The Obligations of a Scientist

As much as I wanted to, I initially decided against answering Dr. Stemwedel’s questions about scientists’ obligations. She split the respondents into two groups – scientists and non-scientists – and I was uncomfortable with choosing a side because I wasn’t sure where I belonged. Yes, the word is in my job title (I’m a Medical Laboratory Scientist), but I always imagine “a scientist” running experiments and curing cancer and discovering quasars and writing papers that will earn them a Nobel prize. I don’t do any of that. I just play with blood. I used to work in a hospital blood bank. These days, I work in manufacturing.  I make specialized reagents for reference immunohematology laboratories to use in solving complex cases and finding rare blood types for transfusion. I work in a scientific field, but am I a scientist? I don’t think Dr. Stemwedel intended for her questions to open up cans of introspective worms in her readers, but they gave me a lot of thinking to do.

After discussing my dilemma with friends who feel the same way, I finally decided that I am comfortable saying that I am a scientist1. Wearing that badge, I will offer up my thoughts, even if I’m late to the game by a couple of weeks.

Note: Because of my background, I’m biased towards biological and medical sciences. There are many different species of scientist, of course, and I can only speak for myself.

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?

As a person whose daily work affects the lives of others, I think I have a general obligation to give a damn about the work I do, and take pride in doing it well. I’ve written about professionalism before, and I still think it’s a critical quality for a scientist to have. That said, I don’t think a commitment to quality is in any way restricted to scientists. I think that any human being who’s taken on a career of any sort has that same obligation, although laziness and corner-cutting will have a greater impact in some fields than in others. A bolt missing in a box of Ikea furniture, while annoying, isn’t as bad as a bolt lost in the assembly of a helicopter.

Scientists are held up to a different standard, I think, than the average person. The title of “scientist” often carries with it an presumption of intelligence and authority, which is why an answer from a scientist on a scientific topic will carry more weight than the same answer from a bus driver. The same can be said of anyone who’s an expert in a field, from law to medicine to electrical work. We need to be aware of the fact that people will trust our answers, and we must be comfortable with admitting ignorance instead of making guesses. As scientists, we should be the very last people pulling answers out of the air (excepting, of course, the atmospheric scientists among us) when we’re not entirely sure. Our training urges us to do the research, check sources, and back up our assertions with facts2.

Over and above avoiding statements we can’t back up, I think we have an obligation to call out bullshit science when we see it. Homeopathy, wacky diets, “OMG the moon will be BIGGER THAN MARS tonight” Facebook posts, and that sort of thing. If those of us who know better don’t step in and replace false claims with correct information, then the level of scientific literacy in this world will keep declining. That would make for a sad and ignorant world, and i’d very much like to avoid it. We get bonus points if we can make the real science as exciting as the fake science, because then people will be inspired to share the good stuff, and it will get out there faster and crush the forces of bullshit. I hold up Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, as an example we should all aim to follow.

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?

I was raised believing that we all have a duty to contribute to the world in some way, and to live and work with integrity. My teachers in the medical technology program reinforced the importance of quality in laboratory work, and I’ve taken that to heart. Thanks to those teachers, I’ve always felt very strongly about promoting my profession. I don’t scribble fun lab facts on a sandwich board and stand in the park with a megaphone, but when Medical Laboratory Professionals Week comes around, I put in a lot of effort to get information out there.

We need a scientifically literate society if we want to keep making progress as a species. If I don’t support and promote science when I’m given an opportunity to do so, then I’m not contributing to that end.

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?

To ask questions, even if it means challenging a scientist. It’s just like the “Ask me if I’ve washed my hands” buttons you may have seen nurses wearing – just because we know we should be doing it the right way doesn’t mean that we always are. And it’s okay to remind us of that.

1.  That discussion deserves a post of its own, and it will get one soon.

2. I’m looking at YOU, “Doctor” Phil.

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