THE BIG QUESTION: Francis Fallon on the Role of the Scientist in Society.

Francis Fallon is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in New York City. Currently he is the Project Director of Change Detection During Saccades, and a member of the COGITATE Consortium. Both projects – funded by the Templeton World Charities’ Accelerating Research on Consciousness initiative – employ adversarial collaboration, engage in simultaneous replication, and are pre-registered with Open Science Foundation.  He founded and co-directs the project Representation: Past, Present, and Future, an interdisciplinary project supported by the Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund as part of Trinity College Dublin’s Neurohumanities program.

“We should aim at producing both…culture and expert knowledge” (Whitehead, Aims of Education)

What is the role of the scientist in society?

A culture for scientists

Science presupposes the possibility of discovery.  (Wootton (2015) has shown that the very concept of discovery developed largely in parallel with the Scientific Revolution.)  This is a basic description of science, but it is also a description of a very basic impulse: Scientists strive for discovery, to find out.  The playfulness of childhood can be characterized as a space for research and development, a laboratory (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl (1999)).  We would do well to consider the inverse, that the laboratory affords a space for child-like exploration.  The role of the scientist should be understood this way first – as a kind of fun – before any associations with virtuosity or technicalia, and still less before specifying any social duties.  The scientist properly pursues discovery with a child-like wonder, and wonderful discoveries ensue. 

No sooner do we offer this characterization than we should recognize the attendant risks.  The pure and joyful labor of scientists is often bent to small, greedy, or violent ends: the innocence of genius exploited.  (Of course, the scientist may share the blame: consider the very mixed examples of Alfred Nobel or Fritz Haber.)  The role of scientists in society must somehow involve guarding their efforts against so mean an outcome. 

At the same time, a scientist in the throes of a breakthrough cannot be expected to care much about any but the epistemic consequences of the work; passion and attention are finite, and in such cases probably largely spoken for.  Meaningful instruction in industrial and military history and current affairs, as well as in ethical, political, and economic theory, can scaffold the scientist’s cognitive environment.  Embedding this in scientific training, rather than leaving it to individual whim or serendipitous mentorship, would inform how scientists spend their talents.  The cultural will for such programs is apparent in such varied organizations as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Doctors without Borders, and those joining in what has been called the “techlash” (see Mueller 2021). 

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Scientists in culture

Science contains the means of its own improvement.  As the techniques of blinding, replication, and peer review reflect, “the methods of science aren’t foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible,” (Dennett 1997). 

Science’s self-corrective capacity typically concerns the local, but should also comprehend more general challenges.  The role of the scientist even within the sciences can lack clarity.  Modern science has earned a reputation for profound fragmentation, with scientists working in isolation from each other (not to mention from society more generally).  Siloed experts can make great progress (and certainly achieve technological innovation), but ultimately integration affords the greatest potential.  And of course, the scientist playing the role of ambassador can effect needless division rather than unity of understanding: There are those who, speaking in science’s name, misrepresent its findings, confusing the scientific worldview with attitudes not proper to it (e.g. moral nihilism, a sophomoric derision toward religion, or the mis-labeled and debunked theories of “social Darwinism”).  Science’s place in society is much more awkward for such embarrassments, which should breathe their last in seminar rooms, rather than polluting the air of public discourse. 

The remedy for these general problems again lies in fostering a community of scientists enculturated beyond their individual projects and areas of expertise.  Here, the focus is not explicitly on guiding socially responsible practice, but rather on the expansion of the scientific community’s critical powers.  Realizing the “indefinite perfectibility” of science requires multiplying its epistemic resources.  Fortunately, numerous contemporary movements work to take science in this direction.  The technique of simultaneous replication seeks to address the “replication crisis” in science; the technique of adversarial collaboration seeks to pre-empt ad hoc theoretical interpretation (Yaron et al.).  Organizations such as the Open Science Foundation (OSF) are seeking to establish free access to the results of scientific work.  Enthusiasm for interdisciplinary cooperation is evident in emerging fields such as neurohumanities. 

Such efforts at self-renewal, coupled with a more deliberate instructional background, can position science more propitiously, enabling the scientist not merely to achieve immediate goals, but to operate with a larger intellectual and social purpose. 


Dennett, D.C. 1997 “Faith in the truth”

Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl (1999) The scientist in the crib.

Mueller, G. 2021 Break things at work

Whitehead, A.N. The aims of education

Wootton, D. 2015 The invention of science

Yaron, I., Melloni, L., Pitts, M. P., & Mudrik, L. (2022). The ConTraSt Database for Analysing and Comparing Empirical Studies of Consciousness Theories. Nature human behaviour, 6(4), 593–604.

WORDS: Dr. Francis Fallon.


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