June 25, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

What Good Are Science Societies?

It’s the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, England’s oldest and most prestigious scientific organization.  Amid the celebrations are essays and commentaries about the role scientific societies play for the public, the government, and the advancement of natural knowledge.  It should only be expected that the scientific journals will give the positive side, but between the lines are some nagging questions left begging, like – does science even need organized societies?  Even if they do some good, are they the only institutions capable of doing those good things?  And are they even capable of doing harm?

It should be intuitively obvious that science’s primary concern should be with getting the world right – discovering facts about the natural world, organizing and integrating that knowledge, developing testable theories that can explain the facts and predict new discoveries, and providing foundations for natural knowledge that can lead to useful applications.  So what good are the societies?  How do they advance – or obstruct – these goals?

Many early scientists worked alone or in small interest clubs.  Like most other human beings, scientists often do better with social encouragement and reinforcement.  The ability to share and debate ideas with peers is not only a deeply felt human need, but a corrective against error.  The Society of the Lynx in Galileo’s day was an early example.  The Linnean Society, local geological societies, chemistry societies and other grass-roots organizations grew in power and influence over time.  The Royal Society is perhaps the best example of a scientist-instigated formal club that sought advancement of natural knowledge through sharing of ideas, publication and education.  Some societies were government-sponsored: the Paris Academy of Sciences acted at the behest of the king in the 17th and 18th centuries.  In the 19th century, the National Academy of Sciences was created in America under the direction of the government to advise the government with scientific input on public policy matters.

Governmental sponsorship does not rule out objectivity, but it often directs the research to be done.  These days, more and more countries want to get on the science society bandwagon.  It becomes a mark of distinction to have a national science academy.  The big countries can afford to have multiple societies.  Some are more government-leaning, some more private: the National Institutes of Health, the British and American Associations for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Chemistry Society, the Linnean Society, the Geological Society of America, and more.  Meetings of these societies can be rare or frequent; memberships can be large or small, national or international.  Annual meetings are sometimes huge affairs, involving hundreds of members spending a week at fancy hotels and resorts.  Typical gatherings involve sharing papers, debating theories, and occasionally discussing politics, funding and education.  Outside the member-attended meetings, societies keep their members informed with newsletters, journals, emails, blogs, letters, podcasts and other methods of mass media.  Officers sometimes are important attendees at government advisory councils, bringing the “consensus” of their members to bear on public policy.

However enjoyable the societies are socially, though, the questions keep begging – do the goals of the academies necessarily coincide with the goals of science itself?  Do the academies advance some research at the expense of others?  Do they tend to channel scientists into the consensus, and quash independent thinking?  Does government sponsorship corrupt the pure goals of a scientist and make him or her a pawn of nationalism – or internationalism?  Do scientists provoke a spirit of elitism – and if so, is that necessarily bad?  These and other questions emerge from a careful reading of recent essays about scientific societies.  One should not assume the celebratory air in some of them will nourish the beggars.

  1. Be proud to be elite:  Nature started off its celebration of the Royal Society’s anniversary with an editorial titled, “The right kind of elitism.”  It began, “Britain’s Royal Society is 350 years old this year, and its track record is one worthy of celebration.”  What did Nature consider its honorable achievements?  “It stands today as a relatively successful model of what an independent national academy can achieve, having made itself both highly regarded in the corridors of power and prominent in public debates on major science-related issues.
    Much of the praise seemed aimed at the society’s ability to speak with a unified, powerful, political voice: “As the Royal Society has demonstrated, however, scientific academies … can offer authoritative input on contentious public-policy issues such as climate change, or the regulation of human embryonic stem-cell research, and can thus enrich public debate by ensuring that science is properly heard.”  It’s a rather generous assumption to believe that what a society says is what “science” says, even if Nature had taken a little more time to define its criteria for the bloated word “science.”
    From politics, the editors took the society into the arenas of media and education – again, emphasizing influence instead of the search for truth about nature:

    But these traditional avenues are only part of what academies can do to exert influence today.  They can also issue more concise statements for wider audiences.  And they can proactively engage with the public and the media in the same way that corporations and environmental pressure groups do – by anticipating or responding rapidly to events, and making sure that science’s voice is heard amid the general cacophony.

    Here, the assumption is being made the “science” has a voice fundamentally different from any other group’s voice.  It is pure, distinct, and sweet (as contrasted with the general cacophony).  The editors are also assuming that the scientific societies never contribute to the general cacophony.  Yet in their conclusion, did they succumb to the fad of diversity and inclusion?  “Academies can still have a crucial role in taking scientific truth to the public, and to the heart of government,” the editors said in conclusion, but noticing an ethnic diversity imbalance in the NAS, they added: “But to do so, they must constantly strive to properly represent an increasingly diverse scientific community.”  (They had just been speaking about an under-represented ethnic minority.)  Diversity and inclusion may be admirable values, but it is not clear how the editors linked those values to the ability to arrive at “scientific truth.”  The pursuit of truth should be color blind.

  2. Fight to stay influential:  Continuing the focus on the influence of scientific societies, Colin Macilwain wrote a report on the history of scientific societies.2  “Britain’s Royal Society has had to work hard to stay relevant and influential,” said the subtitle, setting the tone for the whole article.
    Macilwain described some of the parties London is throwing for the anniversary.  But extravaganzas aside, did he provide evidence that the goals of a scientific society mesh with the goals of science?  Part of the reason for the parties is “to be seen as up to date, inclusive and important, not exclusive and aloof.”  Michael Faraday did not strive to be seen as any of these things when he made his fundamental scientific discoveries.  It is hard to see what public image has to do with science.  Nevertheless, the article was all about influence, media, press, image, representation, and propaganda:

    National academies of science in more than 100 nations are aiming for the same goal, with varying success.  Many were born in an era when a few select individuals practiced science, and those groups evolved to offer behind-the-scenes advice to governments.  Now, the academies represent much more diverse communities, and they must take their messages not only to governments but also directly to the public.

    But why?  Does science need lobbyists and pressure groups?  Must scientists become teachers?  There’s more image focus, presentation, soiling of hands with money, and political correctness: “They must be seen to be independent of government, despite considerable reliance on public funding.  And they need to reflect the growing ethnic and gender diversity of the scientific community, while still selecting members on the basis of their scientific reputations.”
    Macilwain shared some interesting history about the well-known societies.  Abraham Lincoln set up the National Academy of Sciences at the height of the Civil War in 1863.  The Royal Society (note the name) was founded by the scientists, but they were predominantly royalists, seeking and appreciating the patronage of King Charles II.  “Early on, the Royal Society made clear that it owed allegiance not to king and country but to scientific truth,” Macilwain assures us.  Nevertheless, their exclusiveness and high standards continue to generate accusations of elitism.  Outgoing society president Martin Rees responded, “But we’re elite only in the sense that we ought to be elite.”  The business of elections, nominations, and posturing that Macilwain discussed next, however, seem to have little to do with science.  Those trappings could characterize any organization.
    So what does the Royal Society actually do?  It distributes block grants from the government to promising scientists, awards prestigious university fellowships, and it helps pick scientific advisers for the government.  It decides what positions to take on public policy issues like climate change and creationism, and to present those positions with a unified voice.  NAS head Bruce Alberts said, “There’s a whole move now to make academies a voice for science in every nation of the world.
    Lately, to change its public image as an inward-looking body, the Royal Society has tried to become more media savvy.  It promotes TV documentaries and tries to get the society’s position heard by the public.  “Critics may contend that the public is indifferent to the academies’ grand pronouncements, and that their reports are valued by politicians more for the cover they provide than for the carefully nuanced information they contain,”  he granted.  But in the end, Macilwain gave the society’s executive secretary the last word: “we have become more important because there are so many more issues today that have a scientific component.”
    Somehow, Macilwain assures us, a “wider purpose is being served” by all this talk about influence and collective power.  One word in short supply in this article was research – how a society actually contributes to getting the world right.  If an outsider or maverick with a minority view was the one to get it right, how could his or her voice be heard against the powerful collective voice at the top?  Would not the majority seek to suppress this individual in the interest of allowing the society to speak with prestige, unanimity, and authority?  It is indeed ironic that the Royal Society’s motto is, “Nothing on mere authority.”

  3. Engage the public:  Image and influence was also the theme of a short piece by Yves Quere in the same issue of Nature.3  The image of “a club of old gentlemen” is “the most common failings of scientific academies,” he said.  “They have few female members, few young members and they act too much like private clubs instead of speaking up on crucial matters of science and technology.”  Diversity, inclusion, influence – the same themes emerge in this article.  Quere argues that “the idea behind such organizations has been to promote the role of science in society and politics, and support scientists and science education.”  Then he got down to how societies might actually help science:

    The best ones have come to embody three attributes.  One is scientific expertise, because membership tends to be restricted to a nation’s top scientists.  Another is independence from external political, economic, religious or social pressures, enabling academies to speak openly on any matter.  The last is stability in the face of constantly shifting social and political landscapes, because members are generally elected for life.

    So far, however, these attributes – desirable as they may be – are about the sociology of science: e.g., membership, ambition, freedom, stability.  None of these necessarily bear on the goal of getting the world right.
    Quere listed three things academies and societies can do to encourage scientific research: (1) Promote excellence in science through grants, publications, debates, and the like.  (2) Mediate between scientists and politicians.  (This puts societies in the role of lobbying groups.)  (3) Bolster science education through curricula and awards.  It is not hard to see, however, how each of these activities can be turned into “preserving the consensus” rather than promoting the independent thinking individuals may need to buck the consensus when it is wrong.  The rest of the article was devoted to improving societies’ influence and political clout.

  4. Respect your elders:  If anyone can declare the value of a society, its president should be able to.  Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, wrote an editorial for Science magazine on “The Society’s Wider Role.”4  He began by recalling the Society’s heroes of past ages: Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and others.  Continuity from the 17th century into the 21st, however, needs to be demonstrated, not assumed.  Those were very different times in pre-industrialized England, before the word “scientist” had even been invented.  Early fellows of the Royal Society engaged their curiosity: “They did experiments, peered through newly invented telescopes and microscopes, and dissected weird animals,” Rees said.  He insists that the core values of the Society have not changed despite vastly new horizons and discoveries.  “Today’s scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature’s laws by observation and experiment, but they should also engage broadly with the needs of society and with public affairs.”  Rees pivoted on this point to talk about influence.
    Because of global challenges today, “engagement is needed more than ever before, and on a global scale,” he said, listing some of the modern issues – climate change, nuclear power, genetic engineering – needing scientific expertise.  Preserving the environment and correcting societal inequalities loomed high on his list.  He recalled the scientists of the Manhattan Project who not only ran the experiments and uncovered the facts of atomic energy, but “worked throughout their lives to control the power they had unleashed.”  They are exemplars, Rees argued, for how a scientific society can have influence:

    These men were an elite group—the alchemists of their time, possessors of secret knowledge.  Today’s dominant issues, in contrast, span all the sciences, are far more open, and are often global.  There is less demarcation between experts and laypersons.  Campaigners and bloggers enrich the debate.  But professionals have special obligations; the atomic scientists were fine exemplars of this.  Scientists shouldn’t be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas.  They should try to foster benign spin-offs, and they should prevent, so far as they can, dubious or threatening applications.

    But is a society necessary for a scientist to act as good citizen?  Today’s trends toward globalization require that “the benefits of globalization must be fairly shared,” he said.  Rees recognized the value of ethics: “There’s a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what is prudent or ethical.”  So far those are general ideals, but where does the Society fit in?  In order to end on the note that the Royal Society and its sister academies have a greater role to play than ever before, he bridged the ideas with this statement: “Everyone should debate these choices, but the agenda must be guided by science academies and by individual scientific citizens, engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media and with a public attuned to the scope and limits of science.”  An acknowledgement of the limits of science, and a recognition of individual values, are interesting here.  But Rees did not make it clear why, and to what extent, scientific societies need to guide the agenda over “individual scientific citizens.”

If one could never doubt the pure motivations of a collective scientific body to seek the truth wherever the evidence leads, then this focus on influence, media and politics could be understandable, even admirable.  A scientific body can provide a clear voice to governments, students and the public when a “general cacophony” would otherwise leave them at the mercy of a kind of Brownian motion of conflicting voices.  This presupposes, however, a clear moral authority combined with a grasp on nature’s workings that makes them stand above the fray.  Without that clear, clarion call of truth, science academies risk becoming part of that same general cacophony.  Even worse, they can become government-funded hammers enforcing the collective will against individuals who might wish to pursue a scientific question with motives unadulterated with thoughts of political power, increased funding, social prestige, or public adulation.

1.  Editorial, “The right kind of elitism,” Nature 465, p. 986, 24 June 2010, doi:10.1038/465986a.
2.  Colin Macilwain, “Scientific Academies: In the best company,” Nature published online 23 June 2010; Nature 465, 1002-1004 (2010); doi:10.1038/4651002a.
3.  Yves Quere, “Academies must engage with society,” Nature 465, p. 1009, 24 June 2010, doi:10.1038/4651009a.
4.  Sir Martin Rees, “The Society’s Wider Role,” Science, 25 June 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5986, p. 1611, DOI: 10.1126/science.1193400.

In this commentary, we do not wish to oversimplify or generalize.  Scientific societies are here to stay.  Certainly they can do much good.  A collective body can command resources that would be impossible to the individual scientist.  Many of today’s scientific questions cannot be approached without huge expenditures: the space program is a good example.  Sending a rover to Mars is a whole new ball game from playing with electrical wire and magnets at the Royal Institution.  Sir Martin Rees gave a whole laundry list of profound questions and troubling issues that need collective, professional input:

Such engagement is needed more than ever before, and on a global scale. Science transforms our lives, sometimes with staggering speed. Spin-offs from molecular genomics could soon change our lives as much as those from the microchip have already done. We must confront widely held anxieties that genetics, brain science, and artificial intelligence may “run away” too fast. And rapid advances raise profound questions: Is the world getting warmer, and why?  Who should access the “readout” of our personal genetic code?  How will lengthening life span affect society?  Should nuclear power stations or wind farms keep the lights on?  Should we use more insecticides or plant genetically modified crops?  How much should computers be allowed to invade our privacy?  Such critical questions transcend party politics, but because they are long-term, they tend to be trumped by more urgent items. Many require action on an international scale, as all parts of the world are more closely networked today than ever before.

Scientific societies past and present have engaged the public and governments with informed input on the policy issues of the day.  The role of influence, however, belongs to “sociology of science” rather than to science itself.  To the extent a society can enable the individual or team to accomplish scientific goals, this is fine and good.  We know, however, that institutions sometimes become the worst perpetrators of the very problems they were formed to solve (examples: some labor unions, the U.N., some government bureaucracies).  The worst example in world history is probably the communist dictatorships that sought to inculcate the ideals of Marxism to remedy the plight of the proletarians.  It is doubtful the proletarians were helped much by the Great Terror, Great Leap Forward and other hideous atrocities perpetrated by the institutions that were formed to “help” them.

While not wishing to link scientific societies with the likes of those, we would point out that there is no guarantee a human institution formed to advance the goals of anything will end up doing so.  As with other institutions, the track record of scientific societies has been a mixed bag.  One must also remember that the Royal Society of 1660 is very different from the Royal Society of 2010.  Back then, members were mostly Bible-believing Christians living before the industrial revolution.  Today, as with many large institutions, the leadership are left-leaning secular globalists in the information age.

We know from the stories of Leeuwenhoek, Faraday, Thomson and Joule that the Royal Society was instrumental in providing them encouragement and notoriety for their discoveries.  This is perhaps the best positive good a scientific society can provide: a place for discussion, exposure, recognition, and encouragement among those who understand the subject matter and are interested in it.  Governments, kings, educators, publishers and reporters have no doubt also profited from the collective voice of societies as sources they could trust.  It’s much easier for them than trying to weigh the pros and cons of opinions from many individual experts.  And the ability to steer funds toward great projects may make possible scientific research that could not get done otherwise.  In the capable hands of societies with integrity, these can be good things.

But the very process of arriving at a collective voice is the most fraught with risk of doing more harm than good.  Science is not about consensus; that’s sociology.  It’s about getting the world right.  That makes it undemocratic: better one scientist who’s right than the collective voice of a thousand who are wrong.  Moreover, the collective is made of people with pride and the power of numbers.  The collective voice can give a false impression of authority.  With the power of numbers and institutional or political clout behind them, the collective can easily squash the maverick and end up perpetuating myths.  Does this happen?

Consider a recent struggle in the Royal Society about global warming.  Roger Harrabin has been taking notes of debates in Britain over this contentious subject.  His entries for the BBC News May 27 and BBC News May 29 are instructive about the wrangling behind closed doors at the Royal Society trying to come up with a consensus.  The majority who believe in human-caused global warming had to deal with a sizeable minority who felt their opinions were being misrepresented or ignored in the Society’s official statements to the media and Parliament.  This erupted after previous leader Lord May said, “I am the President of the Royal Society, and I am telling you the debate on climate change is over.”  That “debate is over” slogan was influential with the Prime Minister, and was repeated often in the press.  But as Harrabin shows, the debate was not over.  The dissenters in the minority were angry, and took up their side in blogs – something earlier Society presidents did not have to contend with.  “The danger to the credibility of science institutions from the way they communicate uncertainty in climate change is immense,” Harrabin said.  On the one hand, they desire a unified voice of consensus, but on the other, they risk being viewed as intransigent purveyors of orthodoxy if they do not give sufficient place to those who disagree with the consensus.  It was clear that the minority were feeling dissed – even insulted – by the majority on this matter.  The climate skeptics “they did not agree that the warming will be dangerous – and they object to being branded fools or hirelings for saying so.”  Now, after the scandals at the IPCC, these “bastions of authority” are suffering serious credibility gaps, and the grass-roots blogs are exposing the sausage-making shenanigans of arriving at consensus.

The reader is now in a position to understand those authoritative-sounding pronouncements from the scientific societies.  Whether the subject is stem cells, bioweapons, or the teaching of evolution, the process of coming up with an “official” view for the press or the government can mask deep divisions beneath.  But once the position is stated, it takes on a life of its own.  It becomes the authoritative voice of “science.”  The press takes the ball and runs with it.  In a curious feedback loop, the scientists themselves in the institutions become increasingly reluctant to buck the consensus, either through fear of retaliation, the desire to get along with the group, or the ease of swimming with the current instead of against it.  For example, an open-access paper came out in PNAS this week claiming that “97/98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets” of man-made global warming.  But the criteria for “climate expertise and scientific prominence” included those actively publishing.  The authors apparently failed to take into account the bias of journals against publishing skeptical of the consensus, and the Kuhnian tendency for scientists to work within the current paradigm.  Science Daily wrote this up only with the authors’ views, not with any critical response of the statistical methods used to come up with the 98% number.  But even if it were that high, is scientific truth decided by majority vote?

Consider the example of all those societies allied against “creationism.”  Does it mean that each and every individual scientist in the societies agrees with the pronouncements that creationism is bad-bad-bad and must be stopped?  Of course not – not any more than members of Labor Unions accept the political candidates the leadership “officially” endorse.  Undoubtedly there is a wide spectrum of opinions among the members on the subject of creationism, ID, evolutionism, and how they should be taught.  When the NAS published a booklet on “Science, Evolution and Creationism” (updated in 2008) it carried the force of consensus and the prestige of the NAS.  It influenced many judges, school boards and reporters.  Underneath the veneer of authority presented by the booklet, though, how many NAS members understood the issues, were familiar with creation or ID literature, or even participated in the discussions prior to publication?  Critics at the Discovery Institute found lots of errors and misrepresentations in the document (see Evolution News & Views).  Rather than promoting the kind of debate and discussion that is essential for the health of science, the booklet simply dismissed, with the swipe of a hand, a whole lively field of inquiry into intelligent design that overlaps heavily into secular science itself (biomimetics, forensics, archaeology, linguistics, SETI, communication theory, cryptography, and more).  It told any members who might have doubts about Darwin to basically shut up.  “The debate is over.”

The consensus of societies can sometimes mimic the dogmas of a pope or college of cardinals publishing lists of heresies, stamped with the imprimatur of an authoritative institution.  What a strange twist of history.  It’s the Galileo affair all over again – only with the ideological roles reversed.  An informed public, and brave individual scientists, need to be the watchdogs against such abuses.  For all their posturing, power plays and promotions, scientific societies have no more intrinsic authority than what the facts of nature give them.

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