Should Academics Stay Out of Political Activism?

(By a curious chance, I came across this post by Massimo Pigliucci less than three hours after posting the most politically partisan of all my own posts to date.)

The dispassionate scientist is a myth (or perhaps a Stoic’s ideal). We all show personal involvement in our theories and research programmes, and confirmation bias when evaluating them. But if we stay out of political activism, that will deprive the public of the best informed opinion.

And when we indulge in activism, then of course we should aim to do so competently. I consider public understanding of major issues to be a precondition for sane policy-making, and for this reason I regard my own efforts at public education as a form of activism.

Footnotes to Plato

ivory towerThat’s the question I tackled in a recent essay at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, prompted by a conversation over coffee with Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU with whom I’ve had a number of disagreements about the intersection of social science, politics, and philosophy.

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on December 30, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. My thoughts exactly when the petition to get scientists in Question Time was in vogue. We should engage because scientific opinion is just as valid – more so, we’ll probably argue – than any random journalist or comedian. And precious few of us get the celebrity required to get in the door there. The question is where are we welcome? We still live in a world where people need to be convinced evidence-based policy is even worth trying!


    • And let us therefore be grateful to the scientists who *are* celebrities; Brian Cox, Alice Roberts, Bill Nye, N deG T, and regret that Question Time has had fewer appearances from all scientists in the last couple of years than from Nigel Farage alone.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It might be argued that some academic fields are in effect forms of political activism themselves. Many academics in such fields don’t seem to be able to operate / publish without taking a political stance. Cultural studies? Economics?


  3. For me, the biggest lesson has been this: do not go outside your own narrow sphere of expertise. When one gets a reputation as a public writer, speaker and media commentator on a particular issue, one is easily drawn into various side-issues that are more or less tangentially related to one’s area of expertise, but are not centrally within it. It’s tempting – but always foolish – to make comments about those areas in pursuit of a political point. If one is to engage in politics as an academic (not merely as an academic who happens to be politically active, but as one who is sharing expertise in a way that establishes some sort of claim to authority) then it is vital to stick only, strictly and always to the things that one really knows. It is also important to be honest and frank about the uncertainties and the unknowns in one’s own field.


    • I think you highlight the dangers correctly. That is why I try to distinguish clearly between areas such as climate change and evolution, when I speak with expertise, and others where I feel equally strongly (such as the folly of austerity), where I can only venture an intelligent observer’s opinion. And one special danger, as you point out, is to gloss over uncertainties in one’s own area. When creationists, for example, say that evolution cannot explain the origins of life, I hasten to agree that this is at best only a partly solved problem, but irrelevant to the issue of evolution versus separate creation. And if they point to uncertainty in climate change predictions, again I hasten to agree, but point out that this uncertainty does not excuse inaction; indeed, the opposite


  4. Disagree with your comment about depriving the public of the best informed voices unless it’s purely a scientific issue. If it’s science – global warming, evolution, GM foods, fracking, vaccinations etc – scientists are uniquely qualified making theirs the only voices worth listening to in a debate. Not because they’re scientists but because they alone are fully informed and therefore they alone hold the valid opinion in a very specialised evidence based discipline.

    On everything else, whether it’s bombing Syria or Jeremy Corbyn or food banks or even getting people to accept scientific consensus, their opinions are just like anyone else’s – dependent on how much they’ve bothered to check a wide variety of sources, how much they’ve learnt and how much they’ve listened to all opinions.

    Having heard Dawkins on religion (or indeed rape, women rights, disability, parenting choices, racism and even fairy stories), Tim Hunt on women or even Cox on Tim Hunt I’d say they’re way behind random comedians and journalists in their understanding of complex political and human issues. I’d say their political understanding is on a par with Melanie Phillips understanding of science.

    I can honestly say I’ve heard more informed political opinions from Russell Brand, Victoria Coren Mitchell or Charlotte Church than any scientist doing the rounds. So I guess if scientists want to engage in political activism AND be taken remotely seriously they need to learn a hell of a lot and listen a hell of a lot. For example you can easily smash creation science cos it’s nonsensical, but if you want to smash creationism you have to convince people they don’t need it to still have a faith.


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