Scientists Should*

This post was prompted by a tweet by @jessiesunpsych (thanks Jessie!) who highlighted this phrase:

Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.

I thought, reflexively, “I disagree”. Scientists are people (d’uh); they have complex motives just like everyone else; some of those motives are not about truth and helping people; maybe you are doing science because it happens to be your job and you want to have a roof over your head and food on your table. Don’t feel guilty about that.

Then I read the whole interview from whence the quote came, and I now realise that I was reacting, reflexively, to something that was taken out of context. (Not to blame Jessie. That’s the nature of twitter.) In context, I disagree much less with the quote.

Here is another quote from the same interview, however:

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.

Again, in context, I don’t disagree much. Abstracting out of the context though, I do disagree that we can (should?) draw a line between Good motives and Bad motives for doing science.

There’s got to be ways of communicating what scientists do, what motivations they have, what pressures they manage and tensions they balance, without relying on some “Madonna/whore” narrative.

Speaking of managing/researching/depending on public goods, here is an article I’ve been perusing lately, which combines a few of my (new?) favourite things: narratives, water, and participatory policy-making…



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