The Duty of Communication: Why scientists have an obligation to inform the public of their discoveries

Author: Timothy H.T. Leung

In 1975, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declared that his nation should adopt the Four Modernizations as a means to the goal of developing the Communist state to rival Capitalist democracies by the next millennium. It is no coincidence that all of the four designated areas – agriculture, industry, science and defence – are related to the scientific pursuits of humanity, for science is so crucial to the development and direction of society. New epochs can be induced by scientific innovations, and it is telling that the three-age system of palaeoarchaeology is associated with the progressive use of natural resources by mankind; stone, bronze and iron were exploited to create instruments and weapons, which humans employed in their subsequent subjugation of both nature and other humans. Given the significance of science on the path of societal progress, scientists have a duty to communicate their findings so that society can evaluate the consequences of technological advances. We must constantly be assured that science is benefiting the global community, rather than being detrimental to civilisation.

Scientists’ Duty

If scientists are obliged to communicate discoveries merely so that their societal impact can be evaluated, it follows that this task would properly be left to social commentators, leading politicians and professional ethicists. Yet in a world increasingly drawn towards universal democracy and self-determination, it seems that the public are only satisfied if they are consulted on every matter and left to decide in referenda. The basis of simple democracy is that the majority are probably right in the majority of cases, and that it allows at least a semblance of equality and fairness. Therefore, scientists possess a duty of communication so that society can analyse the impact of discoveries on its future.

Aside from promoting ethical debate, scientists are obliged to educate the people about the world in which we live. Scientific education is of utmost importance in promoting greater understanding of our physical world, and indeed the theologian St. Thomas Aquinas designated education as one of his primary precepts, a concept which must never be contradicted for the good of society.

A degree of scientific thought is necessary for survival. Science stems from the human instinct to survive within their surroundings through attempts to understand it, and it is only through exploration of one’s environment that one can begin to effectively interact with it, make use of its resources, and therefore continue to live. John Donne’s axiom ‘No man is an island’ is applicable here, though the context is different. Thus the function of a scientific education is to provide a method of safe interaction between man and environment. The argument opposing the duty of communication continues that current scientific research scarcely contributes to this purpose, so that there is no necessity for this supposed obligation; on the whole we know enough about the environment to survive peaceably with it. Moreover, in an age where information is so easily retrievable, there is no necessity that children learn the plethora of tedious facts often associated with science.

Yet one could certainly counter that line of reasoning: if the aim of science is ultimately to pacify the environment to such an extent that humanity can interact in an absolutely safe manner with it, then we still have some way to go, for death is still prevalent; although this search for the elusive elixir of life nevertheless poses insurmountable ethical issues. Science also encourages a logical method of thought based on empirical and rational deductions, and is not merely a vast ocean of facts. While it would seem that the education argument absolves some scientists of the duty of communication if their work is of little practical relevance, it is nonetheless important that they disclose their discoveries, for they can contribute to a broader scientific education.


Even when research appears to be extraneous, it could prove to be the basis for other more significant findings. The German philosopher Hegel formulated the dialectic process, a useful model for mapping the development of knowledge: a thesis is proposed, which is contradicted by an antithesis, and the subsequent solution of the inconsistencies creates the synthesis. It is only through the enthusiastic transmission of findings that the scope of human knowledge can advance, thus giving scientists that greatest duty of accommodating the progress of society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *