Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?
The physicist’s life has been a series of odd twists and turns, which he has told us in various settings — from his talk at the University of California, Los Angeles, to an essay in The Times he called “The Story of a Life.”
And, now, his story is being featured in the most recent episode of “The Atlantic,” a podcast series produced by the prestigious newsmagazine. (I’ve never heard of this podcast, and it’s an idea I’ll keep searching out.)
The episode, which explores the role of science in politics, begins with a discussion of the dangers of moonlighting. Scientists can be hired by advocacy groups to help them make policy and lobby against things they don’t like.
What happens when a science professor is called upon to make a political case? To find out he decided to take a look at the “Big Science” that is now emerging:
One issue that has emerged in the past decade or two is that a growing number of scientists are becoming deeply involved in politics — in particular, the politics of climate change. … [T]hese issues are extremely complex and involve complex interplay of forces, and many of the issues are technical: What are the sources of uncertainty? What are the uncertainties in the models? How are we going to resolve them? How are we going to quantify risk? And then how do you project the uncertainty on the uncertainty?
This could be a major problem, of course. It would be very tricky for scientists if they were being asked to make political cases as part of their job descriptions.
The key issue, Goldberg says, is how scientists weigh the competing demands of their own institutional responsibilities against the public interest:
I have a question about that balance. The people who are asking the questions who may be the scientists are the ones who are asked to make the best estimates of uncertainty and of risk. That’s where I draw the boundary, that there are certain scientific things that I know and certain scientific things I don’t know. The people who are asking the questions that may or may not be in the position of uncertainty about the science are the people who ask me to make the best estimate of how much the uncertainties are.
His answer is that the scientists should use the uncertainty estimates to draw the appropriate lines on the policy map.