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“Truth is not enough” part II: AAAS agrees

February 18, 2012 - 18:54 -- Mark Benedict

I blogged recently that getting the facts out about genetic engineering of mosquitoes would not be enough to persuade those who are hard anti-GM activists that they can be safely developed. I also argued that becoming an activist allowed one to abandon the bothersome constraints of truth. AAAS appears to agree with me, but have they made the right call?


I recently blogged at this website that “Truth is not enough.”


It appears that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) agrees. Sadly they seem to have fallen on the side of activism in order to get a seat at the policy table.


A Feb 18 webcast entitled “Science is not enough” (coincidence?) explores how scientists can…


“…influence public perceptions and debate when the science supporting a position is not enough to carry the argument.” (see here).



Note, that the problem for AAAS is not that the science has not been communicated properly: the problem is that the science does not persuasively support the policy argument, one that – whatever the subject and for whatever reason – AAAS is interested in advocating anyway.



Back in the naïve old days when many of us believed in “science-based decision-making,” the science HAD to support the policy position. Otherwise it might be sound policy, but it did not merit the support of scientists acting as scientists. No longer.



Organizations that are in decline often do so because they lose their commitment to founding principles – core beliefs. “Stick to the knitting” was the phrase used to describe this recipe for success that has driven companies to the top (Waters and Peterson, In Search of Excellence). Apple makes devices that “just work.” 3M makes products related to films and adhesives. When AAAS appends non-science-based policy advocacy as a core activity, their commitment to the science mission will suffer.



Casting the anchor of science overboard without linking policy to objective and persuasive science is a recipe that will erode the trust that members have placed in AAAS and their primary science outlet, the journal, Science. Ultimately, all scientists should be concerned because non-scientific policy advocacy by an ostensibly science-based institution will erode public trust in science even more than has already occurred in the post-modern era.



The effect on Science content will also be questioned. How can one not wonder whether policy position advocacy has influenced editorial decisions about hard science? Which papers support the chosen narrative? Which subject editor candidate is sympathetic to our policy positions? Which papers seem to reinforce the counter-narrative? Of course this perversion cannot be blatant, but its influence will be inexorable.



The erosion of trust and stature gained by “sticking to the knitting” that has bought AAAS a seat at the policy table will eventually pull the chair out from under it.




Submitted by Guest (not verified) on

Dr. Benedict,

I was thinking you were right and that the argument makes a ton of sense. But, I also thought that the key tactical change by scientists to persuasion implies a different problem, authority. The fact that they have made this change points to the loss of their position as the authority. During modernity "science" became "the authority." I say "became" because it wasn't always so. Religion, kings, and rulers had been considered "the authority" who determined truth previously. In many ways science was the first socially appointed methodological authority imbued with the ability to determine truth that I know of. When I say socially appointed methodological authority I mean it wasn't a faith or king who determined truth but a process for discovering truth that people chose to elevate to a position of an authority. The AAAS position signals to me that something has shifted socially that has chipped away at their socially assigned authority. Now they must compete with other emerging authorities. Society is likely setting up a new authority in science's place. Thus, the reason "science is not enough to carry the argument" may not be so much about truth per se, but about how science is compelled to respond to the growing postmodern belief that we are all authorities unto ourselves and therein can determine our own truth.