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By: Jessica Lee

Being the only philosophy graduate in a friendship circle of scientists I often find myself in debates on the role of science and scientists in the public sphere. I recall one particular conversation where a friend of mine told me that, “Scientists shouldn’t have to deal with society. What we need is someone, like you, to communicate the science to the public, so that we can be left alone to focus on the science itself.”

The role of science in society has recently become a popular area of inquiry in philosophy of science, and it is not hard to see why. The explicit epistemic injustices carried out in the form of climate denialists, shutting down of climate-related research programmes and the major withdrawal from the USA in funding climate science raises this discussion from an intellectual puzzle to a very real, very serious, ethical concern.

In light of this, I found my friend’s statement quite striking. Still, I wasn’t quite sure of its implicit meaning: was it an epistemological or an ethical plea? Was he implying that scientists should be left alone to ‘do’ science because that is what they are good at, and communication of this science to should be left to social scientists or philosophers (how they hypothesized that philosophers have communication and social skills is beyond me). Or was it the latter? Was he claiming that scientists are responsible solely for producing the science; how it is taken up and used by the public however, falls outside of the scientist’s moral domain. It is possible he meant both. As is often the case, the easiest way to relinquish responsibility is to deny capability – this is the reverse logic underpinning the common argument: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

If you are strong swimmer and whilst walking past a pool one day you see a child drowning in it, it would be morally wrong if you did not try to save the child. It is a moral requirement that you do so. If however you cannot swim you are not required to attempt to save the child. If you did try, and succeeded without drowning yourself, your actions might be said to be morally praiseworthy. Drawing on this logic the question to ask is: does the scientist have the power to save the public from drowning in a cesspit of alternative facts and trump-logic? This is not easy to answer, though in most cases I would say that scientists stand a better chance than most. They are, more often than not, the strongest swimmers; holders of information that can literally save lives. And though this information might be manipulated, crushed and ignored by the powers that be, intuitively, it seems they have a moral obligation to try.

There is however, a clear disanalogy in this story. The scientist is not simply walking past the pool, refusing to save the child. Rather he is busy, very busy, designing/researching/hypothesizing ways to save many drowning children. Is his time not better spent doing that? This might have been the point my friend was raising. Scientists’ time can be better spent doing research. Of course, I’m not sure it is as simple as that. A cost-benefit analysis to determine the benefits of spending time communicating over time spent researching is a complicated one. If scientists are able to get certain messages across clearly, the effect on society could be huge. Science informs policy and changing policies can generate systemic changes. Perhaps in some cases engaging with the public needs to take priority over tweaking that paper for the hundredth time so that it can be published?

Taking a step back from the moral arguments, we shouldn’t fail to address a possible underlying epistemological assumption in his statement too. Scientists shouldn’t have to engage with the public- they should be left alone to do the science.

Of course, one problem with this is that is assumes that good science can always been done without involving the public. This may be true in the case of blue-sky science, and fair enough, an astrophysicist researching black holes in some distant galaxy can be excused. However as soon as we put our feet on the ground to generate science for use, which I gather is the kind of science he was referring to (otherwise why worry about communicating it at all) involvement of the public is increasingly being recognised as an integral part of the scientific method itself. Where the pursuit of knowledge is the primary aim, science-driven top down approaches seem sensible. But where science is intended to aid society, a shift to methods that involve users of science is necessary. Importantly this involvement precedes “communication” of the science – rather the public contribute to producing it. Without this scientists risk producing information that is opaque, or worse, irrelevant, to users. Transdisciplinary engagement is not only an ethical necessity, it is, in many cases an epistemological one.

There is no denying that we live in terrifying times. If you are unaware of this all I’ll say is USA’s president. When critical thinking is no longer a prerequisite for decision making and alternative facts ‘trump’ scientifically defensible ones, apolitical science is quickly becoming a thing of the past. It’s no wonder scientists, feel the need clarify their mandates. And I sympathise, I’m sure they prefer to hiding behind their computers as much as we philosophers prefer hiding behind our crystal balls ;). Asking either to extend that mandate into the public domain is akin to asking an Olympic swimmer to save a drowning child from shark infested waters.

One Response to “The sociable scientist”

  1. Chris Jack

    Nice post Jess, this is an important discussion. Though I’m quite surprised by some of your imagery. The section:

    “does the scientist have the power to save the public from drowning in a cesspit of alternative facts and trump-logic? This is not easy to answer, though in most cases I would say that scientists stand a better chance than most. They are, more often than not, the strongest swimmers; holders of information that can literally save lives.”

    paints quite a remarkable savior image of science. Why are scientists assumed to be the strongest swimmer? To take your analogy further, I suspect in the case of child in the pool there would be a number of scientific responses (based on historical precedent). Some scientists might decide to drain the pool leaving the village without any source of water. Others might decide to freeze the water so that the child can walk out… Perhaps others might argue that the child is actually fine and just having fun so there is no need to do anything (or is that the philosophers?) 🙂 The social scientists might want talk to everyone to find out if they all agree the child really is drowning. I can imagine that while the scientist are coming up with their solutions, the local shop keeper might arrive with a inflatable boat, the garage attendant might pump up the boat, and the local priest might paddle out and rescue the child.

    Perhaps I have stretched the analogy too far, perhaps not. My point is that I would argue that what is needed in society is critical, rational thinking, acting and listening humbly, and showing real empathy. Critical, rational thinking is certainly an assumed fundamental of science but is certainly not exclusive to science. In fact I find a remarkable lack of critical thinking in many areas of science! As for acting humbly, listening, and showing empathy, I’m not going to hazard a guess here. I know a number of scientist who have these attributes but a number that don’t. I also know that many scientists struggle to engage the public, partly because they acknowledge they don’t have the right skills, and partly because they just aren’t interested, like many people are just not interested in novel solutions to a new formulation of geostrophic flow.

    People are different (thank goodness!) and we need to play to people’s strengths. One last example. There is now an ever growing global action in response to the threat of global warming. The huge majority of the evidence supporting that action comes from the suite of global model projections produce by modeling centers around the world. I know some of the scientists that produced some of those models. They are brilliant people, but many of them probably shouldn’t be interacting with the public around climate change! Their view of things is necessarily focused and specific. They really do need to just need to sit behind their computers. But collectively they have changed the world. Their contribution is seldom acknowledge though because they disappear behind the limelight of the Al Gore’s etc..

    So what we need is some scientists, with the right skills and attributes who can engage with the public and with society and humbly contribute the knowledge and approach that science can contribute along with all the other people with different skills and knowledge.