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.