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

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


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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.

Let’s start with ways scientists ought not to use their scientific powers. Since scientists have to share a world with everyone else, Shrader-Frechette argues that this puts some limits on the research they can do. She says that scientists shouldn’t do research that causes unjustified risks to people. Nor should they do research that violates informed consent of the human subjects who participate in the research. They should not do research that unjustly converts public resources to private profits. Nor should they do research that seriously jeopardizes environmental welfare. Finally, scientists should not do biased research.

One common theme in these prohibitions is the idea that knowledge in itself is not more important than the welfare of people. Given how focused scientific activity is on knowledge-building, this may be something about which scientists need to be reminded. For the people with whom scientists share a world, knowledge is valuable instrumentally – because people in society can benefit from it. What this means is that scientific knowledge-building that harms people more than it helps them, or that harms shared resources like the environment, is on balance a bad thing, not a good thing. This is not to say that the knowledge scientists are seeking should not be built at all. Rather, scientists need to find a way to build it without inflicting those harms – because it is their duty to avoid inflicting those harms.

Shrader-Frechette makes the observation that for research to be valuable at all to the broader public, it must be research that produces reliable knowledge. This is a big reason scientists should avoid conducting biased research. And, she notes that not doing certain research can also pose a risk to the public.

There’s another way scientists might use their powers against non-scientists that’s suggested by the Mertonian norm of disinterestedness, an “ought” scientists are supposed to feel pulling at them because of how they’ve been socialized as members of their scientific tribe. Because the scientific expert has knowledge and knowledge-building powers that the non-scientist does not, she could exploit the non-scientist’s ignorance or his tendency to trust the judgment of the expert. The scientist, in other words, could put one over on the layperson for her own benefit. This is how snake oil gets sold — and arguably, this is the kind of thing that scientists ought to refrain from doing in their interactions with non-scientists.

The overall duties of the scientist, as Shrader-Frechette describes them, also include positive duties to do research and to use research findings in ways that serve the public good, as well as to ensure that the knowledge and technologies created by the research do not harm anyone. We’ll take up these positive duties in the next post in the series.
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Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (1994). Ethics of scientific research. Rowman & Littlefield.
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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. Arbeiter 2:09 pm 11/28/2013

    robust patterns in global surface temperatures and the strength of their correlation with CO2 outputs from factories and farms” Only one correlative fact has inarguably (Left, Right, Libertarian; scholar, worker, social activist) exploded in the past 50 years

    http://populationaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/asset_upload_file515_10175.gif
    There’s your problem – and where it is going.

    Because the scientific expert has knowledge and knowledge-building powers that the non-scientist does not, she could exploit the non-scientist’s ignorance or his tendency to trust the judgment of the expert. ” We worship the lame, halt, dim-witted, and proven unable. Would that the “developing” world and professional politicians shared but a single throat that science could cut it. Fix the problem, mourn the dead, then get on with the job. Best efforts will not substitute for knowledge.

    Non tamen solam intendit interiorem, immo interior nulla est, nisi foris operetur varias carnis mortificationes.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tuned 8:15 pm 11/28/2013

    @Arbeiter:
    The graph (website link) you post is a copy of the U.N. graph I posted a (Wikipwedia) link to yesterday.
    It is scary, as I said. Your comment however comes from the dark side of a sociopath, probably an over-the-top Fossil Fuel lobbyist knee jerk reaction.
    As I said, the need is for education leading to greater personal responsibility at every level. Not your nasty drivel. I suspect you have imbibed too much holiday spirits.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tuned 8:19 pm 11/28/2013

    Now, in response to the article at hand:
    “This is not to say that the knowledge scientists are seeking should not be built at all. Rather, scientists need to find a way to build it without inflicting those harms – because it is their duty to avoid inflicting those harms.”

    Touche’.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:37 am 11/29/2013

    Folks, the comments here are for discussing the post. I’ll be unapproving comments that stray from that topic. There are plenty of other places on the internets you can discuss the other things you want to discuss that are not germane to the topic of this post.

    Link to this
  5. 5. tuned 11:50 am 11/29/2013

    @ Janet D. Stemwedel:
    I look forward to your removing such comments as that
    “Would that the “developing” world and professional politicians shared but a single throat that science could cut it. Fix the problem, mourn the dead,”.
    I merely pointed out the heinous nature of it, and would understand removing the thread.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:52 am 11/29/2013

    @ tuned,

    The follow-up (which I have “unapproved”) was even more off-topic. I try to allow some latitude for productive tangents, but there are limits.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rkipling 1:00 pm 11/29/2013

    Dr. Stemwedel,

    I hope you consider writing a text book for an ethics course in STEM fields of study. Such a course would could at least expose people to these concepts. Back when I matriculated in the Upper Pleistocene, such a course was not offered at my university.

    I suppose it could be optional for the mathematicians? Statistically, it’s difficult to see them causing that much mischief.

    Link to this
  8. 8. rkipling 1:01 pm 11/29/2013

    Not that mathematicians are above mischief making.

    Link to this
  9. 9. M Tucker 2:21 pm 11/29/2013

    “Because the scientific expert has knowledge and knowledge-building powers that the non-scientist does not…”

    I would say so do financial analysts, stock brokers, commodities traders, and loan officers. They created a fine mess didn’t they? Some of those in the business did not have the knowledge to judge what was happening.

    “…she could exploit the non-scientist’s ignorance or his tendency to trust the judgment of the expert. The scientist, in other words, could put one over on the layperson for her own benefit.”

    Yes, I see it happen all the time in other areas beyond science.

    It seems at some point you will need to consider the “special duties or obligations to society” other professions have as well.

    Link to this
  10. 10. tuned 2:31 pm 11/29/2013

    @ Janet D. Stemwedel:
    I must not have even seen that one.

    Link to this
  11. 11. RHWoodman 11:26 pm 11/29/2013

    @DocFreeRide,

    With the lone exception of your blog post on the “Mertonian norm of disinterestedness”, every one of links in your article returned a 404 error to me. I’m not sure if it’s me or not, but would you please check to see that your in-article links are viable?

    Link to this
  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:18 am 11/30/2013

    @RHWoodman,
    Thanks for the heads-up — it was a real issue (caused, I think, by unwanted autoformatting in the program I used to draft the post). It should work now.

    Link to this
  13. 13. RHWoodman 6:56 pm 11/30/2013

    @DocFreeRide,

    Yep, it works! Thanks very much!

    I greatly appreciate your writing & your tweets & retweets, btw.

    Link to this
  14. 14. RHWoodman 8:10 pm 11/30/2013

    As scientists, we have specialized knowledge, training, abilities, and tools to do great harm to the world or great good in and for the world. But in what way do we have unusual, special obligations to the world?

    I start from the Golden Rule (“As you would that people do unto you, do also unto them,” OR “What you would not want people to do to you, do not do to them”). I hold the Golden Rule as my standard of behavior in life. (I’ve never lived it perfectly, and I likely never will live it perfectly, but it is the standard to which I hold myself, for better or worse.) While I agree with Kristin Shrader-Frechette that there are certain positive and negative obligations that I have as a scientist, when framed in light of the Golden Rule, I don’t see how these obligations upon me are different in nature from the obligations that any one human being has to any other human being. Put another way, everyone who subscribes to Golden Rule ethics has the same positive and negative obligations to each and every human being; the only difference is one of context — one person is a scientist, another a philosopher, yet another a teacher, and still another a plumber, and in those various contexts the specific obligations differ, but as a general type, all of these obligations are the same, that is, the Golden Rule (whether stated positively or negatively).

    Link to this

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