Chime In: Should Scientific Societies Speak Out on Public Policy?

I recently had a letter published in Physics Today, taking issue with another reader who wrote that “pronouncements concerning global warming issued by the Royal Society and the American Physical Society in 2007 indicate that some societies appear set on usurping science.”

He broadened his argument to claim “For a committee, however distinguished its membership, to pontificate on scientific matters is not only hubris, it is dangerous. Let individual scientists speak and let committees be silent.”

I disagree both on the specific issue and in general. Science advances by developing a consensus while keeping an open mind about alternate interpretations and new data. When the consensus suggests a need for changes in public policy, the view of a committee of distinguished scientists carries a lot more weight than that of a few individuals, no matter whether they agree or disagree with the consensus view.

You can read the exchange of letters by following the links above. My full letter is reproduced below.

(From Physics Today, September 2010, page 9. Copyright 2010, American Institute of Physics. This article may be downloaded for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the American Institute of Physics.)

I respectfully disagree with B. K. Ridley’s conclusions about the role of prestigious scientific societies in areas of major societal consequence (PHYSICS TODAY, July 2010). Ridley argues that the Royal Society and the American Physical Society should have remained silent on the issue of climate change. My view is that not taking a position would be the height of social irresponsibility and a disservice to science.

The political discourse on climate change needs to be informed by science’s best tradition of evidence-based consensus and openness to alternate interpretations. Unfortunately, a cacophony of vested interests has dominated the media and the blogosphere, often giving a false impression of balance by understating the breadth of support for the consensus opinion and overemphasizing dissenting views. The consequences have been serious for such international policymaking efforts as the unproductive 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

If we had time to let nature run its course, we could trust the scientific process to sort things out. Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, many broadly accepted climate models predict dire economic and social consequences if governments and individuals do not take action.

Scientific societies would be derelict by not speaking out once their internal deliberations determine that such consequences lie ahead. Individual scientists who disagree with the societies’ conclusions are free–in fact are obligated by scientific integrity–to put forward alternate interpretations. In that way, the societies and the individual dissenters would work together, to quote Ridley, “to serve and promote science.”

I offer an example from medicine. According to Ridley’s logic, the American Medical Association and other medical societies should have remained silent as evidence grew about the harm caused by cigarette smoking. Had they done so, they would have violated their principles as healers, and millions of people would have lived shorter, less healthy lives.

[NOTE ADDED 1 October 2010: The Royal Society has issued an important new report on climate change.]