Category Archive: Science Communication

The Scientist qua Scientist Has a Duty to Advocate and Act

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.


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

How to Talk about Science to the Public – 2. Speak Honestly about Uncertainty

Don Howard

We are all Humeans, all of us who are trained in science, at least. We know that empirical evidence confers at most high probability, never certainty, on a scientific claim, and this no matter how sophisticated the inductive logic that we preach. Enumerative induction doesn’t do it. That the sun rose every day in recorded history and before does not imply that it will, of necessity, rise tomorrow. Inference to the best explanation doesn’t do it, for such inferences depend on a changing explanandum (that which is to be explained) and upon both an obscure quality metric (what determines the “better than” metric) and a never complete reference class of competing explanations. Bayes’s theorem can’t do it either.

No. All of us who are trained in science know that every theory, principle, law, and observation is open to challenge and that many once thought secure now populate the museum of dead theories. Sophisticated philosophers of science have invented the intimidating name, “the pessimistic meta-induction” for the thesis that, just as all theories in the past have turned out to be false or significantly limited in scope, so, too, most likely, will our current best and future science.

No. We all know that science is a matter of tentative hypotheses and best guesses. Some principles that have proven their mettle over the long haul, such as the conservation of energy, rightly earn our confidence that they can be reliable guides in the future. But more than one scientist has been willing to sacrifice even the conservation of energy if that were the price to solve another intractable riddle, as when Niels Bohr twice proposed theories that assumed violations of energy conservation.

That science does not deal in certainty is a major part of what makes it such a precious cultural achievement. Science is not dogma. Science admits its failings and learns from its mistakes. That it does so is key to how it achieved the dramatic expansion of scientific understanding that we have witnessed at least since the Renaissance.

Why, then, do we have so much trouble speaking honestly to the public about uncertainty? Why, when debating on the campaign trail, do we give in to the temptation to describe anthropogenic climate change as “proven fact.”? Why, when on the witness stand, do we feel the need to assert that a Darwinian story about human origins is established “beyond all reasonable doubt”? We have lots of good reasons for believing in human-caused climate change and Darwinian evolution. Few scientific claims are as well established as these. But about both we might be wrong in some as yet unforeseen or unforeseeable way. Why lie? Why not speak honestly?

There are at least two reasons why, when speaking to the public, we so often seek refuge in the rhetoric of proof and truth. The first is that we wrongly think that the scientific laity cannot understand uncertainty and probability. This is one of the most worrisome ways in which we insult the intelligence of our audience.

That lots of us – scientists and non-scientists alike – make lots of inductive and probabilistic mistakes is obvious. Casinos, state lotteries, and race tracks are all the evidence one needs. They profit only thanks to those mistakes. Nor are any of us rational utility maximizers, soundly weighing expected gains and losses against the probabilities of various outcomes. The stock market provides the relevant evidence here.

But the fact that lots of people make inductive errors doesn’t imply that the educated public can’t deal with uncertainty. We all deal with uncertainty all the time, and, in the main, we do a good job with it. Do I take I-294 or the Skyway, the Dan Ryan, and the Kennedy to O’Hare? What are the odds of congestion on each at this time of day? How much of a time cushion do I have? What are the consequences of being early or late? How likely am I to miss my flight if there is a ten-minute delay, a twenty-minute delay, or an hour-long delay? Chance of rain? Do I take the umbrella or also my overcoat? Much of life is like this. We make mistakes, but we get by, don’t we?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

The second major reason why we retreat to the rhetoric of proof and truth is that we allow ourselves to be intimidated by the merchants of doubt.* The political exploitation of uncertainty to create the illusion of scientific dissensus and thereby stymie policy making on global warming, public health, energy, and other issues is now, itself, big business. There are lobbying firms, fictitious “think tanks,” corporate public relations offices, sham public interest groups, and members of congress who might as well be paid spokespersons. Much of the same kind of apparatus is encountered in the “debates” over evolution and intelligent design. Acknowledge uncertainty, and that becomes the wedge by means of which the illusion of scientific controversy can be created where there is, in fact, no controversy. What is to be done?

What is not to be done is misrepresenting the contingency of science. It is a mistake to confront the merchants of doubt with the pretense of certainty and proof. The right response is to trust the public to understand the weighing of evidence and the adjustment of policy to the strength of the evidence. The right response is, simply and clearly, to present the evidence. To be sure, climate modeling and population genetics involve sophisticated statistical tools that cannot be explained in detail in a few sentences. But with only a bit effort one can usually explain the general issue in an accessible manner.

A good example of making probabilities accessible is the recent reporting on the hunt for the Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Any reader of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal now knows the expressions “three-sigma” and “five-sigma.” A tutorial on calculating standard deviations was not needed to communicate the point that, when sorting through oceans of data, looking for truly exceptional events, one wants to be sure that what one is seeing is more than what would be expected from random fluctuations. People understand this. If the roulette ball lands on 36 twice in a row one is mildly surprised but doesn’t accuse the croupier of cheating. If it lands on 36 five times in a row, then it’s time to ask to see the manager.

No contentious policy questions turn on the results from CERN, so perhaps it is easier for us to speak about uncertainty in this context. But if we can educate the public about statistics in particle physics, surely we can do it as well when the topic is flu epidemics or vehicle safety or climate change. Here is the evidence for increased global temperatures over the last century. Here is what the models predict for increased sea levels. Here is our degree of confidence in these predictions. Now let’s talk about the costs and benefits of different courses of action. Be firm. Be clear. Don’t be afraid to call a lie a “lie” when others misrepresent the evidence or misdescribe the models. But trust the public to follow the logic of the science if we do a good enough job of explaining that logic.

There might be one final reason why we too often retreat to the rhetoric of proof and truth, a reason that I’ll just mention here, saving a fuller discussion for another occasion. It is that too many of us were, ourselves, badly trained in science. Too many textbooks too many courses, and far, far too many popular science writers still teach the science in ways that encourage the illusion of settled fact where there is none. Thomas Kuhn taught us that science teaching often looks more like indoctrination than we might be comfortable acknowledging. There are remedies for this, foremost among them a more thorough and sophisticated incorporation of history and philosophy of science into science pedagogy. But, again, that is a topic for another post.

*See the excellent book by this title: Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

How to Talk about Science to the Public – 1. Don’t Insult the Intelligence of Your Audience

Don Howard

About ten years ago I wrote the Einstein article for the new edition of a major encyclopedia. It shall remain unnamed, but you would most definitely recognize it. I enjoyed the challenge and am proud of the product, both because such writing is important and because it is hard work. One must be engaging, intelligible, and concise. Academics must resist the urge to splurge on words.

Writing this article was, however, harder than it should have been, because my editor kept repeating the old journalist’s mantra about writing to the level of the typical fourteen-year-old. We fought. I resisted. He won. He demanded plainer language. He insisted on tediously pedantic explanations of what I thought the reader would see as simple, even if slightly technical concepts. He struck whole paragraphs that I thought were wonderful and he thought were too arcane. Time and again I said that the real fourteen-year-olds I knew could easily understand points that he thought beyond the reach of his imaginary, teen reader. I don’t think that I made a friend. I taunted him by noting that the reader confused about concept X could simply look up the article on X elsewhere in the same encyclopedia. Impolitic, yes, but I couldn’t stop myself. Naughty Don.

A few years later I was asked to do a series of lectures on Einstein for the company then called The Teaching Company and now re-branded as The Great Courses. This was a totally different and far more enjoyable experience, largely because the smart folks in charge at The Great Courses start with a very different assumption about the audience. They asked me to imagine an audience of college-educated professionals, people who loved their student experiences and were hungry for more. Of course, one still had to adjust one’s writing to the level and background of the audience, as one must do with any class one teaches. That is a trivial truth. But what I knew about those kinds of students in my classes was that they wanted to be pushed and challenged. They wanted to be taught new things. They didn’t run in fear of difficult concepts and ideas. Like athletes striving for a personal best, they enjoyed the hard work. The muscles ache, the brain needs a rest, but the achievement makes it worthwhile. Most important is that such students appreciate one’s flattering them with the assumption that they have brains, that they are smart, well-educated, and able to rise to the moment.

I am really proud of the lectures: Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The uniformly positive feedback confirms the point that the intelligent student, reader, and listener can and wants to understand more than journalistic mythology asserts.

Don Howard. Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian. The Great Courses.

My old encyclopedia editor friend will object, I’m sure: “What about all of the others, the ones who didn’t have a college education or weren’t even ‘B+’ students?” Well, yes indeed, what of them? They are a numerous lot. And if one has the crime “beat” at the local newspaper or writes the “Friends and Neighbors” column, then, yes, ok, I suppose that one must write down to the level of a poorly-educated, fourteen-year-old.

But is that the audience for those of us who write about science for a general public? I hope not. Is it elitist of me to say that I don’t want “Joe the Plumber” making science policy for the 21st century?

I like to think of the main target audience for good science writing as the educated, scientific laity or those (such as smart high school students) who are soon to become part of it. These are the neighbors and fellow citizens who must be involved in the national and global conversation about science and technology for the future. These are the people whose voices should count in debates about climate change, biotechnology, space exploration, and cyberconflict. These are the people for whom we must learn to write and speak.

They deserve our respect.

(Subsequent posts in this series will address more specific challenges in writing about science and technology for the general public.)