February 5, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Science Seeks Integrity After Scandals

The Hwang scandal (01/09/2006) has prompted a good deal of international soul searching about scientific ethics.  (Now, it appears that Hwang also corrupted officials with monetary gifts; see New Scientist).  Some journals are preaching ethics like an old time revival is in session.  This raises an interesting question: what is the source of ethics?
    Despite widespread belief in the scientific establishment that ethics is a product of evolution, leading journals are calling for the old Judeo-Christian moral qualities of integrity, honesty, trustworthiness and virtue.  For example, three bioethicists writing in Science1 (the journal victimized by Hwang’s deceit) recalled how the early chemist Robert Boyle (a staunch Christian) took steps to enforce honesty among his fellow scientists:

In the 17th century, trust and integrity in science were central to the system of publication that we have inherited.  For example, the scientific community had to decide which reports from explorers from distant parts of the globe were reliable.  The issue also arose for the emerging experimental sciences, which Boyle and his colleagues at the Royal Society of London argued depended on actually witnessing the experimental events.  Boyle created the precursor to the modern scientific publication to provide sufficient detail so that other scientists could replicate the experiments, thus adding witnesses to the experimental data.  In cases where this was impractical, it would serve to produce sufficient information so that the readers were “virtual witnesses”.
    An important part of 17th-century scientific epistemology concerned establishing how one could tell that the reports were worth believing.  This included information about the skill of purported “witnesses,” design of the author, internal consistency of the account given, and whether contradictory “testimony” existed in the scientific literature.  Perhaps the most important protection was the integrity of the “informant,”  Therefore, establishing the rules by which one was trustworthy (a “gentleman”) became critical.
  (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

The word integrity appears 12 times in this short editorial.  Though scientists today have inherited Boyle’s system of procedures to ensure trustworthiness, and though many institutions try to teach ethics, the authors deny that procedures can guarantee results without individual morality:

Although some research universities now require that doctoral and postdoctoral students complete fairly elaborate courses in ethics, many more treat students to a sandbox morality lesson consisting of the admonition not to lie, cheat, or steal data.  The courses may have little effect on future misconduct.  The idea that research training, such as that required in the United States for some federally funded trainees and emphasized by the National Research Council report, in itself would have prevented fabrication on such a grand scale in South Korea strains credibility.
    Teachers must themselves be judged by the authorities in our institutions–not only for their ability to produce science, but also to be scientists of virtue and integrity.  The ability to give testimony and to act as a witness can be modeled, and students should be allowed to exercise skills of discernment and skepticism about results that seem unlikely or behaviors that are worrisome without punishment.  The lesson to be learned is that we need to do a better job of holding research institutions accountable for setting up systems and mentorship that will produce integrity in its scientists.

Nature,2 similarly, after the extent of the scandal came to light, pounded its pulpit about the centrality of ethics: “Research ethics matter immensely to the health of the scientific enterprise,” an Editorial pronounced: “Anyone who thinks differently should seek employment in another sphere.”  (What other spheres might be happy without ethics was left to the imagination.)  This same editorial tried to draw a distinction between relative and absolute ethical violations: “Furthermore, the question of what constitutes an ethical transgression may vary between societies that elect to impose different rules, whereas scientific fraud knows no borders.”  But can an evolutionary process yield universal standards of right and wrong?
    Both Nature and Science discussed their initiatives to shore up the trustworthiness of papers they publish by fortifying the peer review process and opening the “black box” to public scrutiny.  These efforts, however praiseworthy, beg the question whether process can compensate for individual integrity.


1Mildred K. Cho, Glenn McGee, David Magnus, “Lessons of the Stem Cell Scandal,” Science, 3 February 2006: Vol. 311. no. 5761, pp. 614 – 615, DOI: 10.1126/science.1124948.
2Editorial, “Ethics and Fraud,” Nature 439, 117-118 (12 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/439117a.

You can’t get blood out of a turnip, and you can’t get ethics out of evolution.  A simplistic evolutionary ethic is that whatever aids fitness is good.  This was the polluted fountain from which eugenics, social Darwinism, radical capitalism, nazism and communism sprung.  A less progressive evolutionary ethic is that whatever aids survival is good.  But a more reasoned analysis leads one to understand that ethics is utterly meaningless in Darwin’s world.  The word “good” does not even exist in the Darwin Dictionary.  Evolution is what evolution does.  The detached, dispassionate scientist watches a society kill itself through treachery and self-interest, and merely takes notes without any hint of judgment.  That is why even survival is not “good” or “bad” in an evolving, materialistic universe.  It may make you feel bad that a nation of terrorists swamps your alabaster city, or that a fellow scientist got rich by plagiarizing your work through bribery and fraud, but feelings are mere neurophysical responses to certain stimuli.  We must realize this when listening to the sermons of the Big Science revivalists; they are speaking nonsense to claim that integrity is good, or scientific progress is good, or fraud is bad.  Don’t let them borrow words from the Bible.  It is cheating to say cheating is a sin when you don’t believe sin exists.  To be consistent, an evolutionist would have to say, even if the whole planet destroyed itself, so what?  No big deal.  Things happen.
    Now think even deeper.  All such words like fraud, misconduct, punishment, trust, integrity, virtue, and honesty are words describing true moral categories.  Evolutionists try to construe these words as artifacts of social evolution.  They employ game theory (02/10/2004, 09/05/2003) to describe means by which populations reward cooperators and punish non-cooperators.  They think that these natural means bypass the need for moral categories and yield systems of ethics that mimic the Judeo-Christian values and produce religion (see 02/02/2006 story).  Why, then, did Nature, which frequently publishes such ideas, say that “scientific fraud knows no borders”?  This is a statement assuming absolute morality.  Surely a consistent evolutionist could conceive of a population where completely different “ethical standards” might have emerged.  But if not, if they claim that moral absolutes familiar to us are inevitable by a process of evolution, then they have ascribed these moral qualities to matter, as if they were like constants of physics.  We could then ask anthropic questions, like what fine-tuned the moral constants to produce a universe in which honesty emerged as a universally-acknowledged virtue?
    Secular scientists get worked up over ethics when serious lapses occur that threaten their trustworthiness.  Their speculations about how the moral sense evolved provide a thin cloak over an image of God they cannot hide.  By preaching virtue, integrity, trustworthiness and honesty, they are tacitly affirming the Biblical teaching that morality is rooted in the unchanging moral perfections of God.  Interesting that Hwang’s downfall has been called a “fall from grace” (see New Scientist).  Would that today’s Royal Society, AAAS and NAS and every other institution of Big Science, repent of their apostasy, and again heed the admonition Robert Boyle wrote in his will, “Wishing them also a most happy success in their laudable attempts to discover the true nature of the works of God, and praying, that they and all other searchers into physical truths may cordially refer their attainments to the glory of the Author of Nature, and the benefit of mankind.”

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