Friday, November 29, 2013

Scientists Do Have Special Obligations To Society

Scientific Philosophy

An article, in Scientific American, by Janet D. Stemwedel, an associate professor of philosophy at San José State University in California, raises the valid question of whether scientists have a particular responsibility to society, that is ought scientists and their work be limited to what is essentially considered socially good or responsible. Perhaps it can be called scientific social responsibility.

Stemwedel writes:
In this post, we’re returning to a discussion we started back in September about whether scientists have special duties or obligations to society (or, if the notion of “society” seems too fuzzy and ill-defined to you, to the other people who are not scientists with whom they share a world) in virtue of being scientists.
You may recall that, in the post where we set out some groundwork for the discussion, I offered one reason you might think that scientists have duties that are importantly different from the duties of non-scientists:
The main arguments for scientists having special duties tend to turn on scientists being in possession of special powers. This is the scientist as Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility.
What kind of special powers are we talking about? The power to build reliable knowledge about the world – and in particular, about phenomena and mechanisms in the world that are not so transparent to our everyday powers of observation and the everyday tools non-scientists have at their disposal for probing features of their world. On account of their training and experience, scientists are more likely to be able to set up experiments or conditions for observation that will help them figure out the cause of an outbreak of illness, or the robust patterns in global surface temperatures and the strength of their correlation with CO2 outputs from factories and farms, or whether a particular plan for energy generation is thermodynamically plausible. In addition, working scientists are more likely to have access to chemical reagents and modern lab equipment, to beamtimes at particle accelerators, to purpose-bred experimental animals, to populations of human subjects and institutional review boards for well-regulated clinical trials.
Scientists can build specialist knowledge that the rest of us (including scientists in other fields) cannot, and many of them have access to materials, tools, and social arrangements for use in their knowledge-building that the rest of us do not. That may fall short of a superpower, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this doesn’t represent significant power in our world.
In her book Ethics of Scientific Research, Kristin Shrader-Frechette argues that these special abilities give rise to obligations for scientists. We can separate these into positive duties and negative duties. A positive duty is an obligation to actually do something (e.g., a duty to care for the hungry, a duty to tell the truth), while a negative duty is an obligation to refrain from doing something (e.g., a duty not to lie, a duty not to steal, a duty not to kill). There may well be context sensitivity in some of these duties (e.g, if it’s a matter of self-defense, your duty not to kill may be weakened), but you get the basic difference between the two flavors of duties.
It's a good time to be a scientist; it's a time when many don't understand what scientists really do, and yet many people look to Science to solve all of humanity's problems. Perhaps that explains why some hold the view that science ought not to be bound at all, that scientists ought to have unfettered freedom, taking them wherever their interests lie; this of course is nonsense, if you consider what this is suggesting or implying. One of the reasons this question is raised now is that we today live in a different moral universe than, say, 50 or 100 years ago.

Our world has changed, but not that scientists then did not care about money; they likely did, but there was little to be gained by such pursuits. What was more important was trying to find the Truth of the universe and from that gain fame, a pursuit of something noble that would be long remembered by humanity. A sense of immortality. This seems less important today in an age that has, to a large degree, become utilitarian and devoid of beauty and mystery. Money alone drives much of what today is called scientific research. So does lack of clarity, as if opaqueness equates to depth of knowledge.

Even so, in spite of this or because of this, much of science today has become an echo chamber, despite protests to the contrary, and has become about serving the needs of self-interest or narrow interests, whatever these might be. Much of science also speaks to itself, to a narrow field of specialists, not even accessible by other scientists and intelligent laymen, Science is an important undertaking, no doubt, but like all professions its work ought to fit in within the framework of general society and its interests.

There are scientists whose arrogance of material knowledge is similar to that of religious leaders in their arrogance of special spiritual knowledge. The former says that the knowledge comes directly from a deity; the latter from personally unraveling the secrets of the universe. The similarities are striking, but it also leads to another important question on the place of knowledge, or to know, within the framework of what is and how so. This reminds me of what Albert Einstein said, in 1931, in Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

To its credit, science, notably the medical sciences in recent years, has shown itself capable of providing many important answers, and thus improve the lives of individuals. But to say or assert that it, and Science in general, are the only important fields of human endeavor is surely missing the mark. Without other fields like art, languages, literature, history, music, philosophy, political theory and religious studies, to name only a scant few that enrich our lives, science would not be as interesting or as important as it is today. Science stands on the shoulders of others, to quote a well-known scientific maxim. This is something to think about.

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You can read the rest of the article at [SciAmer].

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