Maybe scientific activism has confused people about the purpose of science

Scientific activism has had some amazing successes. Scientists have discovered a problem, lobbied for legal changes, and solved the problem. Example: there was an insecticide called DDT that bio-concentrated in birds. At low concentrations, DDT is not toxic to birds. But at high concentrations, DDT caused their egg shells to become very fragile and a great many birds died. Rachel Carson published a book called Silent Spring that exposed this phenomenon. Ultimately, this resulted in a ban on DDT. This allowed bird populations to recover. Another example is the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) ban. In the upper atmosphere, CFCs degrade the ozone layer. A few scientists discovered this and lobbied to have CFCs replaced with less harmful chemicals. Once again, the ban was successful, ozone has started to recover.

When science discovers problems, we have become accustomed to scientists lobbying for the changes that they feel need to be made to address those problems. I’m not sure we should be totally comfortable with that. I understand that a scientist who discovers a terrible problem wants to help solve it. But I’m suggesting that scientists might be better off advocating for technological change rather than legal change.

For example, I’ve written here before that battery storage and solar electricity will probably replace coal. I don’t think that there is any need to ban coal. It will just happen because of economic necessity. Coal will get more expensive, solar electricity will get cheaper. As a scientist, I feel my time is better spent working on energy storage research as opposed to advocating a ban on carbon dioxide emissions.

We gave up DDT and chlorofluorocarbons in favor of other options that were less harmful. The chemists who invented the replacement chemicals are the unsung heroes of these environmental success stories.