by people in high office, such as the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport. The complex relationship between science, communication and policy (which is not as linear as some might think or wish it to be) and the complex relationship between science, advocacy and silence is however little understood (and quite easily misunderstood) and needs much more research. This also holds for the relationship between science and noise of course, but that’s another story.

All these recent episodes demonstrate that every act of speech and every act of silence opens up a space for interpretation and misinterpretation leading to further speech and further silence. These acts of speech and silence also open up spaces for power struggles over who should speak (for whom), who has the right to speak (about what), how to deliberate about science and politics, what the outcomes of these deliberations should be, and so on. How we use our individual and collective acts of speech and silence to negotiate common (global, national, local) goals relating to the world we live in and want to live in, still remains a deep democratic conundrum.

Image: Wikimedia Commons: Faras Saint Anne

Posted in Climate PoliticsScienceScience and GovernmentScience PolicyUncategorized