What it means to be a scientist

4 minute read

After reading Simine Vazire (1)’s blog post about what it means to be a scientist, I could only ask myself the same question. While she’s proposing an Oath for Scientists, describing acceptable research practices to protect science credibility, which is undoubtedly to be followed, I cannot not think about what else being a good scientist means. As she’s talking about the credibility of science among scientists themselves and their responsibility as regards to their profession, there is an obvious link that popped out in my head but found no echo in her saying: What about the credibility of science as conceived by non-scientists? And this is the point I want to develop further.

There is no doubt that scientists should be the first concerned by the credibility of science. However, I do believe that this necessarily goes along with the general public’s sound understanding of what science is, and whether they can trust it or not. Trusting science is not the right term to use, but that’s very much the point I want to make. People from outside science should be educated/taught/informed about how to understand science, and how to develop their critical thinking. Science is not truth but is a process. What was right at a given time might be proven wrong at any other time, and the reverse works as well. Sadly enough, too often scientific data or results are misinterpreted. And although scientists do oversell their findings and should improve this aspect, being precautious regarding data interpretation won’t prevent people from misunderstanding a point. Media, for example, like very much to use appealing article headers that often turn out to make a point that is outside the scope of the study they’re referring to. Instead of being crossed with the media, I believe it would be much more effective if scientists took the time to make their findings accessible to someone who is not in their field. And this is another point that is reached as well: the fact that even scientists when they’re not part of the field, could easily fall into this misinterpretation abyss.

Hence, I think it should be part of every scientist’s duties to share their work with non-specialists, to take time to make their findings understandable by most people. May it be through events of science popularisation - there are now plenty of options, from the traditional conference to the pint of science format; through the redaction of blogposts or more formal articles in newspapers for example, through collaborative work to write a general book about scientific advances of a field, and so on.

It makes even more sense to do so, as there is a growing community of science facilitators who work with different institutions, using various communication media, who organise a considerable diversity of events to bring science to the general public. It makes even more sense to do so as science has rarely (if ever) been so present in politics and policymaking processes or involved in public discussions and debates (you can think about A.I. debates, ethical considerations about transhumanism, anti-vax controversy, climate warming polemics, etc. ).

I’m not saying here that science should be involved in policymaking process. Still, it is already being used as an argument in defence of some decisions, and sometimes inaccurately. Therefore, as a scientific knowledge producer, this is a scientist’s duty to be concerned about the way her or his data is interpreted, and thus to facilitate its correct understanding. This doesn’t mean scientists have to be directly interacting with the public but they should make it easier for people who are dedicated at bridging the gap between academia and the general public to do so (2).
Most scientists are willing to share their work with the general public but one of the main obstacle to do so is the lack of time. Therefore, if we emphasise strongly enough that this should be part of the professional duties, if we recognise its positive value (thinking about how to explain what your research is about makes you look at the bigger picture and this opens new perspectives and insights; you may meet other researchers and foster collaborations just like in scientific conferences, so clearly you’re not losing your time!), and if we develop appropriate training sessions to encourage those who may feel like they need it, this may become a norm and not just an extra or a hobby.

Scientists can no longer pretend to be in an ivory tower. Scientists are part of a society, and as such, they do have societal responsibilities.

(1) Simine Vazire is an associate professor at UC Davis. She works in the field of social and personality psychology. She’s also actively involved in promoting open science practices.
(2) I will not talk here about the fact that science popularisation events or approaches usually target a knowledgeable public and that this is a big problem to overcome in this field. There are people doing research on that topic and people being very creative to develop new ways of bringing science to a public as diverse as possible, but this is a phenomenon that is not specific to scientific knowledge sharing and thus irrelevant for the main topic of this post.

This post was also published on the Walden III Slowpen Science Lab’s Medium page.