June 1, 2015

What is the Acceptable (and Ethical) Role of the Scientist in Society?

by Heather Falconer

This past week marked the 108th birthday of marine biologist Rachel Carson, probably most widely known for her groundbreaking book Silent Spring (1962), which sparked a grassroots environmental movement in the United States and led to a nationwide ban on many synthetic pesticides like DDT.  Silent Spring was met with applause and enthusiasm by the public in its pre-publication serialization, but as the chemical industry and its lobbyists got wind of its content they mounted a full-on personal and legal assault on Carson. Interestingly, one of the criticisms lay not in the data’s accuracy, but in Carson’s role – specifically, the role of the scientist.

The scientific community has, over time, developed commonplace practices in the sharing of knowledge. These practices are both rhetorical and situational. Scientists are expected to present findings in a particular manner (e.g. an article or poster) and in a particular place (e.g. academic journal or conference). In order to be successful, scientists must also present their ideas in a way that is acceptable to the larger scientific community – the language they use, the structure of the document, the presentation of data, etc. In short, when a scientist has new information to share, there is a fairly specific way they’re expected to share it.

Carson spent nearly a decade collecting data about the relationship between synthetic pesticides and the environment and worked extensively with scientists from the USDA, NIH, NCI, and other private and public agencies. However, when it came time to share her conclusions, she chose not to follow a traditional path of publishing in the scientific literature. Instead, she opted to compile her data in book form, using a story-telling narrative to convey the cause-effect relationship between cancer, bird deaths, and other ecological catastrophes with the widespread application of pesticides. As Mark Hamilton Lytle writes, Carson “quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture” (166-67).

What may have spurred Carson to take this route was the slow speed at which new scientific knowledge can reach the public, and what the public is capable of doing with that information when they receive it. In fact, much of the information Carson cites in Silent Spring comes from published and unpublished research that had been circulating in the scientific community for decades. Tired of the gap between what scientists understood about these chemicals and what the public believed, Carson decided that synthesizing the information in a non-fiction narrative was the only logical choice. She needed to show the public what was happening and what was at stake so that they could do something about it. As Paul Brooks notes in his forward to the text, Carson wrote to a friend: “There would be no peace for me if I kept silent” (xii).

While book-writing has never been unheard of in the scientific community, it is rare for a text to focus on an issue demanding immediate action. Silent Spring was a rallying cry for ecology and literally changed the course of history. It also made science writing more popular, creating a space for authors like E.O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, and Stephen Hawking to write about science and nature in a more popular way, while still maintaining scientific credibility.

So what about the role of the scientist? We would love to know your thoughts. What do you think scientists should and should not do when it comes to sharing information? What ethical responsibilities do scientists have to the public? And what is the best way of sharing that information?


Interested in learning more about the ways scientists communicate? Visit the Scientific Communication in our Process of Science series.

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.