For hundreds of years, scientists were just one fixture in the firmament of the intellectual class, as colourful and strident in their own way as the philosophers and poets. But come the 20th Century and the public began to regard scientists with fear and awe, thanks to the advent of immense technologies such as the atomic bomb. In response, the profession consciously rebranded as anonymous public servants in white coats: dutiful, considered and above all, safe. But new research published in PLOS One by researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam and British Columbia suggests that we see scientists as uneasily different, morally separate, and a little bit dangerous.
Bastiaan Rutjens and Steven Heine conducted a series of experiments with nearly 1,900 American participants they recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website (38 per cent women, average age 30). The participants had to complete the conjunction task that involves identifying which of two options they think is more likely to be true, where one option involves detail A (for example, “there are more red pens”), and the other both detail A and detail B (“there are more red, sharp pens”) – the latter is the conjunction response. Logically speaking, there can never be more “red sharp pens” than there are simply “red pens” (the former is a subset of the latter), and the correct answer is always to avoid choosing the conjunction response. But we often break that rule – and reveal our unintentional assumptions – when that extra detail feels too relevant to the situation to ignore.
In the new studies, participants broke the rule when the extra detail was “scientist” and the situation was necrobestiality. That’s right. Participants read one of a range of scenarios involving moral transgressions such as consensual adult incest or having sex with a dead dog, and had to decide whether the perpetrator was a sports fan, or a sports fan and an X. Participants were more likely to opt for the second (conjunction) response when that X was a scientist rather than a control category such as Christian, gay, or Hispanic.
But, scientists were no more likely to be suspected for other moral transgressions such as cheating at cards or treating others abusively, which are examples of harming others for pleasure or personal gain. It seems that the scientists are not being seen as selfishly immoral, but as willing to bend the rules of society, and engage in impure activities – suggesting, in the authors’ words, the “scrupulous ‘Faustian experimentalist’ unburdened by morality but not deliberately evil”. The one borderline result was for serial murder, which was more associated with a scientist perpetrator: this crime undoubtedly involves harm, but also invokes impurity and boundary breaking, without clear self-interested motives, and it seems plausible that it is these aspects driving the association. One way to test this in the future would be with a different murder scenario, such as a crime of passion or for profit.
The data showed that scientists weren’t being swept into a broader atheist category when making judgments: atheists were seen as more likely to be selfishly harmful, whereas scientists were not, and participants’ responses to the question “Do you think that a scientist can believe in God?” had no bearing on their eventual judgments of scientists’ morality. Further data clarified that people were slightly more likely to attribute moral transgressions to scientists if they also saw them as “lacking emotions” or “like a robot.” Scientists were generally seen as valuing curiosity over doing the right thing, and as more dangerous than normal people – and the stronger these perceptions, the more participants saw them as having amoral tendencies.
Yet scientists weren’t seen overall as negative. In fact, they were the most liked group, when compared to atheists, religious and even the average Joe. It’s just that we have this funny feeling that, when society says ‘“no”, the scientist might answer “…why?” and cross boundaries that others leave well alone. As to the truth of this characterisation, this study offers no advice. The true scientists among you might want to find out for yourselves.
Rutjens, B., & Heine, S. (2016). The Immoral Landscape? Scientists Are Associated with Violations of Morality PLOS ONE, 11 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0152798
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