Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Questions for the non-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 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 (

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

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