Welcome to my shiny new blog at Scientific American! Here, we’ll be talking about what’s involved in doing good science — and about what ethics has to do with it.
Doing good science includes:
Building a reliable body of knowledge about the world and how it works.
The world is full of phenomena, and the basic hunch that gets science off the ground is that we humans can make sense of those phenomena. But accurately describing the bits of our world and untangling how they work is hard. It’s a project that requires care and attention to details. It requires being objective. It requires being honest.
Doing good science is not just a matter of not deceiving others. It also involves guarding against self-deception.
Building a well-functioning scientific community.
Scientific knowledge building is not a solo operation but a team effort. It’s not just that we need help in figuring out the many phenomena in our world (although given just how much is going on in the world, splitting up the terrain helps). Rather, building more objective knowledge requires that we have something like a community of knowers.
Honesty is a crucial piece of what a scientific community needs to do its knowledge building together, but so is fairness. When the moving parts in your knowledge-building machine are people, things get interesting.
Training new scientists.
Scientists all come from somewhere, and the training of new scientists happens in most of the places that scientific research is done. This means that the knowledge is built as the knowledge-builders are built.
Doing good science includes helping scientific trainees learn how to build reliable knowledge, and helping them support well-functioning scientific communities. Doing good science also includes treating scientists-in-training ethically.
Interacting with the larger society.
Even if all scientists lived and worked full-time on Science Island, isolated from non-scientists, they would still need ethics to get the scientific job done. But in the real world, scientists walk among us.
There are transfers of resources (including but not limited to money) from larger societies to scientific communities to support knowledge building and the training of new scientists. In turn, those scientific communities share the knowledge they have built, and deploy some of those scientists to tackle the problems the public wants or needs solved.
Sometimes it seems like scientific communities and the larger societies in which they are embedded aren’t always listening to each other. Doing good science in a world bigger than Science Island requires figuring out how to take each other’s interests, values, and questions seriously.
And, although you might quibble about whether it’s part of doing good science, being a good scientist surely involves sharing a world. Fulfilling your duties as a scientist does not excuse you from your duties as a member of the human community.
Doing good science isn’t always easy. It requires paying attention, being creative, putting your shoulder into the task, and often some amount of luck.
Then again, so does being a good human being.
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About your blogger:
My name is Janet D. Stemwedel, and I’m an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Jos? State University (in San Jos?, California). My teaching and research are focused on the philosophy of science, the responsible conduct of research, and the ways epistemology (knowledge building) and ethics are intertwined.
I didn’t always know I was going to be an academic philosopher. For a while, I thought I was going to be a chemist when I grew up, and even earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. However, I found that the questions that really kept me up at night were philosophical questions about science, rather than scientific questions. So, I went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with a focus on history and philosophy of science. Among other things, this means I have great sympathy for those who feel like they have been in school forever.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my better half, two offspring (currently in the 10-12 age bracket), and an adopted New Zealand White rabbit, all of whom (except maybe the rabbit) have an interest in how science works and fits into our world.
You can contact me by email (dr dot freeride at gmail dot com) or find me on Twitter (@docfreeride).
Haven’t I seen you before?
I have another blog that I’ve been writing for going on seven years now (yikes!) called Adventures in Ethics and Science. Indeed, if you want a sense of some of what we’ll be talking about here, you might be interested in some of my archived posts there:
- Basic concepts: the norms of science.
- The Hellinga Retractions (part 1): when replication fails, what should happen next?
- The Hellinga retractions (part 2): trust, accountability, collaborations, and training relationships.
- Tempering justice with mercy: the question of youthful offenders in the tribe of science.
- Clinical trials — or not — of chelation therapy.
- Profiles in mentoring: Dr. James E. LuValle.
And, if conversations with kids about science are your cup of tea, you might be interested in my Friday Sprog Blogging.
Who made your banner?
P.D. Magnus, a fellow philosopher of science who also happens to have mad design skillz, created the Doing Good Science banner.