COMMENT: Can a scientist become an activist?


South Africans have been shouting at each other for a decade about whether we should “frack” the Karoo. Everyone has an opinion about hydraulically fracturing (fracking) in this area to liberate natural gas from shale rock, despite a dearth of information and facts – such as whether the gas is there in the first place.

This year, the government established a scientific task team to develop “a science-based assessment to improve our understanding of the risks and opportunities of shale gas development”.

It took 10 years for us to start asking the experts – scientists – to collect facts for us. In the meanwhile, that space in the national discourse has been usurped by politicians, lobbyists and people with vested interests.

That is on the extreme end of the science communication spectrum, where a lack of science voices allowed a national debate to devolve into shouted polemic.

The other side of the spectrum is, as an example, Tim Noakes. Noakes is before the Health Professions Council of South Africa on a charge of misconduct after he advised a mother on Twitter to wean her child onto a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. This diet has not been sanctioned as a dietary guideline and there is little data on its effects on infants.

Noakes is a very strong advocate of this diet, and has gone beyond communicating the science behind his position into aggressively marketing the diet. He also has a personal and financial interest in the diet being adopted as he is co-author of a number of diet books.

This is not the consensus view of scientists, and lacks data on its effects on South Africans: an Indian woman may respond differently to this diet than a white man, for example.

The problem on this side of the spectrum is that people trust scientists. They are disproportionately listened to and believed, in comparison to, say, politicians or government officials. It is very problematic when a scientist plays on the trust conferred to them as a scientist, whilst breaking away from the data- and evidence-driven basis upon which the discipline earned its privileged standing.

While scientists need to communicate their science and engage with the public at large – as shown by the fracking example – there is a difference between communicating science and scientists marketing themselves.

As part of our panel discussion at the Science Forum, climate scientist Bob Scholes said: “Science is not just one way of knowing among others. It is a privileged pedagogy. There is a public perception of objectivity.” He listed three reasons for this: the transparency of the scientific process, that it is self-correcting (“eventually … even if it takes a while”, he joked) and it is based on observation and evidence.

However, when scientists market themselves and their science, the perception of their objectivity is compromised, and sometimes their objectivity itself. This ultimately erodes people’s trust in science.

But an undercurrent running through the discussion of whether scientists can be advocates of their science is that billions of rands are spent on science and research annually. Science communicator Marina Joubert, who moderated the session, said that scientists have a moral imperative to engage with the public about their research because, ultimately, it is undertaken with public money.

Another side to this is that scientists need to convince the public to continue spending money on research, and increase it. By raising the visibility of science and research, it justifies the expense to those holding the strings of the public purse.

This concept of science engagement is relatively new to South Africa. Up until 1994, most of the country’s science and research was entirely funded by the military (and something that was not discussed in public forums) or it was undertaken within corporations or parastatals to help Apartheid South Africa innovate its way around sanctions (once again, scientists were not encouraged to divulge information about this).

But we’re now in democratic South Africa. We need science and technology to develop and boost our economic competitiveness, but most citizens are often not science literate or fail to see how science can make a difference in their lives.

So, on the one hand, scientists do need to communicate their science, but on the other they need to do so in a way that is accurate and not self-aggrandising – because, ultimately, this erodes people’s trust in science. So how does the average member of the public sift through what is trustworthy science communication and science marketing?

That is done through science journalists, but, unfortunately for South Africa, there are only a handful of these journalists in the country. It is the journalist’s job – in science, as in any other beat of journalism – to sift through fact and fiction, and give their reader the information that they require to make up their own minds. This is doubly true for science, where concepts and jargon often obfuscate the message.

Perhaps we are having the wrong conversation, and the question should not be whether scientists can be advocates of their science. It should be: where are all the science-literate journalists who can tell when scientists are trying to promote themselves instead of their science?

Wild was part of the Science Forum panel, “Scientists as Public Experts: From Evidence to Advocacy”


  • NOTE: This is part of a series produced for Independent Newspapers’ post-Science Forum supplement.

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