Scientists should speak up and share their views | Opinion

When I moved from Germany to the Netherlands two years ago, one small detail about my new home country struck me as odd: there was almost no peat-free potting soil. Frankly, this topic has never been a big part of my life, but ever since a friend told me years ago ‘don’t buy peat, it’s horrible for the environment’, I’ve followed the instructions. Still, after arriving in my new home country, my curiosity was spiked when I couldn’t find a bag of peat-free soil anywhere. Why would that be so much more difficult than in neighboring Germany? What I later discovered was even stranger: research on peat alternatives is quite active in the Netherlands, a country that is one of the world’s largest importers of peat. However, no one spoke on the subject. The most recent article I could find in the mainstream press was a 2014 TV documentary. Seven years of silence followed.

Scientists can denounce a policy without scientific basis

So we tried to be the missing piece in this puzzle and created our NGO Stichting Turfvrij (Peat Free Foundation) to bring public attention to the issue of peat use and its environmental consequences. Our work triggered a parliamentary motion, which led the Dutch government to announce a peat reduction strategy in November 2022. Throughout this process, we found that scientists were acting as silent knowledge generators who were very reluctant to go beyond his world of peer-reviewed articles. Most of our attempts to engage scientists in public debate followed the same pattern: ‘Can you write a couple of paragraphs for the climate help desk?’ “Sorry, this brief format does not allow me to include enough bibliographical references to support my statements.”

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Value of scientific objectivity

Science has propelled our society forward in many ways. However, it is not the vast body of knowledge that distinguishes science from, say, religious belief, it is the inherent error correction mechanism. Scientists are fed a diet of skepticism from their first semester: Manuscripts are peer-reviewed before publication, and errors can be corrected. The system isn’t perfect (scientists are biased just like everyone else) and there are also strong power structures and dependencies in place, making disproving one big man’s cherished theory a daunting task. Still, science built on a shaky foundation will falter sooner or later.

The objectivity of scientists is vital to producing good science. Society depends on scientists staying above the political fray and providing solid, sober, and well-researched information. So what happens when scientists publicly express their opinion on a specific policy, say? Or when they try to push an issue on the public agenda and advocate for public awareness or concrete action? Do these scientists lose their credibility as objective voices?

I would say they don’t. Let us distinguish two cases.

Scientific facts

Scientists talk about facts; that’s your job. It is not a contradiction for an objective scientist to correct the record when falsehoods seep into public debate. Let’s take climate science as an example. Suppose someone claims that scientists disagree that climate change is influenced by human activity. It is fair to say that this flatly contradicts the scientific consensus and is worthless unless more evidence is provided. In this case, trying to ‘listen to both sides’ is incorrect, as it would put opinions on the same level as facts.

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Some scientific knowledge comes with considerable uncertainties. For example, how much warmer will our planet get under specific scenarios? Even in such cases, scientists can speak: the basis for their statements is still the body of scientific knowledge, but there are more uncertainties and complexities involved.


What about questions that speculate about the future, such as the effects of a particular policy proposal? For example, should permits for nuclear power plants be extended in light of the climate crisis and the war in Ukraine? After all, it is impossible to know for sure what effect such plans will have. However, a policy must have a scientific basis. Scientists can extrapolate the most likely outcome of a policy based on their interpretation of the facts involved. They can point out the pros and cons of the options on the table.

A public debate is the exchange of different points of view. Whether or not scientists and their findings are part of these discussions is in our hands. It is impossible to translate science directly into a concrete policy instrument, but scientists can speak out against policy without a scientific basis or in favor of policy that is strongly supported by evidence.

The alternative to talking is that crucial decisions may be based on beliefs and affiliations, and not on our knowledge. Scientists can, and should, participate in such public debates as long as they are transparent about the uncertainties they face, distinguishing between fact and interpretation.

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