If you’re not an activist, you must be a do-nothing passivist

A True Scientist is supposed to be aloof, objective, dispassionate, and unemotional. This isn’t just a stereotype, it’s part of a set of social mores that are imposed on individuals who belong to this community of scientists.

And yet, at the same time, we’re part of a larger society that sometimes has serious problems that scientists are among the first to see. Should climate scientists be dispassionate about global climate change? Should medical doctors be unemotional about dishonest tobacco advertisements? The best scientists I’ve known have also had causes: for instance, George Streisinger, the fellow who started this whole business of zebrafish as a model system, was also a peace activist who was very concerned about nuclear war.

So when Shiv writes about the use of the word “activist” to demean scientists, I know exactly where that’s coming from. I’ve seen it way too many times.

Being an activist means you are aware and working to change the world. There’s nothing in that that implies you are cavalier with the evidence — often, it means you are acutely conscious of the facts, and passionate about the truth.


  1. qwints says

    And there’s nothing about being on Exxonmobil’s payroll that ” implies you are cavalier with the evidence,” but I’m still going to account for what a study’s author ‘wants’ to be true when I evaluate a study.

  2. says

    Just as the clash of interests within the Have-a-Little, Want Mores has bred so many of the great leaders it has also spawned a particular breed stalemated by cross interests into inaction. These Do-Nothings profess a commitment to social change for ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity, and then abstain from and discourage all effective action for change. They are known by their brand, “I agree with your ends but not your means.” They function as blankets whenever possible smothering sparks of dissention that promise to flare up into the fire of action. These Do-Nothings appear publicly as good men, humanitarian, concerned with justice and dignity. In practice they are invidious. They are the ones Edmund Burke referred to when he said, acidly: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

    – Saul Alinsky, “Rules for Radicals”

    (I quoted a bunch more of Alinsky stuff in my Sunday Sermon here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/stderr/2016/07/31/sunday-sermon-4/ )

  3. johnmarley says

    There’s nothing in that that implies you are cavalier with the evidence.

    Those who use “activist” as a pejorative mean exactly that, and it has gained that weight in common language. Particularly for scientists and judges.

  4. anbheal says

    @2 Marcus Ranum — this reminds me of the self-righteous NIMBYs who are a dime a dozen in fashionable liberal enclaves in the northeast. “We must end our dependency on carbon-based fuels, we cannot risk nuclear power, but don’t you dare put a windmill in Nantucket Sound!” Stalemate is a good term for it, particularly via perpetual check.

    @3 johnmarley — yes, sadly, the politicization of science by the Right, since The Gingrich Contract With America and the triumph of the Falwell drive to take over local schoolboards, now has scientists being so defensive about their findings that they will frequently mealymouth their cold hard facts into blandly inoffensive statements bordering on meaninglessness. Otherwise they will be accused of political activism, on behalf of socialists and anarchists…..so they just mumble, “well, my thermometer and every other thermometer on Earth COULD be wrong, of course….eppur si muove….”

  5. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    Scientist activist:
    Clair Cameron Patterson

    In the search for the age of the Earth, he discovered how leaded gasoline was poisoning the Earth. Spent decades fighting it. I had heard a bit about the story before, but the new Cosmos did a really good segment on his fight.

    This is also a beautiful example of the value of funding basic science without a specific (profit-based) end goal.

  6. Akira MacKenzie says

    Science is just suppose to be about the cold, emotionless, study of reality and facts. We are not suppose to draw any social or cultural implications from our findings. It’s only about the facts.

    Hmmmm…. Sounds suspiciously familiar. Almost like people who insist that atheism is ONLY about the disbelief in a deity AND NOTHING ELSE.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    Should medical doctors be unemotional about dishonest tobacco advertisements?

    Minor quibble, PZ: From what I’ve observed, very few MDs qualify as scientists, or even as especially scientifically literate laypeople. Don McLeroy, who tried to keep evolution out of Texas school books, is a DDS. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, seems to be anti-vaxx. I can give other examples.
    I think we should all try to avoid conflating medical doctors with scientists.

  8. mrcharlie says

    One of the best examples of an activist scientist, one of the great minds of the 20th century, is Linus Pauling. Brilliant scientist, unceasing activist, someone whose words and actions inspire emulation. There’s no way ‘activist’ is a pejorative if you apply it to him and those like him.

  9. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    There’s no way ‘activist’ is a pejorative if you apply it to him and those like him.

    Yes, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on outlawing above ground nuclear bomb testing. A very good thing.
    He also went off the rails with his high dose vitamin C supplements in his later years. Not such a good thing.
    Scientists are people, with both good and bad ideas that they promote. Heroes with feet of clay.

  10. Rey Fox says

    Being an activist means you are aware and working to change the world.

    Well now, there’s the problem.

  11. lactosefermenter says

    @#9. FWIW Jill Stein says she’s not anti-vax and recognized vaccinations as a necessary part of public health. She just doesn’t trust the regulatory agencies that oversee them because they are comprised of Big Pharma insiders. She uses the Vioxx incident to illustrate her point. That’s when 1000s of people died of heart complications after taking Vioxx because Merck and the FDA covered up the the problems with the drug for years.

  12. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Lactoseferementer, Stein’s argument is bullshit, and she knows it. Greens are scientific/technolophobes who believe the world’s problems are caused by science and technology. They go all spiritual/newage (rhyme with and is sewage) to solve the problems. Which solves nothing, and causes more.
    When Stein says vaccines are safe, and should be mandatory except for medical reasons, she will show some rationality on the issue.

  13. lactosefermenter says

    Well I agree that vaccines are safe and should be mandatory but I also think she has a point about regulatory agencies.