Adventures in Ethics and Science

Why “Dr. Free-Ride”?

Longtime readers of the previous incarnation of this blog knew me as “Dr. Free-Ride”. Most of them, however, never asked where that pseudonym came from. As it happens, the source of the pseudonym was a class discussion (in my “Ethics in Science” course) that, by its very liveliness, inspired me to start the blog in the first place.

The class discussion was about whether those with scientific training are morally obligated to practice science. Some (like Kristin Shrader-Frechette, in her book Ethics of Scientific Research) have argued that trained scientists have a positive duty to do scientific research because:

  • society has paid for the training the scientists have received (through federal funding of research projects, training programs, etc.)
  • society has pressing needs that can best (only?) be addressed if scientific research is conducted
  • those few members of society who have specialized skills that are needed to address particular societal needs have a duty to use those skills to address those needs (i.e., if you can do research and most other people can’t, then to the extent that society as a whole needs the research that you can do, you ought to do it)

It’s an interesting claim to examine with a classroom of science majors. How do you suppose it went over?

Since it was early in the term and I was still working to break the ice — to get the class past polite discussion and into the ring to wrestle with the claims they were reading — I decided that it was only fair to put myself up as a test-case. Am I a bum — a free-rider — by virtue of having scientific training but living the life of a philosopher? That self-examination was the very first post of the original “Adventures in Ethics and Science”, which I reproduce in its entirety below the fold.

I got a Ph.D. in chemistry, funded in large part by the taxpayers. I am not, however, a practicing chemist. So, the burning question of the day is whether this means I’m falling down on my duties to society. Let’s start filling in the balance-sheet:

I didn’t pay any tuition for my graduate classwork … but the university was paid (by the fellowship support) for numerous units that weren’t actually classes (e.g., for research, teaching, and seminar). I won’t broach the subject of whether every course I took was actually worth the money the university exacted for it.

I got training on very expensive equipment … but I also did a lot of work on that very expensive equipment. A lot of work. And I brought a research project or two to completion and shared that knowledge through journal publications.

I got paid a graduate stipend for the work I did in the lab and teaching … but the hourly wage equivalent was a step above sweatshop (maybe even if you include the taxpayer’s contribution to my tuition). And, one hopes, I made a real contribuition to the undergraduate education of the students I TA’d. Also, I may have failed a pre-med or two who would, if allowed to become a med student, have killed someone.

My training equipped me to conduct serious research in physical chemistry … my temperament, maybe not so much. Also, no part of me was terribly interested in the amount of grant-writing and lab administration that would have been required of me as a principal investigator. (Plus, it didn’t seem fair that I probably would have had to delay or skip having kids altogether to survive academic chemistry.)

Plausibly, I could have been a chemist in industry … although I might have had to lie about having a Ph.D., since it’s harder to get an industry job with a Ph.D. sometimes than with an M.S. And I don’t really like the culture of industry. And I might have ended up spending more time solving the shareholders’ problems than solving society’s problems.

Possibly I’m making more of a contribution to society — even from the point of view of its scientific needs — as a philosopher than I would have been making as a chemist. For example, I’m helping broaden the general understanding of science among the citizenry (in my philosophy of science course — and in the cable broadcasts of the lectures that innocent bystanders might encounter while channel surfing). I’m pushing scientific understanding of the methods of science just a little bit further in my research in the philosophy of chemistry. And, I’m participating in the training of fresh scientists on issues of responsible conduct of research.

So maybe the taxpayers don’t need to come after me for not being a scientist. They’ll have to find some other good reason.


  1. #1 coturnix
    January 19, 2006

    I see this notion everywhere, especially with students, that there are only two things to do with a science degree: research or teaching.

    But not everyone with a PhD is suitable for research or a talented teacher. Also, there is a glut in the market of researchers, at least those who want to be in the academia.

    Science is an industry. The core are researchers and college teachers. But, just like any other industry, there are other jobs to be done. Some are administrators – they better have a PhD and have an idea what research and teaching are all about. Some teach science in high school, or middle school, or in community colleges. All are indispensable for the industry of science. Some are science journalists – they also better have experience in research and teaching, too. Some write or edit textbooks. Some illustrate science books. Some write popular science books. Some make documentaries for Discovery Channel. Some run science publishing houses. Some design and sell lab equipment. Some breed lab animals. Some do research and teach meta-science: history, philosophy, sociology of science, science ethics, science education and communication. Some work in governmental organizations, or advise farmers. Yet others serve as advisors to elected officials. Whatever they do, their job is important for the industry of science. And whatever they do, they will do it better if they have the PhD experience. Nobody is free-riding, as long as they do something within the industry of science.

    My students gasp when I trot out all of these options to them – they always thought they had only two choices: research or teaching.

  2. #2 coturnix
    January 19, 2006

    I forgot museum curators and Zoo directors, as well as (patent) lawyers (a friend of mine got a PhD in biology and is now in law school).

  3. #3 rob helpy-chalk
    January 19, 2006

    I think you are missing an important question: you also have some training in academic philosophy, no? Perhaps even a second Ph.D? Are you doing enough to supply society’s needs for high quality philosophy? Are you being a good gadfly? Are you questioning people in the marketplace to see if they really know what they claim they know? Promoting moral development? Asking really annoying questions that no one else cares about?

  4. #4 Dr. Free-Ride (Janet)
    January 19, 2006

    Wait a minute, are you saying society needs philosophers? (Yeah, I think so, too.)

    But wouldn’t doing science somehow be of greater benefit to humanity? Scientists make stuff, like antivirals and iPods. Philosophers just make our heads hurt …

    Perhaps part of the reason I’m resistant to arguments about “duties” like this that are supposed to flow from ability is that they assume a hard division of labor in society that gives lay people permission not to understand, or care about, a damn thing that goes beyond their societal role. “I don’t need to know about science or how it works; let the scientists worry about that.” Or, “Why on earth do I need to be able to make a coherent argument? That’s the philosophers’ turf.”

    When the plane goes down and you climb out of the wreckage, contemplating your chances of survival, what are you going to do if there are no scientists (or philosophers) among the survivors. (Well, maybe a plane crash isn’t the scenario I need to make the point here …)

  5. #5 Leah
    January 19, 2006

    I agree with you — owing a debt to society for being a scientist (or doctor or teacher or anything) is perhaps somewhat valid, but it also releases others in society from bothering to learn about those topics. Letting scientists worry about science is not the way to a better world (and, I might argue, people don’t follow this. if they did, we’d have to break it to them that they shouldn’t be cooking or cleaning or worrying about what their kids learn at school).

    I think it’s alright what you did. As a grad student, you pay your debt by the work you do as a TA/RA/publishing scientist. I paid to go to undergraduate, and I expected to be taught via classes, labs, and direct involvement of the teachers (of course, I volunteered to run things and TA too, but that’s in my nature). I’m not going to pay to go to graduate school, and I expect to learn through my work in a quid pro quo set up.

    As a side note, I think it is important for people to be trained in more than one discipline. Sure, maybe your pchem knowledge is not used on a daily basis as a philosopher, but it sure doesn’t hurt to give yourself and your students more than one perspective.

  6. #6 rob helpy-chalk
    January 19, 2006

    Wait a minute, are you saying society needs philosophers? (Yeah, I think so, too.)

    Now more than ever.

    But wouldn’t doing science somehow be of greater benefit to humanity? Scientists make stuff, like antivirals and iPods.

    See, this whole “making stuff” thing is why we need philosophers. Most of the stuff we make–iPods, SUVs–don’t contribute to human well being. Other stuff we make–antivirals–does contribute to human well being, but isn’t fairly distributed.

    I think we spend far too much time as it is making stuff. I would be pleased if my contribution to humanity were actually to un-make a few things.

  7. #7 Zuska
    January 20, 2006

    For those who remained unconvinced by Dr. Free-Ride’s arguments, try this thought experiment. Take “Scientists are obligated to do research because they have special training and society needs the results of their work.” Replace “Scientists” with “Coal Miners”. “Coal Miners are obligated to work in coal mines because they have special training (gained on the job, or provided by the coal company) and society needs the coal they mine.” Would anyone seriously argue that someone trained to be a coal miner is thus obligated to mine coal for the rest of his/her life? (yep, there are female coal miners) Should my brother have stayed in the mine rather than going to college and learning to do something else for a living that didn’t require him to breathe coal dust 8 hrs a day? I don’t think most people would make the argument that individuals in blue collar and dangerous professions are obligated to stay there for life – it’s antithetical to our beliefs about “upward mobility” and the Rugged Individual claiming his/her own destiny.

    By the same token, we needen’t pretend science is somehow free of workplace hazards, because it is practiced by educated elites. Science has its equivalents of breathing coal dust – even literally. Working in a lab with noxious chemicals for years on end can increase your risk of cancer or birth defects in your offspring. Working in a lab for years on end with noxious colleagues/bosses can increase your risk of depression and other mental health problems. No one has a right to say you are obligated to continue working in hazardous conditions because you “owe” society. The argument is just more obvious with blue collar work.

    But, what about the “we invested money in you” argument? “We” includes you yourself, since throughout your working life time you will pay taxes, too. Consider it reimbursing the government for some of what you got. Alternatively, consider the idea of an investment. Not all investments pay off. Sometimes investors lose money. Grad students flunk out, PhD’s don’t do research, some because they choose not to, some because they become disabled or die. Taxpayers are not investing in you as an individual; they are investing in a system that, on average, overall, yields scientifically trained inviduals who can carry out the science-related needs of society.

  8. #8 aussie
    January 21, 2006

    Society has many needs that can best be met by scientists. Some of those needs might be determined to have greater importance than others. For instance, is it really necessary to design a 6th generation iPod when we are in desperate need of alternative energy solutions? Should we therefore place an obligation on those with extensive scientific training to work in a specific scientific field? With a degree in p-chem you would, technically, be well suited to face the “eco-challenge.”

  9. #9 Langweilig
    January 21, 2006

    This seems like a specialized version of what economics tells us we should be doing. Basically, at any given moment you need to ignore your sunk costs and determine what would benefit society the most. I mean, it’s really just utilitarianism, right? If you can give the most benefit to society after you’ve already been trained to do X in something other than X, then clearly you should be doing something other than X. This gets around Zuska’s (fairly correct) interpretation of the argument that you can replace scientists with coal miners. If his/her brother left the coal mines and got an education that ended up (somehow) resulting in an overall better place then of course he should do it. I don’t know, maybe he just contributed $10 more in GDP every year to the world’s economy but it was a change. But it does bring up thorny issues like – if it was best overall for everyone that he stay in that coal mine and get lung cancer, what should he actually do?

    And these same kind of arguments could be used to say that maybe yes, it is really necessary to design a 6th generation iPod. Without the person to design that iPod, fewer iPods are sold causing people at Apple to get less compensation causing less tax revenues to go to the government to fund the research in alternative energy (for want of a match…).

    Of course, saying all this, how much do I agree with it? Not very much. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a product of a hedonistic liberal society, but I say do whatever you feel like as long as it doesn’t hurt people. And that’s my answer.

  10. #10 aussie
    January 22, 2006

    But if Apple were an alternative energy research corporation they could presumably design products that could then be sold for compensation and also pay taxes to fund any government sponsored programs. It is difficult to say which would generate more revenue, ipods or energy tech, in the long run.

    Of course there are sectors of the economy that are essential and cannot be reallocated into other endeavors, but there are also those that are not fundamental and could be replaced without harming the web of interdependence.

  11. #11 potentilla
    January 23, 2006

    Pragmatically speaking, if you try to stick doing science when your heart isn’t in it, you will probably do it badly and be a sub-standard half-assed scientist. Or possibly, if you have a great sense of duty, a competent scientist but a miserable person. Some input to the utilitarian calculations here.

  12. #12 thelemurgod
    January 25, 2006

    Heh, excellent. I can relate. I worked hard to get a degree in biology/biochemistry, and am now dedicating my life to drawing cartoons/comics. 😀

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