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Letter to the Editor on "Scientists in Society"

[Reprinted from BULLETIN OF THE AMERICAN METEOROLOGICAL SOCIETY, Vol. 57, No. 4, April 1976]. Printed in U. S. A.

To the Editor:

I was dismayed by the President's page in the November 1975 BULLETIN (56, 1152-1153) on the subject of a scientist's responsibility to society. Though it is noble and well intended, it in no way faces the real responsibilities of scientists (I shall include technologists since the distinction has all but disappeared) for the trends society has followed, and still continues to follow. Instead, it pretends that their responsibilities lie only in the area of "presenting the facts" relevant to the questions posed by society, or more bluntly, in answering impartially the questions they are paid to answer.

I can appreciate the desire that scientists should not deliberately "distort the facts" as advocates of a particular cause, but to pretend that our knowledge even in physics, let alone in the environmental sphere, is simple fact ("objective statements") is pure wishful thinking. The proposed creed is a twofold distortion. On the one hand, it implies that there are such things as factual answers. There may be, but they exist only if science is construed in the broadest possible sense to include our whole understanding of the natural world, including man. On the other hand, it suggests a physicist is accountable only within a very narrow field of knowledge. This is a doctrine of the compartmentalization of knowledge, comfortable perhaps for the scientist in his own little field but a disaster for the world because it leaves no one to take account of the broad human predicament.

Scientific models and deductions start from assumptions: assumptions where we are ignorant or deliberate assumptions that are themselves a reflection of our desires (ranging from the aesthetic to what these days are called national "needs"). Scientists as well as society accept these assumptions with too little question. They range from the protection of vested interests to the arrogant assertion of the ability of technology to manipulate the environment to society's "needs," such as exponential economic growth (which is clearly scientifically ridiculous). It is intellectually dishonest for the scientific community to accept these basic assumptions (as "political" questions) and proceed to derive "solutions" based on them that are recognizable as ecological disasters and that, in turn, society implements as the best technical advice.

Even forgetting for the moment the assumptions that come from our vast ignorance about the balance of the natural world, it remains true that most research in the United States is directed to certain goals. Thus, this research is based on assumptions about what society wants or "needs." The research that follows attempts to achieve this goal by applying an appropriate "filter" to the natural world. All scientific models filter in this sense and in doing so necessarily distort our picture of the world. To take an example: if we apply the assumption that atmospheric convection can be parameterized in terms of synoptic scale meteorological fields, we process the data accordingly and derive certain models and conclusions; but these are based on an assumption that in turn comes from the desire to forecast the weather using numerical weather prediction. The closer science is to economic and political questions, the more glaring these assumptions often are. It follows that the scientific analysis based on these assumptions may be worthless.

To reverse the argument, the mess that our technological society is now in is clear evidence that the assumptions on which it is based are unsound. The implication of the November article is that scientists should not get involved, they should just advise. But who will question the assumptions if the technical "experts" do not? Who will predict the consequences of different assumptions if the same "experts" do not? Those advised believe they are doing the best they can because they had the best technical advice. This collusion can be seen everywhere. Those in power (politicians, industrialists, and scientists) are comfortable and do not want to rock the boat or question vested interests or values: perhaps the problem of future consequences will go away or can be postponed further.

This by now is quite obviously a scientific fraud being perpetrated on mankind, and the implications for society and science will be devastating. The seriousness of the plight of science in the United States is also evident if we consider this possible hierarchy of allegiances of a researcher (more could clearly be added):

1) to the planet Earth;

2) to mankind;

3) to science;

4) to the United States;

5) to one's own science (e.g., atmospheric science);

6) to one's own specialization;

7) to a specific research contract.

Most research appears to owe allegiance to the lowest level, occasionally rising a few levels. This is a dismal prospect for this planet, for mankind, and of course for science itself. I do not think the November article begins to answer these questions.

ALAN K. BETTS Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, Colo. 80523

The pdf has the published 'Response' by Dave Atlas; and I have added (in 2020 for historical reasons) my following unpublished response to Dave

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Full Citation

Betts, A. K., 1976: Letter to the Editor on "Scientists in Society". Bull. Amer. Meteorol. Soc. 57, p460.