The Big Question: Jocelyn Maclure on the Role of the Scientist In Society.


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Jocelyn Maclure is full professor of philosophy and Jarislowsky Chair in Human Nature and Technology at McGill University. He published extensively on questions related to value pluralism, public reason and human rights, including Secularism and Freedom of Conscience, co-authored with Charles Taylor (Harvard University Press, 2011). He currently works in the philosophy of artificial intelligence, social epistemology and democratic theory. He is also the president of the Quebec Ethics in Science and Technology Commission, an advisory of the Quebec government.  

What is the current role of the scientist in society?

Scientists’ first role is to help us understand reality in all its dimensions. This includes what nature is made of and how it behaves, but also how human beings lead their life, live together and give meaning to their existence. Given that culture supervenes on—but is not reducible to—nature, there is no sharp distinction between, on the one hand, the natural and mathematical sciences and, on the other, the human and social sciences with regard to their basic function. Although we sometimes lose sight of it given the incentives which are at play in academia, the reason why it is important for scientists to obtain funding, publish and cooperate is to conduct research which increases our understanding of nature and society.

It is now widely recognized that we need scientists to step outside academia and contribute to the dissemination of knowledge in other social spheres. This is of crucial importance because policy makers, judges, journalists and citizens in general all need to have access to the relevant data or to understand the most plausible scientific theories and hypotheses to do their work competently and to make informed decisions. Since scientific knowledge is highly specialized and technical, scientific experts ought to talk to policy makers and elected officials, act as expert witnesses, give interviews to journalists, write op-eds or disseminate, with great care, knowledge on social media.

When scientists do foray outside academia, their interventions should be based on the data, theories and hypotheses that they produce, or at least on a deep understanding of their field of expertise. Things often go awry when scientists lack epistemic humility and pontificate on issues outside their expertise. This doesn’t entail that, say, a physicist should not express views about public health measures, but rather that the farther we venture out of our domain of expertise, the more epistemic humility we should display.

Why is it important?

Contemporary societies, including democratic regimes, are undergoing an epistemic crisis. It’s not that we entered a “post-truth” era, but rather that the current transformation of the public sphere under the influence of digital platforms strongly favors the circulation of low quality and toxic content. Fake news and other forms of disinformation, conspiracy theories, ideological echo chambers and hateful speech all proliferate, whereas science-based and rational views are too often drowned out by false, misleading or harmful speech acts.

All those who are committed to the Enlightenment project of making our culture and politics more rational need to mount a counterattack so that good science and good scientists may regain more influence in the public sphere.

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