"DiCaprio has achieved more than climate scientists"

"DiCaprio has achieved more than climate scientists"

Symposium on activism in science

08-12-2021 · Background

Can a scientist also be an activist? Could there not be an issue with being independent? Also, what if you brush other activists the wrong way with your scientific findings, resulting in your inbox becoming crammed with hate mail?

These are questions that were dealt with last Tuesday during an online UM symposium, set up by the Platform for Research Ethics and Integrity and the Platform for Community-Engaged Research. 

One of the three panel members, researcher Astrid Offermans, thinks that academics should stick to their own profession. “We must provide reliable knowledge, taking an independent stance and remaining open to other perspectives. Activists don’t do that. The danger is that activist scientists will find the attention more important than methodological soundness, that they want to convince rather than analyse, bring a sexy story into the limelight instead of the honest, boring truth.”

Jane Goodall

The other two panel members don’t agree with her. Pim Martens, professor of Sustainable Development, calls himself a ‘scientivist’. “That is a public intellectual, somebody like Einstein, who sees it as his moral obligation – as a citizen – to work towards creating a better world. Or Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees her entire life and later on stood up for their rights, who emphasised that they were just like people and have emotional lives, with valuable relationships.”

Scientists are continually in doubt; is that the same for Martens as an activist, asks ringmaster Teun Dekker, professor of Philosophy at the University College. 

Certainly, says the sustainability professor. “I do sometimes wonder if I should take part in a march, or that I should publish a blog on the subject. The line between science and activism is at times delicate.”


The third panel member, Maurice Zeegers, professor of Epidemiology, sides with Martens. “I would even be inclined to say: all activists should be scientists. Looking for the truth, as Offermans emphasised, goes very well with engagement, but also with research for the business community. At the moment, I am working with a law firm that has a case against a pharmacist.”

Dekker: “How do you explain that you accept their money, but won’t necessarily say what they want to hear?”

Zeegers: “The businesses I work for actually want that scientific conclusion, even when it is not in their favour. Such integrity is what makes science valuable.”


What if by being a ‘scientivist’, you find yourself dealing with groups that brush your scientific conclusions aside, someone in the audience asks? “A nightmare for every scientist,” says Dekker, “that you receive ten thousand e-mails, not all of them equally pleasant.”

Still, Zeegers does share his results on social media. “It is important to be firmly embedded in society, to understand what is going on. And yes, findings that rub people up the wrong way, should also be posted. As long as they meet the scientific requirements.”

Martens: “You can’t control everything. Sometimes you send a tweet, just a little too quickly, and then you find that it starts to lead a life of its own. Anyway, when your work is your passion, you want to share it on social media. Nobody wants to be stalked, but that is not just a fear that scientists have, politicians have that too. The advantage is that as a scientist you can provide a reliable contribution to discussions.”

As an epidemiologist, Zeegers is often asked about vaccinations in these times of COVID-19. “You see that society uses science more and more. And I can put the studies that are presented in the media into perspective. I feel that is my duty.”

Many truths

New question from the audience. “We are always talking about objectivity, truth, independence. Why don’t we just admit that there is no such thing? Is maintaining the pretence not more dangerous than admitting it?”

Offermans: “I get what is meant by this, but I think that scientific soundness and analyses make the difference. Is there one or many truths? We can debate this for a long time, but as long as you approach reality academically, it is fine.”

Zeegers: “Indeed, objectivity does not exist, everyone is biased, I think so too. But that doesn’t mean that we can no longer trust our scientific methods.”

World peace

Offermans thinks that it is alright if scientists devote themselves to a good cause, but preferably not in the same field as their research. "I would keep those separate.”

That is not always possible, says Martens. "In an interview, you are often questioned about both roles. But why should you not use your intellectual power as an activist? Everyone with their own expertise, and if that gives you authority, why not?"

Einstein is a good example, says Dekker. "A great physicist, but what did he know about world peace, for which he worked so hard?"

Martens: "What does Leonardo DiCaprio know about climate change? But when he delivered a speech about that a couple of years ago, something happened. He has, at any rate, achieved more than myself and my colleagues with all our articles in our field. Because we already tried to tell people about the climate message – which is now common knowledge – thirty years ago. Nobody listened back then, very frustrating.


Next question: How important are objectivity and independence when in the meantime the planet is on fire?

"It illustrates how unpopular the position I’ve taken is," says Offermans. "But there are alternatives. You can set yourself up as an honest stockbroker, and show all the options and scenarios from a scientific perspective. Policy makers would benefit a great deal from that." 

But how do you keep yourself on an the straight and narrow, Dekker asks.

Martens: "My experience is that practically all researchers are honest."

Dekker: "A survey recently showed that 52 per cent of the researchers admitted to not always being completely honest. How can a university promote honesty?" 

Zeegers: "Then you also have to look at the culture, where things such as work pressure play a role. But it is extremely important that you – as a researcher – are also a good mentor by setting a good example for your PhD candidates. By the way, there are also surveys that show that 98 per cent of the researchers are honest. Researchers are, I think, good people."

Dekker: "But they are people, who sometimes stumble."

Photo: Pixabay

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: climate change,sustainability,debate,activists,science,martens,instagram

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