Don Howard

The new AAAS web site on climate change, “What We Know,” asserts: “As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know.” Am I the only one dismayed by this strong disavowal of any responsibility on the part of climate scientists beyond informing the public? Of course I understand the complicated politics of climate change and the complicated political environment in which an organization like AAAS operates. Still, I think that this is an evasion of responsibility.

Contrast the AAAS stance with the so-called “Franck Report,” a remarkable document drawn up by refugee German physicist James Franck and colleagues at the University of Chicago’s “Metallurgical Laboratory” (part of the Manhattan Project) in the spring of 1945 in a vain effort to dissuade the US government from using the atomic bomb in a surprise attack on a civilian target. They started from the premise that the scientist qua scientist has a responsibility to advise and advocate, not just inform, arguing that their technical expertise entailed an obligation to act:

“The scientists on this project do not presume to speak authoritatively on problems of national and international policy. However, we found ourselves, by the force of events, during the last five years, in the position of a small group of citizens cognizant of a grave danger for the safety of this country as well as for the future of all the other nations, of which the rest of mankind is unaware. We therefore feel it is our duty to urge that the political problems, arising from the mastering of nuclear power, be recognized in all their gravity, and that appropriate steps be taken for their study and the preparation of necessary decisions.”

James Franck. Director of the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and primary author of the "Frank Report."

James Franck. Director of the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and primary author of the “Franck Report.”

I have long thought that the Franck Report is a model for how the scientist’s citizen responsibility should be understood. At the time, the view among the signatories to the Franck Report stood in stark contrast to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s definition of the scientist’s responsibility being only to provide technical answers to technical questions. Oppenheimer wrote: “We didn’t think that being scientists especially qualified us as to how to answer this question of how the bombs should be used” (Jungk 1958, 186).

 

J. Robert Oppenheimer Director of the Manhattan Project

J. Robert Oppenheimer
Director of the Manhattan Project

The key argument advanced by Franck and colleagues was, again, that it was precisely their distinctive technical expertise that entailed a moral “duty . . . to urge that the political problems . . . be recognized in all their gravity.” Of course they also urged their colleagues to inform the public so as to enable broader citizen participation in the debate about atomic weapons, a sentiment that eventuated in the creation of the Federation of American Scientists and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The key point, however, was the link between distinctive expertise and the obligation to act. Obvious institutional and professional pressures rightly enforce a boundary between science and advocacy in the scientist’s day-to-day work. Even the cause of political advocacy requires a solid empirical and logical foundation for that action. But that there might be extraordinary circumstances in which the boundary between science and advocacy must be crossed seems equally obvious. And one is hard pressed to find principled reasons for objecting to that conclusion. Surely there is no easy argument leading from scientific objectivity to a disavowal of any such obligations.

Much of the Franck report was written by Eugene Rabinowitch, who went on to become a major figure in the Pugwash movement, the leader of which, Joseph Rotblat, was awarded the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for his exemplary efforts in promoting international communication and understanding among nuclear scientists from around the world during the worst of the Cold War. The seemingly omnipresent Leo Szilard also played a significant role in drafting the report, and since 1974 the American Physical Society has given an annual Leo Szilard Lectureship Award to honor physicists who “promote the use of physics to benefit society.” Is it ironic that the 2007 winner was NASA atmospheric physicist James E. Hansen who has become controversial in the climate science community precisely because he decided to urge action on climate change?

That distinctive expertise entails an obligation to act is, in other settings, a principle to which we all assent. An EMT, even when off duty, is expected to help a heart attack victim precisely because he or she has knowledge, skills, and experience not common among the general public. Why should we not think about scientists and engineers as intellectual first responders?

Physicists, at least, seem to have assimilated within their professional culture a clear understanding that specialist expertise sometimes entails an obligation to take political action. That fact will, no doubt, surprise many who stereotype physics as the paradigm of a morally and politically disengaged discipline. There are many examples from other disciplines of scientists who have gone so far as to risk their careers to speak out in service to a higher good, including climate scientists like Michael Mann, who recently defended the scientist’s obligation to speak up in a blunt op-ed in the New York Times, “If You See Something, Say Something”). The question remains, why, nonetheless, the technical community has, for the most part, followed the lead of Oppenheimer, not Franck, when, in fact, our very identity as scientists does, sometimes, entail a moral obligation “to tell people what they should do” about the most compelling problems confronting our nation and our world.

Reference

Jungk, Robert (1958). Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.