Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who is the scientist?


I am currently sitting at a picnic table, basking in the sun behind the Redfield lab building. It is a gorgeous day!

Today’s entry is about a lecture I attended yesterday afternoon as part of the 2009 Woods Hole Diversity Celebration. Dr. Steven Shapin (pictured below), the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, delivered a talk entitled “Who is the scientist?” His aim was to explore the role of scientists in today’s industry-driven, “professionalized” research climate.
I was a little disappointed by the low turnout of students—I for one was eager to get a historical and sociological perspective on the evolving role of scientists in society and the perception of science by the public, but I suppose that Friday afternoon isn’t the best time to draw students to a history/sociology talk.

Dr. Shapin covered a wide range of topics, from the intelligent design/evolution debate to the transition of science from an avocation to a vocation. As I listened to the lecture, I couldn’t help but boil some of Dr. Shapin’s diverse talking points to a few main ideas: (1) an over-involvement of scientists in politics or a take-over of policy-making by scientists would diminish the structural integrity of a political system, (2) an over-involvement of politics in science (ie too much state-dictated research) would de-legitimize or taint scientific research, and (3) there is a historical need to distance scientific research from traditional social ideas about morality.

He spoke about the naturalist fallacy that equates what is natural with what is good and the lessons we can learn from atomic scientists like Richard Feynman who worked on the Manhattan Project.

Slipping casually and comically into British, German, and the occasional Sarah Palin accents, Dr. Shapin discussed the tenuous link between morality and science. He seemed to imply that it is important for science to be extricated from morals or that it was historically important for scientists to focus not on the social ethics or even necessarily the implications of their work but simply on the work and the “truth” behind scientific discovery.

As part of the generation that is confronted with climate change, decreasing biodiversity, habitat destruction, and environmental turmoil, I consider linking science WITH policy a moral imperative, especially when it comes to environmental policy and conservation science.

I realize that my ideal scenario is far from current reality and that there are, as Dr. Shapin highlighted, problems in a marriage between science and policy. The major take-away message for me, then, is that you cannot make a blanket statement about “science” as it pertains to policy or to ethics. There is an inherent difference between situations in which the involvement of science in policy leads to a negative result (as I believe it did with the atomic bomb) and when the involvement of science in policy leads to a positive result (as I believe it will with climate change and conservation).

For my generation, and for scientists who work on environmentally important research, true integration of science into policy is essential for a successful conservation effort. We will just have to face and work through the proposed sociological problems with that fact.

I really enjoyed this lecture and would encourage everyone to ponder the role of science in society and think about their own perceptions of science and politics. Dr. Shapin also has a few books out that I am considering tracking down at the local public library.

Enjoy the lovely weekend everyone!

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