Science cannot operate with ethics. Ugly things can happen when scientists ignore ethical boundaries.
Here’s a short reading list on why ethics matters in science.
Scientific racism: “Scientific racism” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it was an ugly reality for centuries. According to Science Daily, anthropologist Nina Jablonski is warning that genetic studies threaten to resurrect it again. “Racism as a social and scientific concept is reshaped and reborn periodically through the ages, and according to a Penn State anthropologist, both medical and scientific researchers need to be careful that the growth of genomics does not bring about another resurgence of scientific racism.” Starting with Immanuel Kant, she details how racism infected scientific studies up through Darwin and into Galton’s eugenics.
Teamwork: On a milder note, teamwork in research is an ethical subject, too. Science Daily points out that it involves “conflict negotiation, effective communication, and time management” among others. Those are ethical qualities, not scientific criteria.
Scientific method ethics: Something as mechanical as applying a statistical significance test involves ethics. Nature discussed the oft-used 5% threshold for significance of findings, show how it is (1) arbitrary and (2) subject to abuse. Scientists and medical researchers have been known to keep trying a test until they get a 5% result. This provides no more certainty than chance, and has led to bogus claims. “The irony is that when UK statistician Ronald Fisher introduced the P value in the 1920s, he did not mean it to be a definitive test,” the article says. “He intended it simply as an informal way to judge whether evidence was significant in the old-fashioned sense: worthy of a second look.” In practice, though, the 5% threshold has been treated as a “gold standard,” like a law handed down by God, when it is “actually handed down to us by ourselves, through the methodology we adopt.”
Religious perception: An article on PhysOrg shows that the “science vs. religion” picture is incorrect, if not deceptive. A Rice University survey found that a substantial minority of scientists attend religious services regularly, read religious texts and pray – in fact, their numbers are not so different from those in the general population. This “Religious Understandings of Science” (RUS) survey was the largest of its kind, involving 10,000 “Americans, scientists and evangelical Protestants.” News media commit “enormous stereotyping,” spokesperson Elaine Howard Ecklund noted from this “hopeful message for science policymakers”. She also found, contrary to intuition, that evangelical scientists have less doubts about their faith. The article ends, “The study is being provided to the AAAS Dialogue on Science Ethics and Religion program to help foster dialogue between religious groups and scientists.”
How would Jesus treat a robot? New Scientist posted an unusual story about a creationist group that is turning to a robot for ethical guidance. Actually, it’s a North Carolina seminary that decided to use a robot as a tool to address ethical dilemmas. One thing they won’t be doing is justifying any conclusions with appeals to survival of the fittest.
Preaching to the AAAS: An ethics professor from Arizona State spoke about research ethics at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Feb. 16, PhysOrg reported. Jason Robert was glad for the opportunity to discuss ethics with a scientific audience instead of among his usual philosophical colleagues. “Especially when some National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health programs are undergoing scrutiny from lawmakers and their constituents, it’s important that scientists think critically about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how they justify it.” Example: scientists are changing their mind about medicating schizophrenics, Science Magazine reported. The side effects of the drugs can sometimes be worse than the disease.
Science and politics: When scientists insert themselves into political decisions, they are making ethical judgments. Why did Science Magazine think it was any of its scientific business to comment on Uganda’s decision to outlaw certain forms of homosexual activism, calling it an “antigay bill”? Why did science news website PhysOrg say “Something’s wrong in Washington,” claiming democracy is in crisis? Why did Science Daily reprint a Michigan State press release that resurrected the discredited claims of Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson in a piece about the “population bomb” and a new “household bomb”? Why did Medical Xpress publish the political opinions of academics who “condemned” the family policies of Margaret Thatcher? These examples show that science, ethics and even politics are often intertwined.
Ethics in practice: Here are a couple of science stories with ethical overtones. How should scientists think, and how should they act, regarding these findings? Science Daily reported that violent video games actually do delay the development of moral judgment in teens. Science cannot even approach that subject without defining what “moral judgment” means, and how it could be measured. In an unrelated story, Live Science reported that birds are being barbecued by a huge new solar energy plant in southern California. Even if the number of birds killed is far less than those that fly into windows each year, what should scientists who helped design the project think about this unintended consequence? “The bodies of falcons, hawks, warblers, sparrows and other birds have appeared on and around the plant,” officials were surprised to learn.
Science cannot operate without ethics. It is not a neutral, mechanical method for generating unbiased knowledge. From the get-go, scientists need to be honest. They need to decide what research projects are justifiable. They need to take responsibility for the claims they make to the public and to government policymakers. Without credibility, science is no better than a cult. Credibility requires a reputation for trustworthiness, wisdom and sound reason. Those are all ethical values. Ask an evolutionist: where did honesty evolve from? What gene mutated to make a human trustworthy? Where is the brain region for wisdom? How did reason emerge from hydrogen. If he or she cannot answer these, let them know, kindly, that you can no longer trust anything they say, including their claims about evolution.