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What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

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

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Near the beginning of the month, I asked my readers — those who are scientists and those who are non-scientists alike — to share their impressions about whether scientists have any special duties or obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have. I also asked whether non-scientists have any special duties or obligations to scientists.

If you click through to those linked posts and read the comments (and check out the thoughtful responses at MetaCookBook and Antijenic Drift), you’ll see a wide range of opinions on both of these questions, each with persuasive reasons offered to back them up.

In this post and a few more that will follow (I’m estimating three more, but we’ll see how it goes), I want to take a closer look at some of these responses. I’m also going to develop some of the standard arguments that have been put forward by professional philosophers and others of that ilk that scientists do, in fact, have special duties. Working through these arguments will include getting into specifics about what precisely scientists owe the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world, and about the sources of these putative obligations. If we’re going to take these arguments seriously, though, I think we need to think carefully about the corresponding questions: what do individual non-scientists and society as a whole owe to scientists, and what are the sources of these obligations?

First, let’s lay some groundwork for the discussion.

Right off the bat, I must acknowledge the problem of drawing clear lines around who counts as a scientist and who counts as a non-scientist. For the purposes of getting answers to my questions, I used a fairly arbitrary definition:

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).

There are plenty of people who would count as “scientist” under this definition who would not describe themselves as scientists — or at least as professional scientists. (I am one of those people.) On the other hand, there are some professional scientists who would say lots of the people who meet my criteria, even those who would describe themselves as professional scientists, don’t really count as members of the tribe of science.

There’s not one obvious way to draw the lines here. The world is frequently messy that way.

That said, at least some of the arguments that claim scientists have special duties make particular assumptions about scientific training. These assumptions point to a source of the putative special duties.

But maybe that just means we should be examining claims about people-whose-training-puts-them-into-a-particular-relationship-with-society having special duties, whether or not those people are all scientists, and whether or not all scientists have had training that falls into that category.

Another issue here is getting to the bottom of what it means to have an obligation.

Some obligations we have may be spelled out in writing, explicitly agreed to, with the force of law behind them, but many of our obligations are not. Many flow not from written contracts but from relationships — whether our relationships with individuals, or with professional communities, or with other sorts of communities of various sizes.

Because they flow from relationships, it’s not unreasonable to expect that when we have obligations, the persons, communities, or other entities to whom we have obligations will have some corresponding obligations to us. However, this doesn’t guarantee that the obligations on each side will be perfectly symmetrical in strength or in kind. When my kids were little, my obligations to them were significantly larger than their obligations to me. Further, as our relationships change, so will our obligations. I owe my kids different things now than I did when they were toddlers. I owe my parents different things now than I did when I was a minor living under their roof.

It’s also important to notice that obligations are not like physical laws: having an obligation is no guarantee that one will live up to it and accordingly display a certain kind of behavior. Among other things, this means that how people act is not a perfectly reliable guide to how they ought to act. It also means that someone else’s failure to live up to her obligations to me does not automatically switch off my obligations to her. In some cases it might, but there are other cases where the nature of the relationship means my obligations are still in force. (For example, if my teenage kid falls down on her obligation to treat me with minimal respect, I still have a duty to feed and shelter her.)

That obligations are not like physical laws means there’s likely to be more disagreement around what we’re actually obliged to do. Indeed, some are likely to reject putative obligations out of hand because they are socially constructed. Here, I don’t think we need to appeal to a moral realist to locate objective moral facts that could ground our obligations. I’m happy to bite the bullet. Socially constructed obligations aren’t a problem because they emerge from the social processes that are an inescapable part of sharing a world — including with people who are not exactly like ourselves. These obligations flow from our understandings of the relationships we bear to one another, and they are no less “real” for being socially constructed than are bridges.

One more bit of background to ponder: The questions I posed asked whether scientists and non-scientists have any special duties or obligations to each other. A number of respondents (mostly on the scientist side of the line, as I defined it) suggested that scientists’ duties are not special, but simply duties of the same sort everyone in society has (with perhaps some differences in the fine details).

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. But whether the scientist has special powers may be the kind of thing that looks very different on opposite sides of the scientist-non-scientist divide; the scientists responding to my questions don’t seem to see themselves as very different from other members of society. Moreover, nearly every superhero canon provides ample evidence that power, and the responsibility that accompanies it, can feel like a burden. (One need look no further than seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to wonder if taking a break from her duty to slay vamps would have made Buffy a more pleasant person with whom to share a world.)

Arguably, scientists can do some things the rest of us can’t. How does that affect the relationship between scientists and non-scientists? What kind of duties could flow from that relationship? These powers, and the corresponding responsibilities, will be the focus of the next post.

Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

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. M Tucker 6:51 pm 09/30/2013

    Janet, after the post on SA and the others where you received feedback from both scientists and non-scientists I was hoping you might shed at least a little light on what YOU might be thinking about with regard to “special duties or obligations” that scientists owe to the rest of the population. Mentioning Spiderman and Buff leaves me a little worried considering the actual headlines one can find involving actual scientists and their impact on the non-scientific community.

    Here are just a few I have noticed from recent months involving doctors. I consider doctors scientists especially when they are involved in clinical trials.

    “VA’s opiate overload feeds veterans’ addictions, overdose deaths” (from the Center for Investigative Reporting 9/28/13)

    “How Drug Company Money Is Undermining Science” (SA Dec 2012)
    “Many researchers maintain close financial ties to the drug companies that stand to gain from the results of their research.
    Yet as the case study in this article shows, neither scientific institutions nor the scientists themselves have shown a willingness to police conflicts of interest in research.”

    “Trial sans Error: How Pharma-Funded Research Cherry-Picks Positive Results” (Excerpt from Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre. Pub Faber and Faber, Inc 2013)
    “Clinical trial data on new drugs is systematically withheld from doctors and patients, bringing into question many of the premises of the pharmaceutical industry—and the medicine we use”

    I am looking forward to your next post. Powers and responsibilities on both sides of the science divide seem to be a good topic but I am hoping that we will be able to discuss specifics from the non-fiction world.

    In the above examples, where is the patient suppose to get the information he/she needs to evaluate the medicine the science professional is prescribing? What is the usual attitude of the science professional when the patient questions his/her diagnosis and prescribed course of medication?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 7:49 pm 09/30/2013

    @ M Tucker, the examples you point to suggest just some of the (super-)powers we might plausibly attribute to scientists. (They also suggest the presence of some (super-)villains in the landscape.) Having the ability to build reliable knowledge, or to make sense of knowledge others have built, really is powerful, and it’s something not every member of society who needs that knowledge can do!

    I’ll have much more to say in the coming posts, but it strikes me that a salient difference here is the number of people with super-powers tasked with the attendant obligations. Buffy’s problem was that she was (essentially) the only one. Comic book heroes have it a little better, but there’s still usually about one per metropolis. Scientists are surely more plentiful than that, which one hopes means that the obligations they bear are more manageable.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:03 am 10/1/2013

    It is traditional view of scientists, that they don’t get much money, but have respect in society and have a duty to pursue truth and spread education.

    But unfortunately, this was changed in recent years and scientists are now viewed as technicians who produce results for (poor) money.

    I miss the old status, and I think that a society where a role of science and scientists is diminished will quickly stop progressing and fall. A society which treats science as nothing but a money-maker will quickly see the best and brightest leaving. Then will be crises and accidents, because society tolerated crook-scientists producing pseudo-evidence to somebody’s wishes.

    Link to this
  4. 4. M Tucker 12:20 pm 10/1/2013

    I focused on doctors because THEY DO TAKE A SPECIAL OATH. An oath that has no real impact on the service they provide but their profession still likes to brag about it. I’m sure I could find more examples of doctors violating the trust their patients have for them. I also focused on doctors because that is where the average non-scientist is most likely to encounter an intimate and critical need to trust science. When your life is on the line, when the doctor says it will all be OK as long as you keep taking these opiates, opiates you might be addicted to, but never mind that, just keep taking them. When the patient turns up dead from an overdose that doctor is NEVER held accountable. The message for the non-scientist is we are on our own. Our decision to trust the scientist and his course of treatment is all on our shoulders and that scientist does not seem to demonstrate even the slightest acceptance of a “special obligation;” in spite of that special oath he/she takes.

    As a long time comic book reader I can tell you that at least the Marvel world is lousy with superheroes. All in one city. Whole families of superheroes. Sometimes they can’t find enough villains to fight so they fight each other. Destruction of city and private property is the natural side effect of their lifestyle. Inquiry and death of the innocent is collateral damage they never are held to account for. At least the law enforcement departments whose cops shot up innocent citizens during the Christopher Dornier manhunt are being held to account for their actions.

    And, again, I will express my preference to stick with non-fiction. I do not see special education and training as a “super power.” If so then many more than scientists might be considered “super.”

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  5. 5. rkipling 7:09 pm 10/1/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    It will be interesting to see what obligations are on the list. Equally interesting would be methods to fulfill those obligations. Perhaps you are developing something for scientists analogous to the Hippocratic Oath?

    I’m curious to learn if these obligations extend to areas beyond the individual scientist’s field of study.

    Link to this

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