Roles of scientists

Partly motivated, perhaps, by frequent exposure to Hurrellean lists, I have been thinking about elements of the thesis in categorical terms. My head, therefore, is swimming with Venn Diagrams. Today’s ponderings have been about the roles played by scientists. I have come up with three headings:

  1. Investigative
  2. Deliberative
  3. Regulatory

The first is their traditionally conceived role, with the latter two serving as necessary modulating adjuncts.


This is your standard ‘scientist peering down a microscope / examining RADAR images / performing Fourier Transforms‘ role. Within it, there are components related to discovery and components related to refining existing hypotheses. This is true both when science is behaving as evolutionary gradualists would predict (slowly making LEDs brighter and more power efficient) and during periods of punctuated equilibrium (think of the development of quantum theory, explaining those LEDs, and of Kuhn).

When it comes to the environment, important scientific behaviours mostly have to do with studying interactions. How does the combination of GHG emissions and particular emissions affect mean global temperature? How does the evaporation rate of Lake Nasser affect the marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean?


The difference between deliberative and regulatory is partly akin to the difference between safety and security. Safety has to do with protecting against non-malicious risks. A lightning rod is a safety device – unless you believe in a vengeful deity. Security has to do with addressing threats from active attackers. The same distinction exists when it comes to scientific integrity. Someone might make an undetected experimental error and come up with data that is incorrect; some early satellite measurements of global temperature were like this. Someone else might be in the pocket of a group with a vested interest in denying climate change, and might thus be working with an experimental agenda of muddying the waters.

The deliberative role of scientists, in an ideal community, is a mechanism for dealing with non-malicious disagreement. Experiments that are outlying can be examined and replicated, the reasons for the unexpected results identified. Theories can be developed and debated in the face of evidence.

Unlike the investigative role, which can be performed perfectly well by lone scientists in igloos on Baffin Island, counting the amount of lichen per square metre outside, this role is fundamentally social. It strikes at the important distinction between science as a set of procedures and ideals, scientists as actors who try to apply them, and the scientific community as an epistemic grouping.

On a side note: it does seem possible for a scientist to be generally strong on the investigative side, but very weak on the deliberative side. Richard Dawkins comes immediately to mind. What is wrong with his positions is much less the empirical basis of most of his claims, and much more the structures of argumentation that he tries to use to assert them. For deliberation to be a useful exercise, it cannot be entirely self-confident and closed to alternative perspectives. It is also important for it to be aggressive in terms of analysis, not in terms of attacking people – an ugly trait that Professor Dawkins has revealed more and more as his anger overwhelms his judgement.


I see the regulatory role as being two-fold. The first part is akin to security, as discussed above. It is the process of trying to separate the quacks from those who have genuine reasons and data behind their position. This is naturally an imperfect process, but it is something that the scientific community must engage with if it is to remain a ‘community’ in any meaningful way. A meaningless community, by contrast, would be one with ties only on the basis of common obscure knowledge or some kind of internal system of controls not based on seeking correspondence between scientific explanation and physical reality.

The other side of the regulatory role has to do with generating institutional structures. Issues like funding, the prioritization of research, and the like fall into this category. This is important, partly because it relates closely to the mechanisms by which quackery is identified. Whether or not the common historical perspective on Galileo as a correct person immersed in a structure of incorrect people is correct, it demonstrates the possibility that the mechanisms of scientific deliberation and regulation could be enforcing incorrect ideas. Avoiding this requires avoiding excess rigidity – a topic that arises frequently in the Lomborg debate, and with wide-ranging implications.

I would be especially keen to hear what any scientists reading this think of the above (real, labcoat-wearing scientists, not IR scholars with extensive statistical faith). If you don’t care to comment, perhaps you could just indicate in some unobtrusive way that there are actually a few people with scientific training who have been reading my mutterings from time to time. I know for sure about one. Naturally, non-scientists are encouraged to comment, as well.

PS. If you want an example of how ad hominem attacks are more likely to make you look stupid than correct, have a look at the latest disingenuous malarky from the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Never mind that carbon offsets have been used to offset the emissions related to An Inconvenient Truth, just look at the non-sensical progression of numbers on their little counters.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

11 thoughts on “Roles of scientists”

  1. Milan,

    Have you been reading the Philosophy of science I pointed you towards? I fear if you do not, you will end up doing much conceptual work which has already been done, thus both causing a lot of trouble for you and possibly making you look silly. If you want to know about the relation of deliberation and investigation, lots of people have written about this – to what extent does science neccesitate it’s community to be science? Richenbach comes to mind. He argues that the lone scientist on baffin island, on his own, isn’t really a scientist – he’s only a scientist inasmuch as he’s part (even part by being physically absent from) a scientific community. He proves this with the Robinson Crusoe thought experiement: If Robinson Crusoe had on his own come up with all the scientific discoveries of the next 50 years after he was stranded, all on his own, would he be doing science? And the obvious awnser is that he woudn’t be, because there would have been no deliberation, no cross checking of facts – on its own, investigation is not robust enough to be science. You seem to already get that. I wish I still had my phil o science reading package. In short, the issue of regulation and how it relates to deliberation and investigation is the issue of philosophy of science once it stops being about logic.

  2. You say you think of Kuhn when you think of investigative? This is odd. Normal Science is about the relation of investigation and deliberation and the presuppositions that make it possible as a whole. Revolutionary science is about deliberation and regulation.

  3. Tristan,

    Dealing with your smallest point first: I made reference to Kuhn with regards to ‘periods of punctuated equilibrium.’

    In evolutionary biology, gradualists believe all change is incremental. Those who believe in punctuated equilibrium thinks there are periods of relative stability and explosive periods of advancement. I meant only to imply that this is, in some sense, similar to Kuhn’s notion of scientific paradigm.

    Your other points, I will return to soon.

  4. Milan, have you read Dennis Ho’s thesis from 2004 on the role of scientists in Chinese energy policy? It’s an incredibly boring read in my opinion and nothing to do with IR at all, but a watertight case for the power of epistemic communities in policy formation. Might give you some ideas.

  5. Re: Dawkins

    I watched that. It really wasn’t interesting. Colbert having to remain in character (as a high class idiot) kept him from being able to ask anything genuinely interesting.

  6. If you are awash in lost continents, channeling and UFOs, you may
    not have intellectual room for the findings of [real] science.

    — Carl Sagan

  7. “Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”

    Bertrand Russell, Impact of Science on Society (1952) ch. 1
    British author, mathematician, & philosopher (1872 – 1970)

  8. James Burke : TDTUC, E05 : “Infinitely Reasonable” (CC)

    Episode 5 of James Burke’s ground-breaking series “The Day The Universe Changed” which explores the evolution of Western Scientific thought starting from the fall of Rome.

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