Friday, January 22, 2010

The Scientist and Society

I have politics on the brain, with the state of the union address coming up, and as such have been lead back to what Cassidy's "Uncertainty" started: The interplay between science, scientists, and politics.

On the face of things it seems that the best a scientific minded individual to do is affect apolitical attitudes. This is what scientific organizations tend towards, and I think it's a good thing. We want our society to make decisions based upon the world we live in, so the best way to have this political influence is to not discuss or make statements about standard political questions. In some sense this is problematic, as we currently see debates on religion in public education, or we have a single political party that primarily speaks against global warming, but in these cases there are firm scientific reasons for taking a position: 1) Religion ain't science. 2) Data and the mainstream interpretation of that Data. In short, the success of the scientific method.

I can't agree more than with this position for scientific societies. It is in this way that they can best help society, in general. However, I wonder if this attitude is best for the scientific individual. Given I live in the United States, I would infer that the usual reply would be "No. The individual can express whatever they wish, so long as they, personally, take credit for said comment, and do not speak in the name of X organization". But, as it is in this way that scientific communities can better help direct their communities, if said individual is attached to such-and-such a cause in popular culture, it could put political question on any scientific pronouncement said individual has. In conflict with this is the premise that, as individuals, we ought to have the freedom to express our political affiliations outside of any other affiliations that we may harbor. However, people don't operate in said manner. They can attempt to separate the individual from their various affiliations, and even make a good faith effort to do so -- but we still retain knowledge of an individuals full social affiliations. And if we do, indeed, wish to effect society in the most positive way that a scientist can, it may be the case that we ought to forgo public political opinions in favor of public scientific pronouncements.

I don't pretend to have an answer to the question, I am only raising it as a question to be thought and ranted about. The converse of this position is, of course, the life of Werner Heisenberg. He's an extreme case, however, and we do not currently live in quite as extreme a time as he did, so I do not think his life example is a good example to base current opinions off of. However, I think most will agree that his example definitively states that there is, in the case where one accepts keeping quiet about political opinions, a point (line, plane?) somewhere when that person should stop playing the apolitic become publicly political. But under what circumstances is that the case, and can one even determine those circumstances during the times that those circumstances exist?

I wish there was a journal or forum for ethical discussions amongst the scientific community -- though that may violate the "Objective"-ness of the scientist on the political landscape.

No comments:

Post a Comment