Brief From the Classroom: Why Not More Advocacy?

3 Oct
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Be more like Jon Haidt – talk about your research.

By Ian Tingen

Last week, I taught my research methods students about the murky delight that research ethics are. We covered the usual suspects, at least as far as an intro psych research methods class  is concerned: Milgram‘s “Obedience”, Haney et al’s / Zimbardo‘s “Quiet Rage”, the Tuskegee syphilis study / tragedy. Yes, I even included the video from the French reality-show replication of the Milgram studies, too.

One of the core concepts that I teach regarding science ethics is that even though scientific practice aims for objective results, the ethics that govern that practice are inherently subjective and culturally-defined. I think that most working scientists could appreciate and agree with this argument – there’s little controversy in it. Students get it, too – it’s pretty easy to understand that modern science is strongly shaped by the interests, feelings, and funding of the public.

After class last week, one of my students asked me why scientists aren’t more ardently involved in the public discussion of their work. It was mildly distressing to this student that non-scientific forces could be so influential. After a moment of consideration, I told the student that it was necessary that outside forces be involved in science (remember the lessons of Tuskegee) – but that the student’s concern was frustrating to me too. The student had a point – we should be more involved in telling people what we have accomplished and hope to accomplish. We should be making our presence known.

What I didn’t tell my student is that I’ve talked to more than a negligible amount of academic researchers who are out-and-out against advocacy, or discussion of their findings outside the academy. This is maddeningly paradoxical to me: if we accept that there are non-scientific inputs into our work (at the very least as far as ethics are concerned), then why don’t we engage them more?!

Thankfully, the hermits mentioned above aren’t the totality of modern scientists. There are great, wide-ranging blogs written by smart people, there are radio shows like “You’re the Expert” run by savvy non-science people who love science, and there’s always social media. (Seriously, go follow Neil deGrasse Tyson right now if you aren’t.) We should be out there, involved in more than Institutional Review Boards and ethics discussions – we should be advocating. When the NSF and NIH are shut down because of political posturing, citizens shouldn’t be asking: “What the hell are the NIH and NSF?” They should be calling their Congressmen and Congresswomen, angry that science is being set back over silliness.

For that to happen, we need to educate and elaborate outside the academy – and it won’t get done if we don’t lead the charge.

 

 

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