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What are the social responsibilities of scientists? In a time of climate disruption and resulting social upheaval, what are those whose profession is the study of climate to do? They should, argues psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, bear witness as professionals. That’s the stance Lifton developed while documenting the experiences of victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. 

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“I came to realize that the more disciplined I was in presenting my findings, the more scientific my endeavor, the more effective my witness would be,” he writes.

Lifton later used his “witnessing professional” approach to shape his study, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. This book explored why highly educated German doctors became Nazi executioners, lending their prestige, professionalism, and knowledge to extermination of their fellow human beings. Out of this, he developed the idea of “malignant normality.” These are “cultural and social norms, patterns of behavior that are expected […] even if the behavior is harmful or dangerous.” 

Lifton applied this concept to nuclear weaponry—from physicist cheerleaders of the H-bomb to useless duck and cover exercises in the nation’s schools—during the Cold War. More recently, he has applied the idea of malign normality to climate change, arguing that “by merely continuing with our present energy practices […] we will increasingly harm our own habitat.”

“Surely, the situation requires of us an ethic that confronts this threat to the human species and most other species as well,” he writes. Such an ethic

can emerge precisely from our knowledge as professionals, but must transcend previous ethical rules. That broader ethic enables us to confront truths having to do with the catastrophic destruction of the human habitat, and with ways of preventing or mitigation that looming catastrophe.

Ethicists say that scientists, like medical doctors, should “first do no harm.” They should “not participate in morally dubious activities, nor engage in collaborations that undermine academic freedom and objectivity,” as historian of science Naomi Oreskes puts it. These are what ethicists call negative considerations. But what of positive considerations?

Oreskes asks if

scientists have an obligation to speak out against dubious practices, or call public attention to public health and well-being? […] do [they] also have an obligation to be witnesses, testing to matters that they as relevant experts are uniquely positioned to observe, understand, and explain to the rest of us?

Having read Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Oreskes writes that she learned “not to assume that well-educated people can be relied upon to do the right thing.” In her own work, she has written about doctors collaborating with tobacco companies to create doubt about the health risks of smoking and how a handful of scientists helped the fossil fuel companies fuel doubt about global warming. 

Oreskes’s model of the witnessing professional can be found in atmospheric chemist F. Sherwood Rowland (1927–2012), who shared a Nobel Prize in 1995 with Mario J. Molina (1943–2020) for showing that chlorinated fluorocarbons (CFC) were destroying Earth’s protective atmospheric ozone. This work led to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which banned CFS, halons, and other ozone-depleting chemicals. Not surprisingly, Rowland was savaged by a chemical industry seemingly intent on “endangering the existence of life on Earth” for continued profits. He was also criticized by some scientists who decried his “activism.” Of his colleagues, Rowland asked, “What is the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Being a witnessing professional can be heart-breaking: climate grief affects them, too. And it can be dangerous: “activist” or whistleblower scientists have been purged, arrested, or murdered around the world. Meanwhile, plutocratic-controlled politicians, corrupt authoritarians, and anti-democratic populations rallying around irrationality and militant ignorance take it as a point of pride to discount science and scientists’ testimony.

But, as Lifton notes, the very word “professional” is rooted in the idea of speaking out. To profess means to declare or admit—openly, out loud, in public.

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Daedalus, Vol. 149, No. 4, Witnessing Climate Change (Fall 2020), pp. 25–32
The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Daedalus, Vol. 149, No. 4, Witnessing Climate Change (Fall 2020), pp. 33–45
The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences