This would be something akin to the medical register rules that GPs are expected to abide by - a document from an independent panel that guarantees both the holder's credentials and more importantly holds the owner to scientific integrity. This independent panel would further have the ability to strike off a scientist who abused their position. Sound outlandish ? Perhaps, but since it generated interesting discussion from the scientists at the talk, let's discuss it further...
|A (terrible) artists impression of what a science license might look like....|
Scientist : Any person engaged in active research and / or science teaching, including medical researchers / medical doctors.
Research : Investigation into any scientific / medical phenomena utilising the scientific method.
Scientists are in a strange position - they investigate the world around us, a world that is often contrary to expectation. In some quarters and countries, they rank among the most trusted and are afforded an element of trust - an IPSOS poll found that 71% of respondents thought scientists were likely to tell the truth. A Nature survey also found 84% polled ranked scientists among the most trusted group on the planet, though given it came from Nature readers selection bias may be an issue. Yet if we contrast this with the scorn poured on evolutionary biologists and climate scientists in certain sectors of the ostensibly developed world an interesting dichotomy arises; that apparent trust can turn to overt negativity. Scientists are then in a delicate position - they do research, and sometimes the findings of that research is at odds with people's personal biases and people may not understand nor like this - That is a huge issue but not one we're interested in right now. Let's assume that over all, scientists are generally a trusted group.
|Trust me! I'm a scientist!|
- In 2002 Jan Hendrik Schon was fired from Bell Labs for faking semi-conductor data. At this stage he was publishing about a paper every 8 days in leading scientific journals, a phenomenal amount.
- In 2005 celebrated Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk was found to have falsified data and engaged in overt deception by claiming he had succeeded in producing a human clone.
- In 2002, Andrew wakefield wrongly and knowingly claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism for financial gain, prompting mass panic and needless deaths of children.
These were clear cases of scientific deception for career, financial or personal gain. Science is a self-correcting process and these frauds were exposed in due course, but each prompted serious questions over how they manipulated the system and indeed, how much time (and in some cases, lives) they wasted in the process. Worse still is when a renegade scientist manipulates this trust with a non-expert group, attempting to use their status to push nonsense. Sadly, even if the credentials are real, it does not guarantee the veracity of the speaker - Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Joe Mercola and Dr. Mehmet Oz all spring to mind as genuine titles spewing fake information. They are fully aware that too many people view science as something mysterious akin to an arcane religion practiced in Ivory towers by academics, and are all too happy to exploit those very same people who treat their pronouncements with almost religious fervour as if their status as a scientist or doctor means they are beyond reproach. Just look at Gillian McKeith obtaining a fake PhD just so she could hide behind the title of doctor and give her quackery the impression of depth and it becomes apparent that it is possible to abuse one's scientific position.
Could a scientific license maintain a higher standard from those qualified and also rid the world of degree mills and fake PhDs ? Furthermore, could it stop the contempible and intellectually shallow trick of someone holding a PhD in a certain field pretending to a be an authority on a different one, and hoping the public don't notice ? This happened only recently in the shamefull Wall Street Journal letter slamming climate change as a myth, signed by scientists - all of whom were not climatologists or even field experts and had vested interests for doing so.
|Ivory Tower - Not nearly as impressive as it sounds. Check and mate.|
|That's rich coming from a source that advocates vitamin D as a cancer cure...|
- Register would clearly demark ethical obligations of scientists.
- Could dismiss scientists in contempt of charter.
- Clear guidelines for scientists to operate under.
- May improve public perception of science.
- Potentially very cool membership card
- Difficult to enforce.
- May be overkill - academic disgrace usually enough.
- Potential for abuse and wrongful censure.
- May foster mistrust among researchers.
- Yet another bloody document / cost
So my question to scientists and lay people out there is do you think a scientific license would be a good idea, or a bad one ? I have no position on it (though I do like carrying various forms of ID and want to use science as a verb...) but I'd be eager to hear what others think. Feel free to click the poll and give some feedback!