Scientists working on climate change and other environmental issues often speak of the risk of “crying wolf,” concerned about losing credibility if the threats they are documenting do not turn out to be as serious as current research suggests. However, the opposite worry—that they might fiddle while Rome burns—is hardly ever mentioned. Yet from the standpoint of social responsibility, understating a threat might be worse than overstating it, so why are scientists more concerned with losing credibility than with failing to adequately warn against risk?
Moreover, history shows us that scientists in the past often were willing to speak out strongly and clearly about perceived threats relevant to their scientific expertise. This talk explores the origins and historical development of the current tendency of scientists towards reticence, and the asymmetry of scientific anxiety.