Sunday, July 16, 2006

Are Scientists Who Feel Their Moral Obligations Still Authorities?

Dr. Freeride has a fantastic post about the relationship between journalists and sceintists. She disucsses the "balance" in today's reporting where journalists see scientists as just another group of spinners instead of the people in the room who actually know what they are talking about. I've been thinking about similar questions for a while -- Aren't there times when a scientist must become a political advocate because of the results of his/her work? and Does a scientist's advocacy make them less of an independent authority?

In my critical thinking class, I teach every semester that there is nothing wrong with an argument from authority IF the cited authority is a legitiimate authority. A good authority has three properties: (1) s/he exists -- "I read/heard somewhere that..." does not an authgority make, (2) the person is someone who we can expect to actually know the answer -- when you are sick, listen to your doctor not your Uncle Murray the dry cleaner, and (3) the person is impartial -- the person does not have a personal stake in getting you to believe one way or the other.

Now, when a scientist is studying some system and sees a correctable problem, say, a certain kind of pollution harming an endangered species, doesn't this knowledge convey a special ethical duty to do what one can to correct the problem? Nick, a student of mine, is interested in exactly this question -- do scientists inherit an additional moral burden for being the experts they are? Hilary Putnam in terms of language and meaning argues that there is a division of intellectual labor and that scientists have special roles in helping all of us determine the proper way to use certain words, called natural kind terms. But isn't there an ethical version as well. Don't scientists have a special moral obligation to help us determine how we ought to act since they are in a privileged place to tell us what may or likely will happen as a result of our actions?

But then we come back to Dr. Freeride's question. By accepting this moral mantle, does that give them a horse in the race? Does this make scientists interested parties and therefore not legitimate authorities? Does it convey moral equivalence on global warming naysayers bought and paid for by Exxon/Mobil and legitimate scientists whose work has revealed an "oh shit" circumstance? This would be the reporters' position, it see

I would argue that the third requirement of independence is met by scientists, even if they advocate for some cause related to their work, because in publishing their work, they must be
transparent in their methodology and results. Because what they put forward as the basis for their advocacy is replicable and open to scrutiny by other experts, they do not forfeit their position as authorities. Of course, this authority is limited to their area of expertise and the facts of the matter -- larger questions of what we shouod do in light of those facts is still a matter that requires all of us.