The Obligations Surrounding “Scientist.”

It took sitting down to a hard cider tasting to help me figure out some of the answers to Dr. Janet Stemwedel’s questions (reproduced below) from over a week ago. I’d been contemplating it for awhile, had written some serious notes on the subject, but I hadn’t gotten it figured out completely. As I finished my night of cider and camaraderie, I had a much clearer picture.

For me, from the beginning, it all came down to communication. I suspect part of this is that I love to talk. I am not only a complete chatterbox most of the time in person, I keep a blog and many of the posts are… not short. On top of that, I love listening and reading. Stories are fascinating, whether I’m telling them or hearing them.

But it was more than that too. My very gut reaction, as I mention in this comment is that it had something to do with not being a condescending asshole to people. This isn’t because scientists are terribly prone to being condescending assholes, but because 1) it can be really easy to come across that way when you have specialized knowledge, 2) it’s actually also easier to be one when you know (or think you do) more on a topic than someone else, and in the name of full disclosure 3) I’d recently been treated like a complete idiot by a couple of biologists who assumed they knew more on a topic, generally speaking, than I did.

Note, though, that as I pondered the question, I came to the conclusion that, in many ways, other highly specialized people (such as lawyers) may have similar obligations. So, I have to say I don’t know if this is just obligations that scientists have, or one for a variety of people in various professions. As such it may not be the answer Dr. Stemwedel is looking for. I can’t say anything more than it was a really worthwhile thing to consider.

1. As a scientist, do you have any special duties or obligations to the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

A vital part of the process of science is communicating what you’ve found and how you’ve found it to the greater community for scrutiny, assessment and so on. The short-hand I always heard for getting a Ph.D. was meaningfully contributing to the body of greater knowledge in a field. Conducting an experiment, for example, but reporting the results to no one does not actually contribute to scientific advancement.

I think, though, that communicating about science and being a scientist to non-scientists is (or should be) another obligation.

I want to be clear, though, that I do NOT mean in the form of a blog, a weekly newspaper column, twitter, things like that. As much as I truly, deeply enjoy reading these sorts of formal or semi-formal things, not every scientist has time and/or inclination to do such things.

What I do mean, though, is things like party talk. Or, in my case, cider-tasting-talk. In the event that it becomes relevant, share what you know. Be willing to say you’re a scientist of whatever persuasion. Be openly a scientist, scientific in your thinking and willing to share maybe five minutes of knowledge. I can’t tell you how many people were (and still are!) fascinated to have a five minute conversation with me about my research for my masters’ degree1. I believe it gave them some greater appreciation for what can happen in a biology lab, that a scientist can be a bit nerdy, but may be hidden if it doesn’t come up, and that we’re fairly normal people.

However, with that communication comes the obligation to be clear on what authority derived from knowledge you do have or do not have. Just because I have an advanced degree in biology doesn’t mean I’m “a scientist” and can speak meaningfully to astrophysics. The phrase “scientists say” carries a lot of weight, and it is flat-out wrong to use that to your advantage, especially if it’s to advance an agenda you may have in a realm outside your knowledge. It’s also important to be clear about what you do or don’t know simply to avoid spreading misinformation around.

2. If you have special duties or obligations, as a scientist, to the rest of society, why do you have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t have special duties or obligations as a scientist, why not?)

Given it’s all about communication, I think the obligation comes partially from the fact that science is an inherently communicative process. The other source of the obligation comes from the same place that society gets the idea that football players need to be better behaved than just any random guy on the street since they are “role models”. Society gives the words of a scientist a lot of weight, though maybe not as much as those of a football player (or so it can feel sometimes). In the case of the football player, it’s due to the high visibility of the profession. In the case of a scientist, it’s because there is recognition of the dedication to learning about and understanding complicated (or seemingly complicated) phenomena. It is, inherently, a respect for the title and the work, and with that respect comes the obligation to deserve it by communicating clearly and not abusing the respect.

3. As a scientist, what special duties or obligations (if any) do the non-scientists with whom you’re sharing a world have to you?

I want to say that the obligations are to listen, and to not misuse the words of science to sell a product or idea. To ask why if you need to, but not if the only reason is to score points/sell something/what have you.

That said, I suspect this is something most or all scientist just WISH there were an obligation to do, but said obligation doesn’t exist.

fn1. Actually, Corrine, I did not discuss my master’s research with anyone at the cider tasting, so stop making that grossed-out face.

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