Political Scientists

Scott Findlay’s essay “Governing in the Dark” explains what it means to be a scientist-advocate.

At last Tuesday’s Get Science Right town hall I used the phrase “governing in the dark”. You may have heard it before. The concept was introduced and developed by University of Ottawa professor Scott Findlay in an op-ed, lecture and essay. All three articulate his concerns for the state of Canadian science and democracy.

Poster for Scott Findlay’s lecture Governing in the Dark, delivered at Dalhousie University on 5 March 2014.
Poster for Scott Findlay’s lecture “Governing in the Dark”, delivered at Dalhousie University on 5 March 2014.

The essay is a brilliant piece of intellectual scholarship, and I highly recommend that you read it. There is a particularly marvellous passage about the need for scientists to engage in advocacy, which I quote here in full:

“My view is that there is a need for scientists to become vocal advocates both for public interest science and for evidence-informed decision-making. I know this is difficult. It does not come naturally. Many of us feel – with some justification – that our job is to do the science. Period. We fear that by being advocates we will be drawn into politics, thereby compromising our scientific objectivity and credibility.

I assure you that to be an advocate - for anything - is to be political. How could it be otherwise? But political does not mean partisan. Science cannot speak directly to most questions of value, partisan or otherwise. So it cannot speak directly to the issue of whether the goal of, say, reducing voter fraud, is more important than say, increasing voter turnout; it can, however, speak to the issue of what is less, versus more, likely to achieve either goal.

Nor is being political incompatible with the principles of science – though this charge is often leveled, especially by those of an (epistemologically) crepuscular or nocturnal nature who would prefer to avoid the uncomfortable light of scientific evidence.

What does “being political” mean? For me, it means simply that we apply the scientific method to problems of political import, that is, problems that resonate in the public space. To do otherwise means that we relegate (or resign) ourselves to working on problems about which few people care. But it is precisely these problems which demand rigorous scientific analysis. And if not by us, then by whom?"

Hear, hear.