Political action and the miseducation of scientists

From David Roberts:

You’ll be shocked to hear that Socolow, who spends his life in a world of ideas and explanations, concludes that the answer is better ideas and explanations…I don’t think [David Victor] has ever said anything more on the money than this:

The community of policy advocates—especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering—is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.

Looking at how climate advocacy has played out, I wonder if we should partly blame this naivety on the miseducation of scientists. Grad students are consumed with technical coursework, research, and more research. The rock-stars who continue the lifestyle have it even worse before they get tenure. It’s not too surprising some of them lose perspective. Telling these people that their science and worldview may not help move policy–especially since that’s what made us to care about the issue in the first place–is not an easy sell.

Now I shouldn’t generalize too much because many scientists do recognize their limits. But Socolow’s faith in the power of knowledge does seem pervasive in the academy. Those of us who end up realizing that that ideas and explanations rarely matter, and that there is more to life than research are often the ones that end up leaving. The remaining stay in academia and become academics.

There’s no way to tell what would have happened if Socolow et al knew more political science, or what would have changed if political agitation rather than communication had been the chosen approach. But at the very least they would have better understood the challenge in front of them. Going forward, I hope we can finally follow through on the National Academies’ 16-year old call for more versatile scientists and engineers. Someone has to has to figure out how to hammer into budding scientists that politics doesn’t work how they want it to.

For starters, we can stop telling them their research is the most important thing in the world. Scientists don’t need more praise because, trust me, they praise themselves enough. They need to hear the exact opposite: Neither you nor your research are that are that special, it’s mostly useless outside the ivory towers, and human progress depends on a hell of a lot more than knowledge. If you want to change something, you have to fight for it like everyone else.

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