Questions for the scientists in the audience.

Today in my "Ethics in Science" class, we took up a question that reliably gets my students (a mix of science majors and non-science major) going: Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don't have?

Naturally, there are some follow-up questions if you lean towards an affirmative answer to that first question. For example:

  • What specifically are those special obligations?
  • Why do scientists have these particular obligations when non-scientists in their society don't?
  • How strong are those obligations? (In other words, under what conditions would it be ethically permissible for scientists to fall short of doing what the obligations say they should do?)

I think these are important -- and complex -- questions, some of which go to the heart of what's involved in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. But, it always helps me to hear the voices (and intuitions) of some of the folks besides me who are involved in this sharing-a-world project.

So, for the scientists in the audience, I have some questions I hope you will answer in the comments on this post.*

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

Who counts as a scientist here? I'm including anyone who has been trained (past the B.A. or B.S. level) in a science, including people who may be currently involved in that training and anyone working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

That means I count as a scientist here (even though I'm not currently employed as a scientist or otherwise involved in scientific knowledge-building).

If you want to say something about these questions but you're a non-scientist according to this definition, never fear! You are cordially invited to answer a corresponding set of questions, posed to the non-scientists with whom scientists are sharing a world, on my other blog.
_____
* If you prefer to answer the questions on your own blog, or in some other online space, please drop a link in the comments here, or point me to it via Twitter (@docfreeride) or email (dr.freeride@gmail.com).

37 responses so far

  • 1) No -- because 2 and 3 are also No.
    2) No -- because 3 is also No.

    If there were some obligation on scientists to do (something) for/to/with/in society, this could only exist (sustain) if there were also some obligation on society to respond in some particular, positive, ways. e.g. If it is an obligation on scientists to 'speak up' to society, say about social effects deriving from science they know about (such as, in my case, climate change), this only works if there is an obligation on society to listen and respond constructively. In practice, there is no such obligation on society either to listen or to be constructive, and, in some areas, there's rather destructive response (one such responder running for a major party for Governor in VA, from his current position as state attorney general).

    The other aspect is looking for the existence of an obligation that a scientist has by virtue of being a scientist _as opposed to_ any other sort of citizen. My wife is a nonscientist (lawyer as it happens). What do scientists _necessarily_ know or have that nonscientists, such as her, don't? Not much, really. They know the content of their sub-sub-sub niches better than she does. Certainly they know the murky business of scientific publishing better, but that's more in the vein of knowing obscure quilting patterns -- you know it if you're in the area, but nobody else needs to know it. Being able to recognize good science structure (may not know the content, but one doesn't need that to recognize 'single paper syndrome', 'small sample size', and the like) isn't unique to scientists; my wife does it quite well. And actually, I could hope for better jobs of that by people who are scientists as we're defining them here.

    Once we're in to the realm of highly specialized knowledge, which is where the scientists do have something unique, it's also so specialized that it's hard for me to envision a general application that would embrace all scientists. If a medical researcher discovered that nobody would get cancer if only they drank kumquat juice ... they should probably tell. But little of science has that potential, so a general obligation can't exist. If so, it's of the 'if you find yourself in this position' sort. But, after setting up the kumquat juice blog announcing it ....

    It'll be interesting to see the answers here and on the nonscientist article.

    In the mean time, I'll add that even without obligation, I do try to engage larger society with my science. I blog, tweet, talk at science cafes and schools, and am now working on learning how to advance to and past 'send a letter to your representatives'. Sometimes even share my thoughts in comments.

    • Cynric says:

      Very interesting point about reciprocity by Robert Grumbine.

      When I read these questions, I immediately understood the sorts of positive responses that could be presented (obligation to advance enlightenment values, basically), but soon afterwards thought - nah, not any more.

      I think you are on to something about governments (and individuals) not 'listening and responding constructively' when scientists do present carefully gathered evidence. Is this a recent cultural shift? It certainly makes me feel less obligated to always fight the good fight.

      To answer the questions:

      1) No. I would say we have professional standards that must be upheld if we are to identify as "scientists" to the wider world, as with many other professions.

      2) The status of "professional scientist" comes from the generations of scientists before us who established the power and utility of the scientific method for giving accurate answers to questions.

      3) None. The reciprocity mentioned above only works if sincerely given, and can't really be seen as an obligation.

  • Rick Hollis says:

    I have a B.A. and a M.A. in biology. I worked my entire career as Research Assistant at the University of Iowa in a research lab in Clinical Microbiology.

    I am not sure we have special obligations, but I think everyone has an obligation to be truthful about the things we know. I know a good deal about microbiology and evolution and genetics. I feel that I owe people, when I talk about these subjects to explain them truthfully and at levels the audience understands. But then I expect the same from plumbers and electricians who knows more than I do.

  • Bill says:

    1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world?

    No. (I take "special duties" to be exclusive of the usual "duty of care" owed by all sentient beings to each other.)

    2. What about scientific training could engender such special obligations?

    That's why I say there are no such obligations: what indeed could create them? Are there other professions, training backgrounds, work situations or anything else that do come with such special obligations? Do plumbers have them? Astronauts? Lawyers? Field hands?

    3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

    As above, none.

  • Mary says:

    Yes, I do feel I have an obligation. The state I live in provided me with a public university education (full scholarship), and the NIH gave me money to finance my life (such as it was) while I learned to do research as a grad student. I'm pretty sure my diplomas all said something about rights and responsibilities too--although sometimes in Latin so I may be wrong there.

    The specialized knowledge I gained should be used for the community good when the opportunities arise. Locally I do some public health volunteer work, for example.

    But there was another issue too, that was not local due to the nature of the connected world we are in today. I'll use a recent example of a situation where I think it my special skills mattered. I saw a hair-raising health claim being made about GMOs. This false claim was spreading among the already fearful, and was causing them to become even less informed on the issue. These claims were based on a fairly narrow type of analysis that not everyone--even other scientists--knows that well. But I could tell right away it was bogus. Because I'm one of a fairly small number of people who could tell how bogus it was, I felt it was my responsibility to make that known.

    So although it's not exactly what Robert described here: "If a medical researcher discovered that nobody would get cancer if only they drank kumquat juice ... they should probably tell." It was essentially the converse. People were being led to believe their children would die if they ate this particular GMO. Causing people to be afraid of this food could actually be harmful to public health.

    I have access to tools (and the knowledge to use them) and information (scientific literature) that a lot of other people don't. And I think stopping bad information that could impact public health is as big a deal as promoting good information.

    Much like the vaccination issue--if you could see the next Andrew Wakefield coming along, what should scientists do? And I would do what I could to stop that. Is it some kind of official duty? Perhaps not, but seems to me it is something that the community deserves from me as their tax dollars got me to this point.

    I don't think that the public has any special duties, but they do have a basic obligation to examine the facts and be honest about what they know and don't know about an issue. And if they find out the facts are not what they were led to believe, they need to stop propagating falsehoods. I would feel the same way about any issues where the topic is not my primary area of expertise--it's not right to remain uninformed while spreading misinformation.

    • I did mean things like your example as well. Just decided to go with a positive illustration.

      Whether providing good information or opposing bad information, the goal is the same -- improved public understanding, leading to improved decision making on public issues. At least that's our desire. Some research has been coming out that suggests that head on collision between your facts and someone else's desires can result in them being hardened in their factually erroneous position.

      Law has a couple of useful phrases / terms for remaining uninformed while spreading misinformation -- culpable ignorance (maybe you didn't lie in the sense of knowing what was true and saying something else, but you said something untrue and had a responsibility to know what was true) and 'reckless disregard for the truth'.

    • Robert Villa says:

      Yes, but are these "special obligations" unique to scientists, or are they merely general obligations for which you're simply giving examples from your personal position as a scientist? Wouldn't you owe the same obligations if your eduction was paid for if you field was education, communications, or law? Or, if you were in such an alternative field, wouldn't you owe the same obligation to set the record straight if you saw wildly inaccurate claims being made about some topic on which you had expertise?

      Personally, I see these as general obligations of every person, no matter what their field of endeavor. My fulfillment of those obligations may look slightly different in its details because I'm a scientist than it would if I was layer or an economist, but I see no situation where I have any particular "special" obligation unique to scientists that other members of society don't also have. Maybe my training as a scientist makes me more cognizant or conscientious about certain of my general obligations as a rational being than are people in some other fields, but I don't see that my obligation is any different or greater.

  • 1. Scientists as citizens may not have any special duties or obligations, but as part of a profession we do. We have a duty to our fellow citizens to be professional scientists, by which I mean we do *the best as we are able* to be impartial, non-biased, objective. And the duty is to make clear when we are communicating in our role as a professional versus as a citizen. This seems a lonely and old-fashioned notion, I think. "No such thing as objectivity," seems more trendy, but IMHO professionalism is a critical component of civil society.

    2. These obligations come from the society that allows us to practice science as a profession.

    3. Not sure it's a duty...but members of society need to consider whether they do want to support professional scientists or not. Seems clear to me that they should. Along with artists. These are bedrock elements of a civilization. Sadly, in these times, many appear to believe that there is no role for government (ie their) support for science and art. If people feel they have no duty to support science and art, our culture suffers.

  • Janne says:

    I have an M.Sc in computer science and a Ph.D in cognitive science (technically in theoretical philosophy); I'm currently working in the field of computational neuroscience.

    1. I have duties and obligations as a family member; a member of my society; and as an adult, responsible human being. I also have duties and obligations as an employee toward my employer and coworkers, discharging them to the best of my ability.

    I have no duties or obligations above and beyond that, however, and specifically no obligations stemming from my academic training beyond what is already covered by my employment and by just trying to be a decent person in general.

    2. I can't come up with any situation where my knowledge creates a duty that is not already covered by my duties as an employee and as a member of society above. And the same goes for any other profession, not just scientists.

    For instance, if a fire fighter realized that something would risk a lethal fire in the near future, he has a duty to warn people about it — but that is not because he's a firefighter, but because he's an adult, responsible human. Anybody who for whatever reason realized the same thing despite the lack of special training, would have the same moral obligation.

    3. None specific to me being a scientist specifically.

  • scicurious says:

    I'll admit I was already thinking heavily about this, but your tweet definitely spurred me on. :)

    1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    I think, possibly, yes. The duty to be truthful in and when speaking about our work and its implications, and a duty to forward the scientific enterprise (not necessarily as an active scientist, but as a teacher, writer, policy maker, nonprofit person, etc). While I think everyone has a duty to be truthful, only people with scientific training can forward the enterprise directly.

    2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?)

    IF yes to 1, I think it comes because I got my PhD, and did my postdoc, at the grace of the government, which means people's taxes. I feel like I owe society because of that. OTOH, we all benefit from society's taxes in some way or other, roads, schools, etc. But I feel like society went above and beyond in the case of scientific training, and it did so in order to get scientific advancement out of us.

    3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

    This one is the hardest, I think. I would say that because they have paid for my training, non-scientists have invested in me, and invested in me as a source of scientific knowledge and ability. It would thus be great if they trusted me a little more than the average Joe when I talked about my particular scientific specialty. But this is thorny, as it involves me fulfilling my duty to be truthful, etc, which not all scientists are (sigh). Perhaps, if any, they only have a duty to continue the public investment in science, to benefit the public good, with scientists (like me) as part of that good?

    Been a LONG time since my last ethics course...

  • lewis says:

    1. Yes. Agree with Dr Tomasson.

    2. I have a personal feeling of obligation to apply science to improve the world.

    3. Cultivate and try to understand science if you want a good world to live in.
    If not, keep kicking scientists around.

  • @HeyDrWilson says:

    No, I do not think scientist have any “special obligation.” However, we are stewards of public dollars that are obtained from a majority of non-scientist.

    With that said, I hope more scientist would engage the general public to help them understand what we are doing. Often times there are little or no connection to inform the public of what return the public is getting for their investment.

    I do not consider scientist to be above any other citizens. We decided to develop skills in our chosen fields, which is what any other professional has done. In order, to consider scientist to have a “special obligation” means that scientist are a special class of citizens.

    We should strive to give back to society/non-scientist in a way that extends beyond our science training. After all, many of us have had our training finance by non-scientist.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    If you answer yes, you are overthinking it. Scientists are not in any special ethical category compared to any other citizens. The professional web of obligations is not qualitatively different than for any other profession.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I do not feel I have any special responsibility because I am a scientist.

    I do have a responsibility due to the fact that I am employed by my fellow citizens (of my country anyway) to conduct health-related science for them. But that is a professional obligation no different than if a fellow citizen employed me to drive a cab from point A to point B.

    It is not impossible, it seems to me, that a sense of responsibility to my fellow citizens was a motivating factor in training for, and continuing in, this career as a professional scientist. It doesn't sound as though that is what you are asking, however.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Robert Grumbine, you raise an interesting point...and you may wish to take it to the extreme represented by the Scott Kern dustup. This was a cancer researcher who basically was lambasting cancer scientists for not working 7 days a week, 20 hrs a day (I may exaggerate him but only slightly) because cancer was still not cured.

    Being in possession of knowledge of a cure one can choose to trivially disclose is one thing. But what if one merely could gain that knowledge if one just applied oneself a little harder. Where does the obligation end?

    http://scientopia.org/blogs/whizbang/2010/10/05/more-thoughts-on-st-kern/

    • Speaking as a husband and father, the obligation ends about the time I should be cooking dinner (which I am tonight), coaching my kid's baseball team (been a long time since they were that young, but, still...), or other spousal or parental responsibilities. Then again, it's also been during such family times (plus weeding or running) that many of my better ideas come to me, so how much at the 'expense' of work time this is gets to be a question. (Family is used to my occasional blank stare as I get trapped in thought.)

      I do have a few spots in my career where I could point to "If I'd only been a little smarter, worked a little harder, been a slightly better advertiser, ... things could now be much better." I don't deal with cancer (and would like to keep it that way in personal life as well!) but there are some lives that might have been saved if I'd been more successful than I was. On the other hand, some lives have been saved already because I was more successful than might have been expected, and certainly in ways that my employer was not happy with me for doing. (At the time; they now brag about it.)

      My take, since scientists are also citizens and could well have families and communities they _do_ have an obligation (as does everybody) to be part of, is that if society wants 140 hours/week of science done, it should hire 3-4 scientists. St. Kern doesn't get to have all the fun.

  • Janne says:

    There's a major difference between "science" the job, and "science" the education. I think you need to be careful to distinguish the two.

  • Chemjobber says:

    I have a Ph.D. in chemistry and I work as an industrial chemist.

    As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    I'm not really sure, but I think that I feel that I'm obliged to communicate my science (chemistry) as best and as honestly as I can to the lay public.

    I also think that it is important that scientists face the fact that they (rarely, these days) may have to make public policy decisions for the lay public. (I'm thinking of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, who spent some time calculating the possibility of igniting the atmosphere w/the first atomic bomb.) So yes, if I discovered a reagent/compound that could DESTROY THE WORLD (or seriously harm the environment), I'd like to think that I would have to divulge that fact and act to stop the harm. So, that's a dramatic way of saying: I feel that chemistry should be (broadly speaking) used for the good of society.

    2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

    I confess that I see things from a financial/governmental perspective. If you're a graduate student in the United States, chances are that your education (and thusly, one's long-term career) is either directly or indirectly funded by the US or state government. It seems to me to be reasonable that there are duties or obligations (or at least obligatory feelings) from this.

    While it is true that, presumably, I pay taxes and I produce knowledge that will ultimately filter back to society and hopefully pay that back/fund the next generation of scientists, I don't think that one can actually manage to fully repay the ~couple hundred thousand dollars that were spent on oneself. Therefore, there are non-monetary ways (science communication, etc) to repay one's debt (if you can call it that.)

    3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

    I don't think they have any to me, and I would feel weird if they felt that they did. I think it might be nice for non-scientists to listen to scientists when they are speaking on public policy topics where they *actually* have expertise on that particular issue, but we don't live in that perfect world.

  • @isoundhunter says:

    I am a research scientist, and I agree with Chemjobber. Between the debt incurred during our specialized training and the accruing debt of using taxpayers funds in the pursuit of research, at the very minimum a scientist owes society a return for its investment. How we pay it back (or forwards) varies quite a bit - each according to their abilities, I suppose.

    I think the degree of obligation should also scale with the degree of authority and influence vested in a scientist. Strong scientific programs may be the privilege of advanced societies, but the resulting discoveries, theories, methods, and technologies become part of our human heritage. Recommendations made by a select few can affect science and technology policy at global scales, so these decisions should abide by the highest standards of scientific integrity. This responsibility can be interpreted as a social obligation, although it can also be seen as a personal and professional duty.

    On the other hand, if one is fully integrated into a society, the distinctions between personal, professional, and social obligations are rather blurry.

  • I'm a trained physicist (PhD level) and former college professor, now a full-time science writer.

    1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    "Duty" and "obligation" are slippery concepts to me, but I'd say yes: we do have some measure of responsibility because we know *stuff*. That can be discharged in a lot of ways, though: teaching, writing, research (with publication!), even informal debunking of urban myths. Not to go too Spider-Man about it, but we have knowledge: knowledge is power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

    2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

    I don't think scientists are special in this regard. We aren't isolated individuals making our way, but members of a society. I'm not a philosopher (political or otherwise), but I see it as a kind of social contract. We benefit from our education, so it's good to give back - and selfish to do otherwise. Of course, if you think selfishness is a virtue, you're gonna dismiss everything I say here anyway. ;)

    3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

    I don't see it as a duty to me per se, so much as we all have duty to each other. Each person who has special knowledge and skill has duty to others who lack those.

    And yes, I'm coming out as a hippie-dippy "we're all in this together!!!1!" type. I'll be back to being curmudgeonly on schedule.

  • Another PhD physicist here. These days I work at companies that do contract research and engineering for the government.

    A lot of what I've got to say are things that others have said, but hey, when has that ever shut up a physicist?

    1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    Yes, but with the caveat that they're not super-special sparkly obligations that only scientists have. They're similar to what other highly-trained folks have.

    I have the obligation to represent science in general and my specialty in specific as honestly and as best as I can. I have the obligation to use my powers for good, understanding that "good" is a slippery concept and very open to debate. My education was paid for in part by government dollars, and my current work is all federally-paid, so I have the obligation to do right by those dollars.

    Beyond that, no, I don't think I have special duties just because I'm a scientist. Lawyers shouldn't have to dispense free law advice to people at parties; doctors aren't required to diagnose people in the grocery store; I don't have an obligation to communicate the awesomeness of science or represent all scientists everywhere. I've chosen to spend a lot of my time communicating science, but that's a choice, not a duty or an obligation.

    2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

    For me, they come from having knowledge and experience that can help other people. It's true that other people paid for my education, and I owe a nebulous debt because of that, but that's not the true heart of why I am obligated to represent myself and science well to the best of my abilities.

    3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

    None. What we do have is a need to be charitable to each other and to be willing to work together for the common good. Civilization is a mirage that exists only because all of us will it to be true. But the bonds that make civilization work aren't limited to non-scientists and scientists. I'm not willing to box them in like that.

  • David Jentsch says:

    Q: Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don't have?

    Yes, I think we do have special obligations (though I am less convinced that all these obligations are totally unique to people carrying out scientific inquiry).

    We have an obligation to work in the common interest, while being mindful of the impact of what we do on others.
    We have an obligation to communicate our work to others (scientists and non scientists alike) because science is not an effort in self-gratification.
    We have an obligation to consider the ethical consequences of doing and not doing our work when making choices about what questions to explore, and we have an obligation to consider the impact of the success and failure of our research on others.

    Q: Why do scientists have these particular obligations when non-scientists in their society don't?

    As I said, I am not sure all non-scientists are free from these obligations, but I think it's easy to reason why we are subject to them.
    Most types of scientific research are invasive and can have a substantial impact on people around the world. If you study atomic physics, the implications are obvious. If you study birdflu pathogenesis: same.
    If you are neuroscientist, like I am, you are essentially trying to understand the brains and minds of others, and in doing so, you make possible tools that will manipulate their brains and minds (whether that manipulation is desirable - e.g., therapeutic) or undesirable.
    The fact that we uncover secrets that have such deep and potentially insidious impacts is, at least in part, a source of the obligation.
    The other has been mentioned above. Because our work is in the common interest and potentially useful to many people, society invests in our work. That is a source of the obligation to communicate, be honest and consider the ethical questions that arise while doing the work and once it is done.

    Q: How strong are those obligations?

    They are obligations in every meaning of the word.
    I don't think there is a circumstance in which it is OK to:
    1) Be dishonest about your work
    2) Fail to consider the ethical consequences of doing the work or completing it
    3) Withhold your work from others

    • drugmonkey says:

      wait, but isn't the point of considering the ethical consequences of doing or completing the work going to sometimes dictate withholding the work from other people?

      Is it not impossible that a result would perhaps be unanticipated and yet have dire implications? Dire implications that are realized after completion but prior to publication?

    • Zuska says:

      This I mostly agree with. I am more concerned with the obligations and duties inherent in the choices we make about what questions to ask (and not to ask), in how we cull the population of individuals potentially interested in the choice-making, in the impact our work has not just locally but globally - more concerned with this even that with how well we communicate science to non-scientists. Though I think that improving that communication may well have a favorable effect on these other interests.

      The results of science are indeed invasive. Law, too, is invasive, and so lawyers, politicians, and judges have obligations and duties inherent in the making and practice of the law. The obligations of scientists may not be UNIQUE in the sense that no other class of citizens has obligations that can be similarly described, but they are PARTICULAR to the ways in which science is practiced and to the "stuff" of science.

  • Nicole says:

    Yes, I do think that scientists who work with public funding have an obligation to share the results and knowledge of their research with the public. Of course, not every scientist IS necessarily well-equipped to do that communication directly, but can they can at least provide their results to professional communicators who CAN do that job.

    I don;t know is non-scientists necessarily have a duty back to scientists, but I would strongly encourage everyone to ASK QUESTIONS.

  • […] is asking Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have? As addressed to scientists and the same, for the […]

  • Brian Petersen says:

    I'm a computational neurobiologist and an engineer. Because people have different strengths and weaknesses and my morality is only derived from the golden rule [without the theistic connotation] I think we do have an obligation. That obligation is the same as any strong person has for someone less strong. Help where you can because you would want someone to do the same for you. Scientists have some powerful strengths, not only in knowledge but also in reasoning. We have an obligation to help others understand and to correct opinions that are based on faulty preconceptions.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Most of these answers in EHO miss the point. With learning comes responsibility.

  • drrubidium says:

    There seems to be a ‘duty of care’ sliding scale intimately linked to how much money, power, prestige, etc. is invested in a particular profession. In their “off hours”, we expect public safety and medical professionals to help in their professional capacity. We expect our teachers not to pull a ‘Breaking Bad’ and our politicians not to pull a ‘Scandal’. (We’ve often disappointed by that last one…)

    Where do scientists fall in this scheme? Somewhere below the professions mentioned above. How far below? Hard to say… It likely depends on what type of scientist you are, where you work, and the potential to shock/harm. To put it quite causally, I think we’re expected to use our powers (knowledge & experience) for good.

    I think the general public assumes we “know better”. If I use or recommend a dilution of some infusion of elderberry to “treat” a cold, somebody will think homeopathy is viable treatment option – and act on it. (Yes, I’m picking on homeopathy. Again.)

    I think that the general public also expects us to “act better”. I shouldn't use my forensic expertise inappropriately, shall we say… (see the case of Ann Chamberlain http://www.nbcnews.com/id/20379527/ns/us_news-weird_news/t/scientist-fired-testing-dna-spouses-fidelity/#.UipEncZjuM4). It doesn't matter if I’m “on the clock” - the public isn't going to care about clocks if it's revealed I aided and abetted a friend.

    For better or worse, I find myself expecting fellow scientists and medical professionals to know better and act better. This is likely why Dr. Oz irritates me to know end. :D

  • Isabel says:

    3. I think that if taxpayers want to have a voice in how much or specifically what kind of science is funded they have a responsibility to educate themselves on the topic and not be lazy and go with what the pundits are saying about some weird topic take out of context being a waste of money or whatever. Other than that, I don't think society has any special responsibilities toward scientists.

    2. Scientific knowledge is special knowledge, about the really important, non-negotiable stuff like how the natural world itself works and how our bodies work, so, not the same as plumbing or law imo.

    1. We can't just shrug our shoulders about extinction or climate change because people don't care or are wrongly educated. simply because we know and understand things that they don't we do have some responsibility to go the extra mile and find a way to convince them to care, or even a further responsibility to find another way to correct the course if we can. What if we felt, in desperation at some impending disaster that we needed to deceive the public in order to avoid global warming or mass extinction- would that be ethical?

  • JGB says:

    Did some post undergrad work, currently in education.
    Yes there are special responsibilities, though as others have suggested some of these responsibilities are shared by others in some capacity in government. These are universal in practice for scientists because in our training it is impossible to say that you have not benefited from government funding (hello grant overhead). Similarly one has responsibilities to fellow scientists because the process only works if people are reasonably open.
    I'll second the importance of considering the potential social implications of our work. This doesn't demand activism per se, but one can't just naively play the all knowledge is good so I can do whatever I want card.

    This goes to an earlier point, but as knowledge specialists we do get some additional ethical considerations these are balanced by the general responsibility of citizens in a democracy to stay well informed. People might not be doing particularly well at that part, but if democracy is to work the obligation exists and has since the founding of the country.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    "Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don't have?"

    I have yet to think of any.

  • gingerest says:

    Since my research directly concerns human health, I have lots of special obligations. Justice/equity, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and respect for autonomy in designing and executing my studies. Justice in sharing the fruits of my research - not just publishing the findings in a fashion the general public can access, but following up to ensure that my work is translated into clinical practice (which is hard to do, especially when one's research is just a tiny drop in a big research bucket) and doing so equitably or at least in a way that lets the participants who lent me their bodies have first crack at it.
    But I also think I owe the non-scientific population a bit because their taxes supported my education (indirectly and directly, at individual and institutional levels) and because their taxes also support the grants that make it possible for me to work. I'm obliged to train students, in part because I was trained. I'm obliged, by dint of all that education, to help people around me become more numerate and more literate about their and their family's healths, if they want.
    I don't think that the non-scientists owe me much of anything. Possibly the benefit of the doubt, when they're talking about Intellectual Elites and Ivory-Tower Dwellers - or maybe not, given the rather uniformly shameful history of the overeducated in dealing with educational have-nots.

  • […] took sitting down to a hard cider tasting to help me figure out some of the answers to Dr. Janet Stemwedel’s questions (reproduced below) from over a week ago. I’d been contemplating it for awhile, had written […]

  • […] much as I wanted to, I initially decided against answering Dr. Stemwedel’s questions about scientists’ obligations. She split the respondents into two groups – scientists and non-scientists – and I was […]

  • RHWoodman says:

    Sorry, I'm late to this party. :-) I have a B.S. in microbiology, Ph.D. in biochemistry, and work for a somewhat specialized company developing compounds used in pharma, medical diagnostics, nanotech, and other such fields.

    1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    Not really. As a human being, I have an obligation to my fellow human beings to be honest in my work and words, while remaining respectful of my fellow humans sensitivities and foibles. As a human being, I have an obligation to my fellow human beings to treat them as I would want to be treated (Golden Rule ideal). Those obligations don't change or become any more (or any less) important because I am a scientist.

    In becoming a scientist I learned and earned unique skills, abilities, and knowledge. I have the capability to do great good in and for the world. I have the capability to do great harm to the world. My ethics are grounded as described in the above paragraph. Because of those ethics, I believe that my duty is to do the best that I can do to improve the world, alleviate suffering, and help my fellow human beings in whatever way I can. I don't see how that changes because I have become a scientist.

    2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don't have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?

    As I said above, my duties and obligations to society don't arise from my being a scientist but from my being a human. My human obligations are encapsulated and grounded in the Golden Rule.

    I will say that I can accept funding from sources (NIH, NSF, DoD) and those funding sources can impose obligations on me such as "publish your results in a timely manner" or "never tell anyone what you did", and by accepting that funding, I accept those obligations, but again, that doesn't arise from being a scientist except incidentally, since it would be my scientific profession that provides access to that funding. I also point out that in that situation I may discover something that ought not to be published, or I may invent a weapon for the DoD that ought to be relegated to eternal secrecy. In that case I have to decide whether my obligation to my funding source is greater or lesser than my obligation to my fellow human beings. I've never been in that situation, and I hope I never am, but if I find myself there, I hope I have the courage to choose in favor of humans over money.

    3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you're sharing a world have to you?

    They have the same human, Golden-Rule obligations to me that I have to them. Nothing more. Nothing less.