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Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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

1. Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

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

3. What special duties or obligations (if any) do you think non-scientists have to the scientists with whom they’re sharing a world?

Who counts as a non-scientist here? I’m including anyone who has not received scientific training past the B.A. or B.S. level and who is not currently 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 scientist according to this definition, never fear! You are cordially invited to answer a corresponding set of questions, posed to the scientists with whom non-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 (

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dwescott1 5:26 pm 09/5/2013

    I’m not convinced that scientists have a “special” obligation to the rest of us as a function of their profession or education. I do think that we all have obligations to each other as a function of our citizenship. To the extent that specific scientific knowledge or insight can help communities (however large) solve problems, I think it’s helpful to contribute that but I don’t think of it as an obligation in the sense that they should be penalized for not contributing.

    In some ways, scientists (and that’s a really broad term) are not all that different than other fields with specialized education or skills. For example, bankers know more about finance than the rest of us, but I don’t know that they’re obligated to develop more “equitable” or sensible financial instruments or resist investing heavily in crappy mortgage backed securities and credit default swaps.

    People enter science for all kinds of reasons. I find nothing wrong with studying or working in, say, physics just because you want to learn or do more physics.

    I think your obligations begin when you want to engage in acts of citizenship or influence others with your work – and again, that’s not unique to science or scientists. And I think that’s where the ethical issues get interesting. Of course my career is in politics and PR, so I’m probably the last person you want talking about ethics. ;)

    I will say this – if you are a scientist and you want to invoke your position and share your expertise to help communities make decisions, you should probably do a few things, such as:

    - be transparent and honest in your dealings by disclosing your interests and your sources. (again, not unique to science.)

    - communicate your intent as well as your findings in the simplest terms possible. (also not unique to science.) To me this means, first and foremost, knowing your audience. (not many people do this well.)

    - understand that communities make decisions based on far more than just data. (also not unique to science.)

    - don’t act like the rest of us are idiots. (nope, not unique to science.)

    - finally, don’t disengage after the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth bad experience. Also don’t disengage after bad experiences ten through ten million. NEVER disengage and always advocate for the causes or issues you live.

    very curious and interested in what others have to say.

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  2. 2. Morales2k 5:30 pm 09/5/2013

    1. Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?
    -I believe so, and to themselves as well.
    For instance, I have always thought of scientists as the people who learn the specifics of something and develop it to the next level, investigate about a certain field or thing and expand our knowledge of it (or potentially skew it) for the rest of us non-scientists.

    I feel strongly that a lot of the advancements we enjoy, medically and technologically are due to the work of scientists. So either directly or indirectly scientists have fulfilled a role or duty in society which is to expand our knowledge of the world that surrounds us for the betterment of our conditions of living… for a more comfortable existence, if you will.

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

    -I think the sense of duty towards the rest of society could very well come from the fact that we are all humans, we are all taught to aim high, to make it big, to become achievers, to reach for greatness. In that search for greatness, many scientists have started work on certain fields that have allowed advancements in many areas, thus fulfilling this duty that again, whether directly or indirectly, have caused improved life expectancy, better conditions of living, better treatments for illnesses, better ways to avoid getting terrible conditions, etc.

    (Also a plethora of nasty stuff like nuke bombs, and most things weaponizable – but what the heck – that is also science i guess…)

    3. What special duties or obligations (if any) do you think non-scientists have to the scientists with whom they’re sharing a world?

    Support. I’d say that is one of the more undervalued things. When scientists are investigating or developing some work, it is very rare or difficult, sometimes improbable that they find sponsors or a source of funds to make their research/experiments a reality.

    As with a lot of science’s things, not all researches pay out big time… some have failures as it is proved that what was intended is not possible, or other difficulties surface that often take research out of scope or make it astronomically expensive… these hardships are why, if the subject of investigation is one of great merits, crowdfunding could be implemented to go in a global search of funds, thus, getting global support – and in the end, get that science work done.

    Science is awesome. Over the years we have seen a lot of stuff, and we are still looking at a lot of scientists that are discovering new things, and a bunch of other stuff being proven wrong, or partially right/wrong… so the fact that the scientists are needed is a reality… but also the non-scientific community needs to bond with the scientific community and understand what wants to be done, see the benefit in all of it, and offer support where we can. Because without scientists, there wouldn’t be an awesome smartphone. There wouldn’t be electric cars, or microwave ovens… We need them, and they need us. We should at least be more appreciative of the scientist community, and look into it even a little, to at least grasp the surface of the truth of things, because they investigated it… for the rest of us.

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  3. 3. curiouswavefunction 5:38 pm 09/5/2013

    Good questions Janet. A few possible answers:

    1. Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    Scientists, in my opinion, have at least two major obligations to society.

    First, scientists deal with the hard facts of nature. These facts – like nuclear fission and genetic engineering – have enormous consequences for all of humanity, and especially for its social, political and economic structures. Withholding or manipulating these facts would mean that scientists are undermining the very social, economic and political institutions that nurture and support them. Thus, making the plain facts of the world known to their fellow citizens in a responsible and honest manner is a responsibility no scientist can shirk from.

    The second obligation scientists should have is to explicate the nature of science to non-scientists, since science is a way of looking at the world that can confuse, blind and even disconcert uninformed observers; one simply has to consider the public’s opinions on topics like genetically modified organisms and the nature of the cosmos. While scientists should acknowledge differences of opinion, they should respect these differences without obfuscating them. Scientists should drive home the tentative, provisional nature of scientific discovery – beholden to no authority and always subject to change – without failing to emphasize the very real and certain nature of scientific truths like the structure of DNA or the expansion of the universe. Richard Feynman described science as “imagination in a straitjacket” and scientists should convey this superficially contradictory but essential nature of scientific inquiry to the public.

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

    Part of this question was answered above. As for where they came from, one answer would be that they came from the evolution of the human mind itself, a mind that allows us to instinctively probe, question, experiment and discover. From the point of view of the evolution of civilization, it came from the social contract that every scientist automatically signs with society the day he or she decides to explore nature and the cosmos. In doing this the scientist is inevitably treading on deeply held beliefs and probing the nature of mind, life and cosmos, entities that are the domain and concern of living creature.

    3. What special duties or obligations (if any) do you think non-scientists have to the scientists with whom they’re sharing a world?

    To scientists non-scientists have the obligation to be patient listeners, and to steel their hearts to the truth even if it might be contrary to their most cherished beliefs. And, if they really cannot reconcile their beliefs with the truths that scientists bring them, non-scientists have an obligation to emphasize the usefulness and importance of their beliefs while also making sure that they don’t impose these on other living creatures; non-scientists need to know how to agree to disagree so that they can still convivially co-exist with scientists.

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  4. 4. RSchmidt 6:22 pm 09/5/2013

    If a scientist is doing science, he/she is doing their special duty. But I think anyone who has expertise has a moral obligation to help those of us without. That is how society works. For example, we trust the medical community to use their special knowledge to help the rest of us. What would we think if the medical community withheld information that could improve community health? I think an equivalent question would be, if a citizen has special knowledge that could help someone, do they have a moral responsibility to pass on that knowledge? While I acknowledge there are some complexities, I think the answer is yes. What if a scientist refused to speak up when they knew a politician was making a mistake because of misinformation? I don’t think there is a requirement for scientists to be activists, though I am sure that some feel obligated to do so because they have a unique understanding of the urgency of their particular cause but I think it is morally reprehensible to remain silent when you know something is wrong. So again, the special obligation for scientists is the same obligation we all have, which is to use our knowledge for the betterment of humanity.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 6:57 pm 09/5/2013

    “Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have?”

    That’s the kind of question that really gets the little gray cells working! I think it will take some thinking on my part to do it justice but it seems to imply that scientists are more important than EVERYONE else in society. My first impression is no.

    Society suffers from the shortcomings and failings and deceptions of all sorts of non-scientific professions. I have a lot of respect for curiouswavefunction so I will borrow a bit from him. It can be demonstrated that many other professions have the capacity to undermine “the very social, economic and political institutions that nurture and support them.”

    And, “science [or law, economics, politics, civil engineering, etc] is a way of looking at the world that can confuse, blind and even disconcert uninformed observers.”

    We all have the obligation of honesty and openness and if we want to be a part of society we should be willing and enthusiastic in explaining our work so as not to confuse anyone. We have the obligation to do no harm to others. We all have the obligation to engage in a kind and understanding manner with our fellow man (woman) even if it inconveniences us.

    I will give this question much more thought to see if I can discover if scientist are a special profession, in the cornucopia of professions, subject to special obligations and duties.

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  6. 6. Broadside 7:12 pm 09/5/2013

    (1) In general, scientists have an obligation to speak truthfully and candidly on scientific subjects, without shading their explanation of the applicable facts and science in order to support their opinions. This obligation require scientists to offer up and fairly state facts and opinions that are contrary to their own views and preferred policies.

    (2) This obligation by scientists flows from the respect that scientists cultivate and mostly enjoy as self-declared truth-tellers on matters involving the special knowledge and expertise offered by science. In addition, scientists as a group enjoy vast funding from public funds and institutions in the expectation that they will adhere to this role as truth-tellers.

    (3) Assuming that scientists act in this manner, the public owes them a fair and respectful hearing and appropriate financial and institutional support.

    The rub of course is that on contentious subjects — most prominently, on global warming and other environmental issues — this understanding between scientists and the public often breaks down, with scientists claiming an unwarranted level of certainty and authority for their views and the public correctly becoming distrustful of scientists and their views.

    Moreover, the importance of theories and models in modern science, of politically controlled funding sources and patronage, and the Left tendencies of most academic scientists, distorts science and often delivers it to decision makers and the public at large as thinly cloaked advocacy. No one likes being hustled by insiders and experts and such conduct inevitably generates resistance.

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  7. 7. Agesilaus 7:16 pm 09/5/2013

    I was (retired now) a environmental analyst for most of my career. I think you’ll find that most scientific professional societies have a Code of Ethics. The American Chemical Society for example starts theirs this way:

    To the Public

    Chemical professionals have a responsibility to serve the public interest and safety and to further advance the knowledge of science. They should actively be concerned with the health and safety of co-workers, consumers and the community. Public comments on scientific matters should be made with care and accuracy, without unsubstantiated, exaggerated, or premature statements.
    To the Science of Chemistry

    Chemical professionals should seek to advance chemical science, understand the limitations of their knowledge, and respect the truth. They should ensure that their scientific contributions, and those of their collaborators, are thorough, accurate, and unbiased in design, implementation, and presentation….”

    And that goes on for a couple more pages. I don’t know if anyone ever gets called for failing to conform to these codes however. Some Environmental Analysts have gone to prison. But that field is tightly watched over by government regulators.


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  8. 8. rkipling 12:19 am 09/6/2013

    I’m disappointed to learn that a B.S. in engineering doesn’t count as a scientist. Now I will have to give back all my patents. Darn it! I hope my employees with PhDs don’t read this.

    So, I’ll continue as part of the great unwashed.

    Good luck attempting to educate most of us lower primates. Most of us already have opinions on such things as AGW, fracking, and nuclear power whether we know anything about them or not. We adhere to our opinions religiously. We lack either the interest or cognitive capacity (or both) to evaluate opposing arguments. Curiouswavefunction knows what I mean.

    You and curiouswavefunction are rational scientists. But there are those with advanced degrees who apparently do not understand issues around scale and practicality. In that respect they are no different than the English major, science writers who understand little of their subject anyway. This is evidenced when PhDs suggest such things as continent scale carbon farms and what amounts to an ion capacitors to generate electricity from stack gas CO2. Universities that set those folks on society have some splainin to do.

    So, I contend that your profession has some intramural reeducation to complete before you send many of your ranks out to instruct the rest of us.

    Your blog is almost always a good read.

    Non-scientist indeed!

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  9. 9. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:39 am 09/6/2013

    @ rkipling,

    I’m of the opinion that the boundaries between science and engineering are probably arbitrary enough (and porous enough) that engineering training and/or working in engineering counts as “scientist” here! I apologize for not having explicitly anticipated this border problem.

    (Although, it would be an interesting, if distinct, exercise to see if engineers understand their duties to society, and society’s duties to them, differently than scientists do…)

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  10. 10. rkipling 12:54 am 09/6/2013

    You couldn’t tell I was kidding? I really need to work on that. I thought the “lower primate” reference would be a strong clue. I’m not offended in the slightest. (Maybe if I use a happy-face?) For clarity, expect nothing from me (If you happen to remember my user name?) will be intended as negative or hostel.

    I have hope that educators such as you can make a difference. Thanks for all your good work.

    And thanks for the reply.

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  11. 11. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:57 am 09/6/2013

    @ rkipling:

    I got the kidding tone, but I thought you raised a reasonable point about the taxonomy!

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  12. 12. SteveCampsOut 3:10 am 09/6/2013

    I’m going to go with the non-Scientist Comic Book answer here. “With great Power comes great responsibility!” We know that Knowledge is Power so great knowledge is great power and it comes with great responsibility. See where I’m going with this? How could you miss it? It’s so simple and non-sciencey! I don’t think this simple truth is limited to Science and Superheroes either! I think it should be rule numero uno in the great book of ethics!

    Scientists should be responsible for what their knowledge creates in nature, physics and ecology and every other realm of science. Simple huh? You can thank Stan Lee for this rule!

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  13. 13. rgrumbine 9:29 am 09/6/2013

    I’ve encountered engineers who said almost exactly what you did, and were serious.

    Taxonomically, my rough rule is that science is about discovering more about how the universe works. Engineering is about doing something useful with that knowledge. Job titles and degrees aren’t intrinsic here, as it’s routine for people with one title to engage in the other activity. It’s the doing that matters. Patents are for useful things, so signs of good engineering. (note: I have degrees in both science and engineering. One grandfather was a chemist, the other was a mechanical engineer. But it’s the chemist who has the patent. I’m the last person to knock either activity.)

    Hope Janet doesn’t mind, but I’d like to sharpen the question a little bit. Several have mentioned that scientists should be honest about their science in talking to others. On one hand, well, don’t all people have an obligation to be honest?

    On the sharpened side: How far does the obligation to speak honestly in public go? Not as to honesty, but as to creating the public speech situation? That is, I think we’re all agreed that if a scientist is asked to testify to congress about their science, they should be honest, same as anybody should be honest. Ditto if they’re interviewed on TV or for print. And so on down the line. But, do scientists have an obligation to seek out those opportunities?

    Conversely, does society have any obligation to provide those opportunities?

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  14. 14. mrs.matthew.andrus 10:09 am 09/6/2013

    I have a BA in Biology, so I guess this is the personal opinion of a scientist.

    One of the best things I took from my education in the sciences was to attempt to be unbiased until I had solid evidence one way or the other. Part of being unbiased is allowing my knowledge gaps to show. It was instilled in me that it is not shameful to not have an answer to a question. It’s not embarrassing to ask questions, to be completely honest and transparent, and to fail.

    As a scientist, I cannot in good conscience accept anything at face value. I have to probe. I have to research. I have to look at every facet of an issue before I can come up with an opinion. Even then, my opinion can still change with new evidence. I cannot be static or unswerving, except in perseverance.

    While I would like to say that all of humanity has this same obligation, I know that is unrealistic. It takes a lot of effort to unlearn prejudice, to escape from the ways in which our own brains seem to seek comfort in easy explanations and common knowledge. To be a scientist is to constantly say:

    I know this.
    Why do I know this?
    What other explanations could there be for this?
    How can I test my knowledge of this?

    I wish society would encourage unbiased thinking in every individual, but it’s not meant to be. Absolute thinking keeps most people in line. Follow the rules. Don’t be an exception. Stay on the path. Obey the laws. Don’t experiment. Don’t think for yourself. In general, people seem happy to keep their biases and close their minds. A scientist cannot.

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  15. 15. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:19 am 09/6/2013

    @ mrs.matthew.andrus

    There’s a discussion happening at my other blog where scientists are weighing in on these issues. I would be grateful if you would share your thoughts there, too.

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  16. 16. rkipling 10:58 am 09/6/2013

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
    ― Aristotle

    Another appeal Doing Good Science has is the quality of commenter it draws. (Well, except for me of course. But they say that proves the rule.) I remain hopeful.

    “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

    Albert Einstein

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  17. 17. M Tucker 1:39 pm 09/6/2013

    I did quit a bit of thinking about your fundamental question, “Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have?”

    Since I do not consider myself a scientist, someone who does research in a science field, I will now move to the question for non-scientists: “Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?”

    After about 12 hours of consideration I still say no. In general scientists do not have any duties or obligations that are above the duties and obligations that other professions have to society. The only exception I could think of might be in the heath care profession. Beyond the obvious special duties and obligations they have, including risking their lives for the common good, I could not think of any other science professions that rise to that special requirement. I could think of other professions where that requirement is implicit but not in the sciences.

    I did struggle with this since I do have a bias toward the sciences. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that the sciences do have a special obligation to society. I wanted to be able to demonstrate that the sciences, because of their special obligation, ought to be considered the most important of professions. Then I began to consider that if society thought that the sciences were special wouldn’t that be reflected in the requirements that the society at large imposes on all of us? And where would that be evident? Why in our education system. It would be reflected in the requirements society imposes on all of us in our public education system right through to the completion of the secondary level. Well, as you all know, it is now possible to complete 12th grade and completely bypass a serious science course or be required to study beyond basic algebra. When I was in high school EVERYONE was required to take at least one of the basic sciences: chemistry, biology or physics and complete Algebra II. That requirement included geometry.

    Clearly society has reduced the requirement on its citizens so it seems that society does not value, or deem special the value, that one can gain by studying science. Those who do major in science at the university level are aware of this reduced standard for society at large. In the comments by scientists is seems that those who answer the question in the affirmative either site examples that could be applied to many other professions like law or business or history or economics. Others might mention that since they get tax payer funding they are obligated to explain and justify their work to society at large. That funding might simply be the fact that they work at a state university that receives state funding. I also noticed that a fair number of scientists responded in the negative. I suggest that “ethics in science” is no more important that “ethics in society” and both should be considered equally special.

    This was really a fun post Janet and I thank you for it.

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  18. 18. Neurobio 2:45 pm 09/6/2013

    I am a scientist and an engineer but I can’t help but weigh in as every scientist has once been a non-scientist. My definition of a scientist is perhaps a bit more rigorous than some others I have read from above. I put the line at solid post-bac training or equivalent experience with ready access to newly published material. You should also have succeeded in publishing a peer reviewed article or hold a patent or the equivalent. In other words, I didn’t consider myself a scientist after a BS in Neuroscience or after a degree in electrical engineering. I considered myself a scientist when I published my first paper and proved to other scientists that I could set up a set of experiments to prove something that no one else on the planet knew at the time.

    1. Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

    We should be able to explain what we are doing and how we reach our conclusions to anyone. We should also take an active role in combating positions that have been reached using faulty preconceptions.

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

    My morals are derived from scientifically posed questions about morality. My feeling of obligation is a simple derivation from the golden rule. I would not want someone to let me wallow in ignorance.

    3. What special duties or obligations (if any) do you think non-scientists have to the scientists with whom they’re sharing a world?
    Just have an open mind and take it upon yourselves to learn something about reasoning. Also understand that opinions are not created equal and that there are not 2 sides to every issue.

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  19. 19. vagnry 5:39 pm 09/6/2013

    I rather agree with the first post by dwescott1.

    Everyone, who has any special knowledge that is important, whether it be a stone mason seeing a house being built so haphazardly, that it might collapse, or a scientist, that sees some catastrophy looming, has an obligation to speak out.

    These “examples” are emergencies, like stopping a drunk from driving a car, but the obligation is not as heavy, if the new knowledge is expected only to have minor long term consequences.

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  20. 20. rkipling 6:23 pm 09/6/2013


    I believe I get your drift, your opinions are more equal than opinions of others. Unfortunately, that is a common affliction among the scientist and the non-scientist alike.

    We only need look at some of the peer reviewed articles referenced on this site to bring that qualification into question.

    Expertise in a narrow field of study does not necessarily imbue the holder with broader understanding in other areas.

    I do not say it applies to you, but a read of Dr. S’s other blog comments finds more than a slight air of arrogance among them. I recommend and respect academic achievement. However, generalizing that graduate level achievement makes you as smart as I am is just foolishness. :D

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  21. 21. M Tucker 7:13 pm 09/6/2013

    Society reacts to geologists being honest about the science:

    “Six Italian scientists and a government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over statements they made prior to a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 in the town of L’Aquila.”

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  22. 22. Neurobio 10:54 pm 09/6/2013


    I was speaking of opinions in general not mine in specific, unless of course you are referring to an area of expertise where I have had years of training and you have not. I wouldn’t presume that I was physically stronger than someone who spends hours a day in the gym. I have however, spent the last 16 years training my mind in abstract reasoning. Graduate level achievement is only one measurable quantity of intellectual self-improvement. I did include the caveat of “equivalent experience.” There is much a person can do on their own or in the workplace. Schooling does give you the opportunity to match your mental prowess against the smartest people around. Would a person be able to claim that they were the best baseball player in the world without ever having played in the MLB? Also, don’t mistake confidence for arrogance. I’m confident that I’m twice as smart as you. ;)

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  23. 23. rkipling 11:06 pm 09/6/2013

    M Tucker,

    I want to ask this carefully because I want to assure you that no criticism in implied. I’ve seen your name on comment over on the climate change topics. And my questions relates to this topic as well. I don’t specifically recall what positions you hold.

    You say you are a non-scientist. As a non-scientist, what guides or informs your views on scientific subjects?

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  24. 24. rkipling 11:19 pm 09/6/2013


    I’m always interested in the opinions of people smarter than I am. If you have the time, I would ask you to utilize your reasoning ability to critique an article on reducing CO2 through carbon farming.

    I was actually using a non-specific “you” in my comment. It wasn’t intended as a personal challenge, but I can see now that I wasn’t clear.

    Anyway, here is a link to the article. I’m very interested in how feasible you think their proposal may be.

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  25. 25. TerryM 11:39 am 09/7/2013

    As a Mensa member I’ve thought of these problems from the perspective of the congeitally bright. Do people that have the ability to see what others miss have an obligation to point out their mistakes.
    The answer I fear is that we don’t, no more than the obligation that everyone has to warn a driver that the bridge ahead is out. Any practitioner of any discipline that wishes that discipline to be held in esteem will of course feel an obligation to uphold high standards, but the scientist’s obligation is no more onerous than a gardener’s a grocer’s or a governor’s.
    Holding a particular group to higher ethical standards based on education, intelligence or occupation isn’t reasonable.

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  26. 26. Qiloff 11:42 am 09/7/2013

    I think this is at the heart of everything that has malfunctioned in our biosphere/planet Earth. Science and technology has overwhelmed our untrained minds. To make sense of technology, the individual has to draw on opinions and other biases to explain to themselves the workings of technology. The modern world has created an environment which is not well understood by any of us.

    We find comfort with the birds we flock with to rationalize our presumptions, this will also lead to the Lemmings effect.

    rkipling’s quote from Aristotle is true today as it was in his time.

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  27. 27. rkipling 2:31 pm 09/7/2013


    Well, your writing analyzes to be at a 9th grade level. I was expecting at least high school graduate from a Mensa member.

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  28. 28. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 2:34 pm 09/7/2013

    Hey kids,

    I’d appreciate if we could have a conversation focused neither on waving our credentials around nor on critiquing each other’s grammar.

    A better focus would be the questions I asked in the post, and issues flowing from those that bear on the general issue of how scientists and non-scientists can share a world.


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  29. 29. rkipling 6:33 pm 09/7/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    Since you are a stickler for words meaning things, I believe the word you were looking for was “syntax” not grammar, but that’s a small point.

    Getting back to your topic, here are some thoughts.

    A comprehensive study of literacy by the US Dept. of Education released in 2002 & 2003 with a follow-up study released in 2006, found 15% of the population functioned at a university undergraduate entry level. Meaningful discussion of scientific issues requires some minimal scientific literacy. So, it seems likely that pool of adults literate in science is smaller than the 15%.

    I argue the issue is beyond how the scientist and non-scientist live in the same world. The first issue is how the science literate interact to make it a better place. If greater understanding is the goal, a couple of approaches come to mind. If you have knowledge to share, first identify those capable of comprehension. Then have sharing information be the goal rather than proving your superior expertise. It could be argued that segregation of fora, by academic achievement, for discussion of improved communication methods is logically counterproductive.

    As far as communication to the scientifically illiterate, for the most part I differ to your experience. I can, however, offer an example from this site as one area for improvement. Without referencing specific topics, there have been numerous articles offered that mislead the scientifically illiterate. Most of these articles claim to be peer reviewed. I have no reason to dispute those claims. But when a cursory examination of the research behind an article shows the headline isn’t supported by the referenced research, the general public is misled. There are other cases where the research itself doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

    So, I would recommend a review of the peer review process itself. Peer reviewed papers should pass the giggle test. I’m not saying most published research is wanting, but in my opinion too much nonsense gets through.

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  30. 30. rkipling 11:59 am 09/8/2013

    Obligations can be boiled down to the following:

    • Scientists should be obligated to objectively seek the truth and objectively speak the truth.

    • Non-scientists should be obligated to learn science, according to their ability, to understand the world around them.

    Why? Greater knowledge has the potential to benefit human beings.

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  31. 31. rshoff2 8:15 pm 01/27/2014

    Wow, I never though I’d see this type of self-reflection from the drivers in society. And I appreciate it! So, your question is what do you owe?

    Interesting, as the scientist you are, you have very focused and specific questions. They miss the mark. Unfortunately, pay-back isn’t that cut and dried. It’s a grey area. It’s not science, it’s based on human relationships and morality.

    Do you owe it? Absolutely! Can we demand it? Absolutely not! Are you a moral person? Payback is up to you.

    Furthermore, you must decide how that ‘payback’ manifests itself. It’s up to you to make good on the society that has nurtured you. And I’m not just talking about financial support. I’m talking about appreciating and contributing to an infrastructure that assured you weren’t spending your life trying to figure out a better way to keep the fire going or how to keep the wolfs outside the cave entrance. How was your school built? How were the roads paved? Did you study by candle light? You had running water, I assume? Heat for comfort and cooking? Clothes?

    Finally, YOU are not alone. Scientists are not alone. All educated people, in fact all of us, have a responsibility to pay back society. Society (and our physical infrastructure) was built on the backs of millions of ‘nobodies’. So, yes, being somebody comes with a burden.

    And my last observation is that science must be for the betterment of humanity. There is no other purpose in studying it. We are insignificant to the universe, our knowledge can only benefit our species and mitigate the negative impact we have on the world and creatures around us.

    Anything else is spending billions of our dollars to play science games and/or line your pockets.

    My compliments to you for asking these questions.

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  32. 32. rshoff2 8:16 pm 01/27/2014

    OK, it’s not such a fresh post, but my sentiments are as valid today as they were yesterday, or even six months ago.

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  33. 33. rshoff2 8:23 pm 01/27/2014

    To your #3 = We have responsibility to appropriately fund education and research. We have the obligation to learn how science benefits us and how we use it. We have the task of managing how our money is spent (do we really need to know how many croaks a wart frog makes in an hour, and if so, at what cost?) We also have the obligation to hold the private sector accountable. Why should we pay for research and then empty our pockets when it comes time to fill a prescription?

    Anyway. Enough said.

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