Mason Faculty Members Address Advocacy in Science at AAAS Committee Meeting

Posted: September 20, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

On Monday, two Mason faculty members were invited to address the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility about their opinions on advocacy in science.

Mark Goodale, assistant professor of conflict analysis and anthropology in the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and Catherine Rudder, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Public Policy, were asked, along with a professor and committee member from George Washington University, to give “the view from academia” on the topic.

According to AAAS materials, the committee “is exploring how to promote the responsible conduct of science and the application of the highest quality scientific research available.”

Goodale discussed the relationship between scientific knowledge and ethics. He argued that the problem of advocacy and scientific practice cannot be solved within the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Instead, he explained, “Scientists must develop a deeper source of justification for using their findings to intervene in political, social or other current issues.”

He reminded the committee that universities have always been places that have done much more than simply teach and do science.

“The idea of a liberal arts education includes training in the humanities, ethics and even religion. If scientists are willing to consider ethics,” Goodale concluded, “then new lines of consensus might be formed between the scientific community and those whose world view – 75 percent of Americans, according to one recent poll – is shaped by nonscientific ways of knowing.”

Sometimes scientists, like Galileo, are drawn into the political sphere unwillingly, Rudder noted. But in general, Rudder argued against political involvement of scientists, as scientists (rather than as citizens), “unless the practice, methods and legitimacy of science itself are at stake.” Also, she said, “Scientists can and should share their expertise to make sure that policy makers and citizens can take into account current scientific knowledge.”

Rudder, co-author of “Smoking and Politics” (6th edition), cited the regulation that required listing the level of tar in cigarettes on the packages, which reflected the state of scientific knowledge at the time of its adoption. This has led smokers to believe that smoking “light” cigarettes is less harmful than smoking other types, “a belief that is patently wrong, as we now know after further research into the matter.”

Rudder suggested that the complexity of problems today and the rapid development of global governance outside of formal government, by necessity, draw scientists into the political process.

“But expertise in science does not imply that scientists are any more qualified to make policy decisions than others. The right to decide rests not with scientists but with citizens and their elected officials.”

One reason scientists and their societies have such a difficult time doing what they should do in the current political environment is that the attack has a particularly partisan tone, she said.

“Specifically, Republican leaders, like President Bush and certain Republican members of the House of Representatives, are attacking science itself, and they are using intentionally confusing, Orwellian language, such as claming that the Republican position represents ‘sound science,”’ Rudder said.

She cited two examples: denying the evidence that global warming is occurring and sanctioning the attack on the “extremely well-grounded” scientific theory of evolution. “The risk of defending science is that Republicans can turn around and accuse scientists of being partisan.”

AAAS is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the journal Science.

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