The Opposing Thumb

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On The Social Responsibility Of Scientists

A surprisingly humble moment from the great Richard Feynman on the absence of any special social wisdom in scientists as a group. This salutary reminder of the limits of “expert” knowledge  needs to be absorbed in the current climate of subjecting social decisions to allegedly “scientific” economics:

From time to time people suggest to me that scientists ought to give more consideration to social problems – especially that they should be more responsible in considering the impact of science on society.  It seems to be generally believed that if the scientists would only look at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time fooling with less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it. 
     It seems to me that we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don’t put a full-time effort into them – the reasons being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving social problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them. 
     I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy – and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he sounds as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.” 

On the other hand, as the public is asked to decide on more and more complex subjects like stem cell research and climate change, scientists and scientific institutions do have a special responsibility to make information and analysis available in an intelligible form to the public. To return to Prof Feynman:

“It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things.  Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work.  Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad – but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.”

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