THE BIG QUESTION: Daniel Hutto on the Role of the Scientist In Society.

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Daniel D. Hutto is Senior Professor of Philosophical Psychology and Head of the School of Liberal Arts at the University of Wollongong. He served on the Australian Research Council College of Experts, chairing its Humanities and Creative Arts panel, and has conducted peer reviews for national grant awarding bodies worldwide. He specializes in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science and is the author of award-winning, highly cited research. He is used to collaborating with specialists in a variety of disciplines including anthropologists, clinicians, educationalists, narratologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists.

What is the role of the scientist in society? 

As a philosopher, I would say that before we can answer the question ‘what is the role of scientists in society?’, we need to address the deeper, prior question ‘what is the role of scientists?’ simpliciter. That is a question that philosophers of science have been pouring over for ages. And it is one to which they have yet to reach a settled conclusion.

One barrier to coming up with an answer to that second question is that it can be tricky to neatly demarcate science from non-science. One reason for that being so is that we are unlikely to get a definition of what science is that captures its essence in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. But that is, pretty much, par for the course: finding illuminating definitions of that sort has proved elusive for important topics across the board.

With that in mind, to answer the second question it might be best to focus on some canonical sciences and some of the most recognizable forms of scientific activity. This proves useful not because doing so licenses us to think that all sciences are exactly alike in all respects – but simply because it enables us to focus on key things that scientists do and how they do them, which we take to be exemplary.

What is the main business of the empirical sciences? On the face of it, it would seem to be doing such things as: making measurements; designing experiments to collect data; building models; and advancing hypotheses to test theories against evidence.

To what end? According to a familiar story: to improve our understanding of what there is and how it works.

And how is, in turn, do we know when that is achieved? By a greater capacity for prediction, explanation, and control in specific domains.

And what explains the broad success of such scientific endeavors? A familiar answer is that the methods used, though not value-free, are kept as free as possible from pervasive cognitive biases and other external influences that might skew scientific inquiry and its deliverances.

And how do scientists reliably guard against such biases and influences? By only employing tried and tested methods, and by their making outcomes available so both can be regularly scrutinized and checked by peers, often through further testing, to ensure reliability and repeatability.

The sketch of what scientists do that I have provided presents a somewhat idealized and, indeed, almost legendary picture of what workaday scientists get up to – or at least what they ought, ideally, to get up to. But the sketch is not derived from a textbook – it reflects, by and large, my firsthand experience of working, as a non-scientist, with empirical scientists – mainly psychologists of various stripes and neuroscientists – over nearly three decades in the academy.

What should the role of the scientist be, if different than their current one? 

What then is the role scientists should play in our larger society? Ideally, again, to present their theories and share their findings, accurately, in ways that make them accessible for further scrutiny and discussion.

Whether scientists can provide us with ‘the’ definite, final truth about specific domains and whether science is our only proper source of knowledge and our only proper guide to what there is, are much discussed questions in philosophy. There are many good reasons to doubt ambitious conceptions of the role of science that give positive answers to these questions.

Yet such skepticism is perfectly compatible with the thinking that, properly circumscribed, and shorn of overly ambitious aspirations, scientists can and do provide us with reliable enough, though not infallible, or unquestionable, findings and that they, as such, can furnish us with truths (small ‘t’ and plural) about many important matters.

Why is this important?

To the extent that scientists live up to the ideal sketched above, we should treat them as authorities within their specific domains and specialisms. As such, we should treat the findings of scientists with care and respect as we try to synthetically incorporate them in larger accounts of the subject matters of interest to us.

That does not mean we should treat what scientists tell us uncritically. Indeed, quite the opposite: for often when pressed to reach out and speculate beyond their specialised areas of expertise, scientists – and especially those who report on their findings – bring various assumptions to bear on such reports that often misconstrue or go well beyond what the data and evidence supports.

When it comes to making best sense of scientific findings it is crucial to situate and critically review them with great care. For the good of society, we need scientifically literate contributions from other disciplines such as philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities to help with that task.

COVER IMAGE CREDIT: Emily Morter.


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