THE BIG QUESTION: Massimo Pigliucci on the Role of the Scientist in Society.

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Prof. Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the nature of pseudoscience, and practical philosophies like Stoicism and New Skepticism.

Prof. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudo-scientific attack.” 

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national and international outlets such as the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Contributing Editor to Skeptical Inquirer. He writes on practical and general philosophy at Medium

At last count, Prof. Pigliucci has published 178 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 16 books, including the best selling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books). Other titles include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press), and the most recent The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders (Basic Books).

What is the current role of the scientist in today’s society?

The main role, of course, is to do the science. It’s to do whatever it is that they work on. If you’re a physicist or a biologist or medical researcher, I think the primary role is to advance knowledge for the benefit of humanity. We shouldn’t forget that. That’s the primary role. Sometimes we ask scientists to do a lot of other things that they are either not trained for or that’s not really part of their job.

Now, that said, we increasingly also expect scientists to be responsive to the public, to provide understandable accounts of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it – because after all, a lot of scientific research either directly affects the rest of us or it is paid for by the rest of us, if it’s research that is done with federal grants or state grants or something paid by taxpayers. That means that scientists have at least an ethical and, sometimes, a legal obligation to explain things and what it is that they’re doing, why it is important, that sort of stuff.

The third thing that they are increasingly expected to do is to be mindful of the ethical implications of what they’re doing. In some cases, that’s pretty obvious. If you’re doing medical research, obviously you need to pay attention to the ethical aspects. Even if you’re doing psychological research, for instance, you’re still using human subjects. If you’re doing biological research using animals, you still have the ethical implications. Of course, that’s not even mentioning things like research on weapons and stuff like that with obvious ethical implications.

There’s a fourth one, as well. Scientists are increasingly asked to be involved in public education. If you’re a scientist working for a university, then usually you teach one thing, and often you may be asked to answer questions from journalists or members of the public or politicians such as the ones being answered here, for instance. Generally speaking, public education about science, the nature of science and what scientists are doing is part of the job.

Ideally, what should the role of the scientists be in society?

Ideally, I think it should be a weighted combination. The first role is to just advance human knowledge, but that role cannot possibly be independent of being mindful of the ethical consequences of what one does, and also contribute to education of the public in general, because after all, why is it that we’re doing certain things? We’re doing it for the benefit of everybody, therefore, the public has to be informed and who better to inform the public than the scientist who actually does the job, assuming that they’re being trained to communicate with the public, which as you know, it’s not necessarily within the skill set of a lot of academics.

Why do you think that it’s important?

Advancing knowledge is important because that’s how we have all these nice things including the kinds of smartphones through which we’re communicating right now. Science is the basis for technological advancement and for medical advancement, and for all sorts of practical applications. Very often, scientific research appears to be remote from any application, but often enough, it actually turns out to have practical applications.

Even if there is some scientific knowledge that doesn’t have any direct practical applications, presumably, we’re all interested in understanding the world, or we should be interested in understanding the world in which we live. I think that’s why it’s important to do science in general.

At the same time, if you do it without communicating to a broader public what you’re doing and why it’s important, it seems like a sort of a truncated view of what a scientist should be doing. Ethically speaking, it’s the public that pays for a lot of scientific research so it only makes sense that a scientist be convinced that it’s important to at least from time to time engage the public. Whether individual scientists are actually capable of doing so in an effective fashion, that’s a whole different thing. They are typically not trained to talk to the public. A lot of them actually don’t particularly enjoy it either, but that’s a different issue.

COVER IMAGE CREDIT: Emily Morter.


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