Ethical requirements for advocacy by scientists

Noodling around on my nascent book (stay tuned!), I saw this note and felt it was worth posting, although I’ve quoted Nelson & Vucetich several times here before:

Michael Nelson and John Vucetich (2009) noted “All citizens have a moral obligation to actively promote in their society that which they are justified in thinking is right or good and to actively oppose that which they are justified in thinking is wrong or bad. Consequently every scientist has an obligation to be a just and transparently honest advocate… When scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject a fundamental aspect of their citizenship. Rejecting one’s responsibility as a citizen is unethical.”

I’ve yet to hear a counterargument that did not fall into either (1) “but advocacy risks my standing as a scientist,” or (2) “but I don’t want to.” Nelson and Vucetich cover both of these. (And numerous other arguments for and against advocacy.)

Long story short, if one accepts that citizens have moral obligations as citizens, there is no simple escape to their logic. Having other priorities or desires does not expunge ethical obligations (N&V point out that most of us would agree that obligations to one’s scientific career does not, for example, excuse one from obligations to care for one’s children).

Let me be the first to say that all decisions should not be purely based on one’s conception of cold, hard logic. But given that many scientists claim to want more decision-making based on evidence and logic, I am still awaiting good arguments gainsaying N&V’s point that depend on some kind of systematic/evidence-based reasoning rather than feelings. And of course, even then, one’s feelings can’t exclusively determine our obligations, otherwise, when we don’t feel like it, we could skip reasonable suggestions for revisions to our papers; we could not pick our children up when we were feeling too tired; we wouldn’t have to run that fourth replication or re-calculate our statistical tests. “I don’t want to have to be a responsible citizen” should be no more compelling than “I don’t want to reconsider my paper’s conclusions based on this new evidence.”

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One Response to Ethical requirements for advocacy by scientists

  1. Pingback: Quick post: Not-so-deep thoughts on ecosystem services (and their possible folly) | AgroEcoPeople

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