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.


Shrader-Frechette, K. S. (1994). Ethics of scientific research. Rowman & Littlefield.


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)