In 1933, after speaking out against the rise of fascism in Germany, Albert Einstein was chastised by the Prussian Academy of Sciences, from which he had pre-emptively resigned. His fellow physicist Max von Laue spoke out in his defense, but also cautioned that academics should separate themselves from politics. “Here, they are making nearly all German academics responsible when you do something political,” he wrote to his friend. Einstein responded:
“I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters, i.e. human affairs in the broadest sense. The situation in Germany shows whither this restraint will lead: to the surrender of leadership, without any resistance, to those who are blind or irresponsible.”
Eighty-three years later, this debate about whether scientists should engage with politics is still raging fiercely. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, several scientists are planning to run for office, a political action committee called 314 Action has formed to support them, and thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts are planning to march in Washington, D.C on April 22. These new movements bring old critiques: that scientists who engage in political advocacy are jeopardizing their credibility as objective, impartial, rational chroniclers of evidence. Worse, as Von Laue suggested of Einstein, these outspoken few risk the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise.
These are perennial objections—often repeated, but seldom tested. “There’s been plenty of speculation and commentary, but very little systematic research looking at how average Americans respond to advocacy by scientists,” says John Kotcher from George Mason University. In 2009, a Pew Research Center survey found that 76 percent of Americans “say that it is appropriate for scientists to become actively involved in political debates.” But that’s an “abstract idea,” says Kotcher. “We wanted to test how people respond to a concrete example.”