THE BIG QUESTION: Wendy Turgeon on the Role of the Scientist in Society.

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Specializing in philosophy for children and the history of philosophy, Wendy C. Turgeon is presently the chair of the Department of Philosophy at St. Joseph’s College, where she has been teaching courses since 1991. One of the leading proponents of the freshman honors program, Dr. Turgeon coordinates the program in addition to teaching one of its core courses. She has also incorporated global education into many of the philosophy classes at the College and is a passionate advocate for study abroad. Dr. Turgeon was also instrumental in creating the College’s minor in women’s studies.

Dr. Turgeon has presented papers and workshops at conferences around the world and has published articles in magazines such as Philosophy Now and the International Journal for the Humanities. Her publications focus on the philosophy of childhood and bringing philosophy into pre-college education, with chapters in such books as Philosophy in Schools: An Introduction for Philosophers and Teachers (Routledge, 2014), Conflicts in Childhood (ID-Net Press, 2015) and Philosophy and Education (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012). She is a member of the American Philosophical Association, North American Association for the Community of Inquiry, International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children and the Philosophical Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO).

What is the current role of the scientist in society?

As a philosopher and a citizen, I think we have to recognize that the scientist is an expert in their field. We have to get away from this notion that everybody’s an expert in everything simply because they happen to have an opinion or a feeling about something. 

I think the strength of science is twofold. One is that they can back up their claims, with research, with empirical studies. If those studies have been well carried out, that should matter to the non expert. 

Secondly, scientists are important because we have so many different opinions and ideologies circling today that we need guidance. I think admitting that we need guidance is an important move that we seem to have gone away from. We’ve swung from one extreme, where we always trusted scientists and experts with everything, to another extreme, where we trust them with nothing. 

Part of that is due to many people not understanding how science works, that it is not objective truth, that science never claims to have truth capital T. It is always offering us the best hypothesis backed up by the best current data. If they change their position, which of course we’ve witnessed during the pandemic, it’s not that they don’t know what they’re doing. The nature of the job of the scientist is to test a hypothesis, accept the strongest version until of course, proven otherwise.

What should the scientist’s role be if different than currently?

I think they need to regain their expertise in the eyes of the public. I think it would help if the public was better educated. I’m not a scientist, so I’m putting myself in this group. If we were all better educated, in terms of trusting science – trust, but verify if you will, trust but also expect them to uphold the standards of their own discipline – it would help. We wouldn’t be able to deal with pandemics, or deal with daily life if we didn’t have that trust. 

I think the role of the scientist is to be neutral – that is politically neutral – but also serve as spokespersons with data; spokespersons for the way the physical world works. They cannot answer every question. There are cases where scientists overstep their bounds. I think they overstep their bounds if they see themselves in conflict with religious traditions, except, of course, if we’re talking about physical matters. Science can’t answer questions of meaning, even if they can answer questions of causality. I think they overstep their bounds if they think that they have no ethical obligations. 

The scientist has three ethical aspects to their activities and their enterprise. 

First is just within their own research, the ethical demands that they do it fairly, justly, and that they do anything that they claim they have pertinent, verified data for.  In other words, they’re not fudging their results because they want to get quick results, or they’re pressured to come to a certain conclusion, that they are, to the best of their ability, being honest and truthful, in what they can claim to know. That is just the ethics of doing science, if you will. 

I think there’s another ethical aspect  when it comes to thinking about the implications of their research. And this might be difficult because I may be misreading the scientists but the scientists tend to focus on what can I learn? What can I know? What Can I Do? Not the extra-science implications of where might this take us. We have witnesed the results of certain scientific inventions and explorations and revelations as having incredibly negative ethical impact on societies. Knowledge at all cost is probably not a good way to approach it. Think of the ethical implications of cloning, the ethical implications of technology. I would claim that, despite not being directly their purview, I they need to take those into account, or at least work in tandem with those who are thinking about the ethical implications. 

Thirdly, there is a social justice aspect to consider. Looking at scientific inventions, creations, discoveries, there is often a huge economic component to it, whether it’s the production of drugs or the demand for eliminating fossil fuels, that ties into corporations, and corporations are into making money. That can negatively affect huge segments of the population, not directly by the science itself, but by the way that scientific  knowledge is brought into and acted upon in society.

The cost of drugs is actually a good test case. Why do we charge so much for drugs in this country, where in Canada, you can get them much cheaper? Because there’s an entire corporate system that is behind doing R&D, and it’s making money, frankly. 

Look at the incredible profits in the oil industry. The wild prices at the pump which were scandalizing Americans, but the companies are earning record profits. They’re claiming they’re doing this in order to do better research and development, but it all comes down to social justice in the sense that what if you can’t afford the drugs? What if you can’t afford the gas to get to work? This is a broader ethical component, not necessarily just the scientists’ responsibility. It’s really a collective responsibility and, ultimately, a political responsibility to think about the implications of science and practice.

So what should the role of a scientist be? I don’t I don’t think it’s necessarily different than it is now. I think they have to be able to speak to the populace. I think the populace, of course, on our part has to listen. I think scientists have to be more aware than we think they are–or that they are showing– about the their ethical responsibilities as scientists, but also as members of our community.

Why is it important?

They’re important for two reasons. One, a good scientist cares deeply about their subject matter and the import it has for the larger population, whether they’re doing climate studies or they’re doing medical advancements or they’re creating new technologies. They see its practical implications, so it’s important for them that they be heard. It’s important that they can communicate their understanding not just of their theories and applications, but also that they understand the implications for all of us because when we hear both of those we are more likely to be accepting of their theories and applications. 

They’re also members of our community. Just because you’re a scientist, you don’t shirk responsibility. An interesting test case for this is the development of the atomic bomb. The scientists were fascinated with it as a problem in physics, if you will. But then when they actually saw what happened, many of them had grave ethical concerns. What did we do? Was this really a good thing that we created as a physical property, a physics problem ? It was fascinating. You know, could we do these things? Oh, we can. Amazing. But now the question is, should we? How is it being used? To what extent can science even retain ownership of ideas? [Once they’re out there may not be a totally on them.]  

The community as a whole has to work with scientists to reflect on the implications for living on the planet, with our fellow human beings, and, frankly, our fellow creatures, thinking not just of our immediate needs and interests, but at least to some degree, the long term needs and interests of those that will come after us.

I’m still very concerned that society doesn’t understand the value and the importance of science in their lives, especially in recent years where I’ve seen so many people questioning things, that, frankly, they’re not really legitimate questions, or they’re not in a position to criticize, and it just causes damage to themselves and to others. 

Again, the epidemic  is your test case here – people refusing vaccines because they’re going to wave a wand over themselves or they assume that there’s some poison in them. There are people that truly, truly believe these false ideas and some of those people died needlessly. 

Science has to communicate better, but we also have to listen better. It’s not all on the scientists, but they shouldn’t be isolating themselves as some kind of elite group that’s doing its own thing separate from everybody else. They are very much members of the community and we have to recognize that as well. There’s an onus of responsibility on all of us.


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