Tag Archives: Scientist

Scientists, political activism and the scientific ethos

The recent decision of the Hamilton City Council to stop fluoridating its water supply caused a bit of discussion among New Zealand scientists. Discussion of the ethical and practical questions related to scientist involvement in political activism.

The Hamilton City council had been exposed to large numbers of submissions from anti-fluoridation activists. Most of them misrepresented the science and gave misleading, often incorrect, information. Scientists could have corrected these mistakes and distortions, but the job was left to a few representatives of the District Health Board and the Ministry of Health.

Many scientist think, as do others in the community, that they must play a greater role countering distorted information and pseudo-science. But the scientific ethos of objectivity, evidence-based debate and peer review conflicts with the political nature of such activism.

It’s a problem that scientists, especially younger scientists, will have to face increasingly in the future. Quite a few of us have solved the dilemma for ourselves by blogging – a sort of half way point between ivory tower science and political activism.

But here is something to think about. Climatologist James Hansen has thought about this issue throughout his life. Sometimes he has opted for pure science, these days he is opting for pure activism. Here’s an excellent video of one of his talks from February 2012 explaining his motivations and history on this issue. It’s also a simple and clear explanation of the climate change problems we are facing now and in the future.

James Hansen: Why I must speak out about climate change 

Hansen has also written about these issues in his book   Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. Have a look at  Global climate – and your grandchildren for my review of the book.

See also: Fluoridation

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Science is messy – for girls too!

My name is Maureen A. Donnelly and I am a biologist at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. This photo was taken in Madre de Dios Peru after Rudolf von May and I visited one of his study sites. We are interested in the ecology and conservation of tropical forest frogs. Credit – This is What a scientist Looks Like.

Twenty years ago I produced a Calendar using photographic portraits of local artists. It was a project for a photographic portrait course. It did cross my mind to use scientists as a subject, but I didn’t pursue that because it felt too close.

But I wonder what subjects I would have come up with. Would I have tried to get portraits which fitted the prevailing stereotype of a scientists.? Or would I actually have gone out and photographed the subjects “in the field”, as it were?

The current uproar over the Science: It’s a Girl Thing campaign reminded me of that project. And this one seems to have been a huge fail. An example of stereotype fitting in the worst, anti-female, way.

So as a counter, have a look at this website – This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. It appears relatively new but aims to be a collection of photos of real scientists – the above is their first example.

You could even submit your own photos.

I have often said that scientific research is a messy process – obviously in more ways than one.

See also: Science: It’s a Girl Thing!

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Monckton messes own nest

Ever get the impression the Christopher Monckton may have reached his use-by date? Maybe even well past it?

Looks like this might be the case as the climate change denier/sceptic/contrarian groups trying to organise a programme for him in New Zealand are having problems. Their hero has become so repugnant that dreams of huge publicity for their cause seems to facing the harsh truth of reality.

Apparently, TV programmes Q&A and Close-up are no longer interested. And the host for their Auckland event, Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ), has pulled out and left the mess to The Climate Realists – a rather nasty little conspiracy group.

Avoiding reality

Of course this groups is unwilling to face up to the fact that Monckton has been caught out so many times telling outright lies, misrepresenting climate science, attacking scientists and their science, that he no longer has any appeal; except to the committed climate change denier or contrarian. After all, Monckton often compares his debate partners to Nazis, he argues that climate scientists should be prosecuted and imprisoned. And even that perhaps “. . . no one should be allowed to practice in any of the sciences, particularly in those sciences that have become the mere political footballs of the leading pressure-groups, unless he can certify that he adheres to one of those major religions – Christianity outstanding among them – that preach the necessity of morality . . .”. (see Monckton requires religious certification for scientists?)

Consequently, most serious legitimate scientists now refuse to debate with this guy. After all, such debates do far more for Mockton’s CV than they  for the climate scientist. The media is coming to see that he is so far out that without the appearance of a real controversy he is not worth interviewing.

But, true to form, these Climate realists must explain the problem as a conspiracy. As “things that have been going on behind the scene”. They explain the negative reaction of PRINZ members to their organisation being used in this way as conspiring to prevent “someone whose opinions are perceived as being ‘outside the politically correct mantra’ from speaking in public.”  (Of course no one has taken away that right from Monckton. he is still going ahead with a meeting but has lost endorsement of the PRINZ).

They see their inability to find someone reputable to debate with Monckton as another conspiracy. But again, what they have really lost is the opportunity to use such a scientist to provide credibility to the concept of a scientific controversy where none really exists. The same old tactic that creationists always attempt to use.

There is no conspiracy. This is just the result of Monckton’s own behaviour. He has made a mess in his own nest and is now facing the consequences.

Personal attacks on climate scientists

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a statement this week expressing concern for the current personal attacks being made on climate scientists by politicians and others. The text of the statement follows:

Statement of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Regarding Personal Attacks on Climate Scientists
Approved by the AAAS Board of Directors
28 June 2011

We are deeply concerned by the extent and nature of personal attacks on climate scientists. Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public. This both impedes the progress of science and interferes with the application of science to the solution of global problems. AAAS vigorously opposes attacks on researchers that question their personal and professional integrity or threaten their safety based on displeasure with their scientific conclusions. The progress of science and protection of its integrity depend on both full transparency about the details of scientific methodology and the freedom to follow the pursuit of knowledge. The sharing of research data is vastly different from unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists. The latter serve only as a distraction and make no constructive contribution to the public discourse.

Scientists and policymakers may disagree over the scientific conclusions on climate change and other policy-relevant topics. But the scientific community has proven and well-established methods for resolving disagreements about research results. Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process. The scientific community takes seriously its responsibility for policing research misconduct, and extensive procedures exist to protect the rigor of the scientific method and to ensure the credibility of the research enterprise

While we fully understand that policymakers must integrate the best available scientific data with other factors when developing policies, we think it would be unfortunate if policymakers became the arbiters of scientific information and circumvented the peer-review process. Moreover, we are concerned that establishing a practice of aggressive inquiry into the professional histories of scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions.

From stones to atoms


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Book Review: The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms by Alan Chalmers

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Publisher: Springer
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9048123615
ISBN-13: 978-9048123612

It’s reasonable to see philosophy and science as natural partners, complementary in their application and intimately related. However, there is some distrust between the disciplines. Massimo Pigliucci discussed the problems in his paper: The borderlands between science and philosophy: an introduction. The March 2008 special issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology has other papers dealing with these problems.

Scientists often feel that some philosophers can be hostile towards, or misrepresent, science. Some philosophers have an “armchair approach” which inhibits a proper understanding of the scientific process. But there are other philosophers who promote a respectful relationship with science.

Alan Chalmers textbook is an example of the healthy relationship that can, and often does, exist. It is therefore a welcome addition to the philosophy of science and should benefit students of philosophy and science alike.

In particular, it will help put the relationship between science and philosophy into the right perspective. And what better subject to do this than atomism with its clear roots in philosophical thought but is clear proof in experimental science. Chalmer’s epistemological history shows how “the philosophical atomists’ miniature stones were replaced by the scientist’s quantum-mechanical atom.” This serves to provide a comprehensive history of the relationship between philosophy and science.

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