Is scientific objectivity morally wrong?

Is scientific objectivity morally wrong? In other words is it a cop out?

I’ve just attended a meeting of The Royal Society and the All Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, at which hugely eminent scientists – Professor this and Lord that – presented the findings of the 5th Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The truth is we’ve heard it all before – and while in scientific circles the evidence has become yet more conclusive: now at 95% for anthropogenic climate change – what it tells us, we already know. The world is warming quickly, rainfall patterns are changing – and the change is probably irreversible. The question is how far we go before we as a world decide to take action?

Talking about Bangladesh, Professor Tim Palmer, professor in climate physics at the University of Oxford, said ‘By any stretch of the imagination this is going to put a major stress on humanity. The impact could be devastating.’

Yet all of the scientists there agreed the need for impartiality – the scientific methodology. Not having opinions beyond the scientific facts.

Lord Oxburgh told a story of going to a meeting a few years ago with 80 ‘captains’ of US industry and how they were turned off from tackling climate change by the scientists’ love of the unknown. The business people wanted to know facts and plan what to do. The scientists wanted to tell them what they needed to explore further. The meeting ended in disarray and no action.

The impact of climate change is close to my heart because I’ve seen how poor communities are already feeling its impact. I’m going to Bangladesh in two weeks, and sitting at the meeting thinking about the people we work with, somehow the impartiality, the studied objectivity seemed wrong. How can we say Bangladesh will be devastated, and not apply moral values to the impact on millions of people? How can we not argue with passion the need for change and start working towards solutions?

flooding in Bangladesh

I love science, the curiosity and solutions-focus. This studied impartiality is a trend, I understand that it’s in response to the furore that surrounded the last IPCC report and ‘email gate’, but even so in my view, it’s wrong.

Yesterday in the Atlee Suite Lord Oxburgh, referring to the way the IPCC reports are ‘approved’ by government before they are published, dared to use the word appeasement!

It’s probably not a word I’d use – I’d paraphrase Fritz Schumacher and quote Elvis Presley: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action’.

No part of our society is morally neutral – science, for all its stringent processes and methodologies, needs to take a stand. To talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.

By the way, the scientists were a hugely impressive and personable bunch. Lord Oxburgh as the Chair was most outspoken and thought provoking. For all my ‘please take a stand’ demands, they are doing a great job and would be brilliant to work with. I just want such brilliant people to engage more.

And finally from Lord Oxburgh: ‘We have to have more articulate, user friendly speakers who are actually selling the product.’ Exactly!

Did you know that access to science is a human right? I didn’t until very recently. With this in mind, how do you think scientists should behave, and should they focus on the problem (now well understood) or the solution?

Or is that a leading question?

6 responses to “Is scientific objectivity morally wrong?”

  1. Patrick Davey Says:

    At a recent meeting at the Royal Irish Academy, appologies, I forget his name, a Dutch Climate scientist gave a most interesting talk about how 20 years ago he and other scientists would tell the European Parliamentarians about the science and the problems of climate change and get nowhere. The political people wanted to know what to do, why came a long second. Now he and his colleagues have learned their lesson and they have monthly meetings to keep the politicians up with the developing science and the consequences of that knowledge.
    I think the answer to your question is to have regular meetings to explain and analyse and work out answers together. The science is complicated with much uncertainty but plenty of reason to move strongly forward to mitigate the not so long term consequences, but much continuing education is necessary. Irregular big meetings are not the answer.
    It is also important to remember that the climate change deniers are out there in force trying to obfuscate and confuse decision makers.
    Climate scientists have to become more adept at saying, clearly and firmly, this is what we know and will stand over; therefore this is what we can be certain we need to do. Fine tuning will be necessary and some issues need to be teased out in detail but this we stand over and the consequences are these.

  2. Andrew Clenaghan Says:

    With support from ELHRA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance), Practical Action along with the Walker Institute for Climate System Research (University of Reading) and the Africa Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), have developed an exciting and, we believe, innovative partnership framework to help translate climate science research into tangible action.

  3. Andrew Clenaghan Says:

    “What do want ? – evidence based planning. When do want it? – after peer review!” 🙂

  4. Margaret Says:

    Very similar sentiment from Jo Cofino in The Guardian

  5. David Flint Says:

    Scientists are human and have no right to be silent when they see threats. But ‘science’ isn’t human and the alternatives to scientific objectivity are conclusions driven by prejudice, vested interests, religion, etc. Objectivity is our protection against errors and wishful thinking – no least our own.

  6. Jordan Eyre Says:

    Never confuse something like science with an institution or group of people. To say science has a moral duty is as sweeping a statement as saying art itself has a specific purpose.

    What scientist themselves say & do is a more thorny issue. This impartial tone might hide the urgency but it’s crucial for drawing a line between fact & opinion. However just a given activists motivations, their words may be suspect as they by definition have an agenda & scientists fear how they may be taken for the same when they present inconvenient findings. Everyone in the scientific field is acutely aware that through history unqualified opinion has actually costed human lives.

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