Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Thought on the Advice of Scientists

The New York Times today has an article which appears to be triggered by Roger Pielke Jr.'s book, The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. It deals with a tension among several realities:
  • Scientists when doing science should be very careful to report observations accurately and separate the observations from their interpretations, clearly labeling each.
  • Scientists are citizens and as such have a right to air their opinions publicly, and perhaps a responsibility to share the opinions on issues before the public when those opinions are based on expert knowledge.
  • Scientist administrators, like any administrators must find ways to utilize their knowledge in their jobs while recognizing that such knowledge is always tentative and inadequate and that it should be complemented with the knowledge of others.
  • Scientists when recruited as advisors are asked for their advice as people, and while that advice should be based on their scientific expertise is expected to draw upon the wider life experience of the scientist.
I think scientists should try to refuse to give advice when it is likely to be received as more authoritative than they understand it to be. That actually is hard. What do you do when you probably have better knowledge than will actually be used if you refuse to advise, but which is less adequate than that which could be obtained from other advisors?

I found the article to be unfortunate in that it sought to personify some of the issues with speculation about possible shortcomings of specific scientists who have joined the Obama administration. Give these guys a break! They may well do a great job! Moreover, they may have been very able to act in one ethical manner in the past as public citizens with scientific knowledge, and in a different ethical way in the future as government officials with scientific backgrounds.

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