Steven Benner authored the guest post The Dangers of Advocacy in Science at The Biologos Forum. The piece evoked passionate responses. Benner made the following comment:
When scientists appear in the news, they are generally sought for their advice on a matter of public policy. They are asked for certainty, not to express the uncertainty that is at the core of science correctly done.
That which enables success in the media and politics is at odds with a mindset which furthers science. In the comment section Mike Gene wrote:
With political advocacy, it is important to overstate your case because extreme claims are more likely to get attention and bring about political results.
Mike puts his finger on a core reality in politics. Effective policy advancement requires exaggeration, heightened emotions and avoiding truths which slow down your agenda. Because these strategies are inherent to politics the practice of politics by scientists compromises scientists. A scientist cannot balance politics and science. The former will compromise his credibility with the latter. Scientists cannot wear both hats in a public advocacy role. The politics hat destroys the science hat.
Nick Matzke wrote the following in a comment:
Sometimes the scientists are almost the only ones with the capability of really getting particular nuances of an issue, and scientists being in the fray is sometimes the only way to keep the politicians, lobbyists, etc., vaguely honest.
The most high profile politician in the AGW debate is Al Gore. Scientists have not kept him from scientific gaffes. The correction of obvious inaccuracies is better left to non-scientists who can quote from the papers of scientists. Science is not the core of the political debate anyway. Political policies are fashioned around the allocation of limited resources. Directing them toward CO2 reduction rather than feeding the world's hungry is a political decision.
Matzke also wrote this:
Most scientists have no training whatsoever in communication; they are only rewarded for impressing other scientists with technical publications and grants, so why should we be surprised when they are bad at communicating?
This is an urban legend repeatedly put forth to explain political advocacy failures. Scientists are good communicators. Better at it than most non-scientists. They communicate technical issues with great proficiency. But they are not politicians. To advance political issues you must compromise the essentials of good science. Omit facts which are at variance with the political cause. Oversimplify. Exaggerate. If you are a scientist why would you wish to cultivate these skills?
Mike Gene wrote:
More significant is this – Coyne has conceded the reality of compartmentalization. He admits he can wear two hats – sometimes the scientist, sometimes the political advocate. But this is the same guy whose signature argument is that one can’t wear two hats if they are science and religion. Did you get that? It’s okay for Coyne to be a scientist and political, but it’s wrong for Collins to be a scientist and religious. Only an advocate would build on such a double standard and only fellow advocates would excuse it (remember, for the advocate, the end justifies the means). A scientist would recognize this as a serious problem and adjust his thinking – either Coyne should stop being political or it is no problem that Collins is religious.
Since Coyne is invested in the advocate role, he will not be able to let go of his complaint against Collins, nor will he be able to abandon his political atheist hat. The double standard will be ignored or rationalized. And there you have the problem of the scientist-advocate in full view.