Scientists play quite a number of roles. One of the roles of a scientist is to admit when a question is too hard to answer. Scientists have played so many roles, good and bad, that we can't single out one or even pretend to give a complete list. We can try to give a bit of an idea.
Many of us feel that the most special single trait of a scientist is a curiosity intense enough to make one keep questioning one's beliefs and testing them to see if they fit with actual observations. Since no one person can carry that process too far, scientists also need to work together. That requires trusting each other a good deal, but skeptically. We have to build on what previous generations of scientists have found out, without simply accepting it as the certain truth.
In society, scientists provide much of the knowledge needed for progress in technology and medicine. Ideally, we provide the knowledge and understanding needed to help make good social decisions on the biggest questions, such as how to avoid terrible damage to the environment, or how to deal with epidemics. Of course, we also make a lot of mistakes, and even when we're right about science, we often don't do enough to see that our work isn't used for destructive or short-sighted purposes.
Maybe our biggest contribution can be to provide an example of how imperfect people can cooperate to respect evidence and logic.
Scientists have had an important role for nearly three thousand years, with some scientific speculations going back at least as early as 548 B.C. with Thales of Miletus. Scientific reasoning developed out of philosophy and the thirst for understanding how the things around us work. Scientists are often people who want to see change occur. They want to know why things happen the way they do. Many periods of time have had scientific leaders, those who challenged others to look deeper into their surroundings. So they are often leaders in learning about the natural world. Today, the role of a scientist is the same. We have the obligation to explore and discover. Scientists use their resources to bring about change, whether it is change in medicine, improvements in the environment, or creating more efficient fuels.
(republished on 07/13/06)