Scientist and Lay Person

In what way — if any — are scientists unique? In the following passages, the difference between scientists and other people is described by Herbert Spencer, Annie Dillard, and William Shakespeare (though scientists were not the subject of Shakespeare’s thoughts). Yet Spencer’s perspective is laced with arrogance, Dillard’s with apparent envy, and Shakespeare’s with joy.

“Is it not, indeed, an absurd and almost a sacrilegious belief that the more a man studies Nature the less he reveres it? Think you that a drop of water, which to the vulgar eye is but a drop of water, loses anything in the eye of the physicist who knows that its elements are held together by a force which, if suddenly liberated, would produce a flash of lightning? … Think you that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of a geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded. Whoever has not in youth collected plants and insects, knows not half the halo of interest which lanes and hedgerows can assume. Whoever has not sought for fossils, has little idea of the poetical associations that surround the places where imbedded treasures were found. Whoever at the seaside has not had a microscope and aquarium, has yet to learn what the highest pleasures of the seaside are. Sad, indeed, is it to see how men occupy themselves with trivialities, and are indifferent to the grandest phenomena — care not to understand the architecture of the Heavens, but are deeply interested in some contemptible controversy about the intrigues of Mary Queen of Scots!”

[Spencer, 1883]

“I cherish mental images I have of three perfectly happy people. One collects stones. Another — an Englishman, say — watches clouds. The third lives on a coast and collects drops of seawater which he examines microscopically and mounts. But I don’t see what the specialist sees, and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of happiness.”

[Dillard, 1974]

“And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.”

[Shakespeare, 1600]

Many lay people hold a stereotypical view of scientists. We are perceived to be:

  • very intelligent;
  • myopic in interest, focusing on precise measurements of a tiny subject;
  • objective in both measurements and interpretations;
  • conservative, accepting no interpretation or conclusion unless it has been proved beyond doubt;
  • oblivious of the possibly harmful applications of our research results; and
  • above all, completely rational and unemotional.

These perceptions are, in part, responsible for the authority of science. Like all stereotypes, however, they depersonalize. Scientists are above average in intelligence, and I have known individual scientists who were myopic, precise, conservative, or oblivious. I have seen scanty evidence, however, that scientists in general fulfill the stereotypes above. Only our publications are completely rational and unemotional; their authors, in contrast, are passionate.

Scientists do tend to differ from most lay people in their techniques, particularly in their embracing of the scientific methods. But of course every kind of specialist differs from lay people in embracing certain techniques and achieving professionalism in exercising those techniques. Like many other specialists, scientists inadvertently build a barrier of jargon. The jargon permits efficient, exact communication among specialists but seems to the outsider to be deliberately exclusive and abstruse. The motivations of scientists — to the extent that one can generalize — resemble those of artists; they differ only in degree from most other people.

We are craftsmen, not geniuses.

Science and Society

On seeing the culmination of the Manhattan Project (the first detonation of a nuclear bomb) J. Robert Oppenheimer [1945] quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”

Some species are solitary and some are social. People try to gain the advantages of both strategies, living together in an interdependent society but encouraging individuality. Inevitably conflict erupts between individual and societal needs. This balancing act is acutely felt by scientists, who accept support but not control from society. The scientist listens to cultural guidelines but personally selects values and priorities [Campbell, 1988b]. The “age-old conflict between intellectual [or moral] leadership and civil authority” [Bronowski, 1973] was fought by Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Darwin, and Gandhi, as well as by scientists whose names are forgotten. Einstein [1879-1955] may have underestimated the strength of the opposition in his 1953 comment:

“In the realm of the seekers after truth there is no human authority. Whoever attempts to play the magistrate there founders on the laughter of the Gods.”

Scientific responsibility is personal:

In 1933 Leo Szilard was stopped at a red light while walking to work, when suddenly he realized that neutron bombardment could potentially initiate an explosive chain reaction. He faced the choice of keeping his discovery secret or publishing it, of delaying its use or allowing its abuse. Seeking secrecy, he took out a patent and assigned it to the British admiralty [Bronowski, 1973], but of course development of the atomic bomb would not be slowed by a patent. In 1939 he ghost-wrote a letter, signed by Einstein, which warned President Roosevelt of the danger of nuclear weapons.

Szilard would have empathized with the anonymous statement [cited by Matthiessen, 1978]: “God offers man the choice between repose and truth: he cannot have both.” Then, as now, applied science was not confined to discovering what technologies are possible; it also predicted consequences and side effects of those technologies.

About 4% of the U.S. population has a degree in science or engineering. For most of the others, exposure to science is generally indirect: basic science ⇒ applied science ⇒ engineering ⇒ technology [Derry, 1999]. Technology is the tangible result of combining applied science with engineering and business skills.

Popular opinion of science and scientists waxes and wanes with attitudes toward technology. After the technological enthusiasm and optimism of the sixties, the rock group Jefferson Starship [1970] sang: “Do you know we could go, we are free. Anyplace you can think of, we could be.” A decade later, however, a society that seldom can think more than four years ahead encountered the consequences of past technological decisions and found that the technological ‘gift’ of comfort actually has a price. “Comfort, that invader that enters as a visitor, stays as a guest, and becomes master” (Sufi saying). Someone must be blamed, and a musician said to my wife: “Oh, you’re a physicist. I suppose you build bombs.” Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. In the nineties, technological development led to improved standards of living and an exuberant tech bubble. Ethical concerns and fears about technological developments have shifted from atomic weapons to genetic engineering.

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

[Buddhist proverb, cited by Feynman, 1988]

“We fear the cold and the things we do not understand. But most of all we fear the doings of the heedless ones among ourselves.”

[a shaman of the Arctic Inuit, cited by Calvin, 1986]

The beneficiaries of technology have the opportunity to see its shortcomings. In contrast, people whom I have met in underdeveloped countries simply hunger for its rewards and for its escape from boring drudgery. Few of the critics of science accuse it of being evil, but many accuse it of being amoral. One can counter such arguments by asking whether the professions of farming and carpentry are also guilty of amorality. Or one can recall that science’s highest value is truth (Bronowski, 1978), and that we judge truth from criteria of beauty, simplicity and elegance; is this amorality? But such arguments miss the point. Some people simply are becoming disillusioned with technology, and they are replacing the illusion of technology as magic bullet with one of technology as evil destroyer.

“Daedalus, who can be thought of as the master technician of most ancient Greece, put the wings he had made on his son Icarus, so that he might fly out of and escape from the Cretan labyrinth which he himself had invented… He watched his son become ecstatic and fly too high. The wax melted, and the boy fell into the sea. For some reason, people talk more about Icarus than about Daedalus, as though the wings themselves had been responsible for the young astronaut’s fall. But that is no case against industry and science. Poor Icarus fell into the water — but Daedalus, who flew the middle way, succeeded in getting to the other shore.”

[Campbell, 1988b]

The relationship between science and society is changing, in response not only to evolving perceptions by society, but also to other evolutionary pressures. Both the tasks and needs for science are adapting accordingly.

Science has transformed the highly generalized and adaptable human species into the most adaptable species that the earth has ever seen (Bronowski, 1978). Yet arguably we have increased our need for adaptability at an even faster pace, because each technological change can have unforeseen interactions, either with the environment or with other technological changes. In response, many scientists are becoming environmental and technological troubleshooters.

Biological evolution demonstrates that specialization only survives in a static environment. Society’s needs concerning specialization versus adaptability are changing: the pace of technological change is increasing, professions are waxing and waning, and therefore our society needs individuals with the ability to move into newly emerging careers. We also need individuals comfortable in interdisciplinary teams.

Scientific education is evolving in response to these changes. For graduate study, the change is less than one might expect: graduate programs entail specialized research, but the competencies learned actually increase the student’s adaptability. The old notion of an early academic education followed by a lifetime profession may be obsolete; it is certainly incomplete. The rapid pace of scientific and technological change means that knowledge is not static and education is never really finished. Increasingly, the educational system is being used for retooling and redirection. Students are teaching the professors by communicating the perspectives and needs of industry. Conversely, the students are taking practical applications of their course work to the work-place immediately, not years later.

Major changes of any kind are stressful — to individuals, groups, and society. The redirection of scientific efforts and education, in response to societal needs, is non-trivial, emotionally taxing, but essential.

The public and politician, having grown up with textbook-science facts, expect certainty from scientists. We, in contrast, savor the uncertainty implicit in forefront science, where ideas are explored, modified, and usually discarded. We offer the authority of science with humility. More than once in the history of science, scientists have had to fight for the privilege of questioning authority. This popular expectation of scientific certainty creates roadblocks, when the implications of scientific research are that society needs to take expensive action. Scientific debate provides a political excuse for societal inaction, even if the key issues are agreed upon among scientists.

An example is the greenhouse effect, concisely summarized by Stevens [1992a]. Researchers agree that: (1) atmospheric carbon dioxide is rising due to burning fossil fuels and clearing rainforests, (2) atmospheric carbon dioxide will have doubled within the next 60 years, (3) increased carbon dioxide warms the earth through the greenhouse effect, and (4) as a consequence, the earth will warm up during the coming decades.

Some issues are still being debated: How much greenhouse warming has already occurred? How fast and how much warming will the doubling of carbon dioxide induce? What will the local climate effects be? Uncertainty over these questions obscures consensus on the former concerns. We postpone remediation; ‘wait-and-see’ is cheaper.

Technological innovations are the most frequent and obvious contributions of science to society, but occasionally science has a more fundamental impact: it can change humanity’s self-image [Derry, 1999], by generating “the light which has served to illuminate man’s place in the universe” [J.F. Kennedy, 1963]. The determinism of Newton’s mechanics and the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics challenge our assumption of free will, but this assumption is rooted too firmly to be damaged. The Copernican revolution did not merely overthrow the concept of Earth as center of the rotating universe; it dislodged humanity also from that position. Darwin’s theory of biological evolution by natural selection forced another radical revision of self-image: not people as the designated masters of animals, but people as distant relatives of all other animals. The Copernican revolution was resisted and the Darwinian revolution is still resisted because of unwillingness to relinquish self-importance.

“Most laymen, when they contemplate the effect physics may have had upon their lives, think of technology, war, automation. What they usually do not consider is the effect of science upon their way of reasoning.”

[Baker, 1970]


Jarrard, R. D. (2001). Scientific methods. Online book, URL

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