October 1, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Science Depends on Ethics

Naive reporters and textbook writers sometimes portray science as some kind of neutral, bias-free activity in which the “truth” about nature emerges on its own, as long as the scientist in the lily-white lab coat follows some kind of “scientific method.”  Philosophers, theologians, ethicists and scientists with a background in any of these fields know better.  One has to believe that truth about nature exists in order to seek for it.  And one has to seek for it honestly.  Many more examples of science’s ties to ethics or "moral philosophy" can be found, as a few recent articles show.

  1. Scientific integrity:  What is integrity, if not an ethical term describing human character seeking the ideals of honesty and openness?  In a letter to Nature last week (Nature 477, 22 September 2011, p. 407, doi:10.1038/477407d), Alfred P. Zarb advised fellow scientists to “Make integrity key to recruitment” in an effort to combat scientific misconduct.  “Far from being a vague ideal, the complex and sensitive issue of maintaining integrity in science is a critical imperative,” he said.  “In my view, it would help to demand and monitor integrity in scientists and managers from the outset” – when hiring.  “Most researchers know from their training that honesty is fundamental to scientific integrity,” he continued, “But some managers and agency officials can find themselves in difficult situations” that tempt them to cheat or compromise.  “The only way to achieve scientific integrity across the board is to ensure that personal and professional values (as well as knowledge and skills) are primary criteria for the employment of both scientists and managers.”  For his idealism he got some nasty digs by peers.  One said, “This is a recipe for the establishment of a scientific Gestapo”; another, “Just forget it – not possible in current scenario.”  Even so, the critics were not denying the need for integrity, just Zarb’s method for achieving it.
  2. Damage of misconduct:  The Hwang scandal of 2006 left South Korea’s stem cell research in tatters.  PhysOrg reported that “President Lee Myung-Bak promised Monday to spend some $89 million restoring South Korea’s reputation as a leader in stem cell research, five years after a scandal tarnished its reputation.”  Though the short article did not mention it, one can only hope that part of the funding will go to training research scientists in professional ethics, lest another Hwang is hwaiting in the hwings.
  3. Universal values:  What are the universal values of science?  PhysOrg reported on a meeting of the General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU) to delineate them.  While scientists generally love to advocate the free practice of science, this body focused on the “need for scientists to pay equal attention to their responsibilities.”  Freedom and responsibility must remain in balance, the council emphasized.  The article includes a statement by the ICSU explaining their position.  On the freedom side, the board “promotes equitable opportunities for access to science and its benefits, and opposes discrimination based on such factors as ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political or other opinion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, or age.”  The flip side is that science “requires responsibility at all levels to carry out and communicate scientific work with integrity, respect, fairness, trustworthiness, and transparency, recognising its benefits and possible harms.”  Bengt Gustafsson, chair of the ICSU, spoke of unchanging values even “As our world evolves,” namely, “there are certain principles and responsibilities that are fundamental to ‘good science’.”  These include “honesty in all aspects of research, accountability in the conduct of scientific research, professional courtesy and fairness in working with others, and good stewardship of research on behalf of others.”  The implication is that “national, and even disciplinary, differences in the way research is actually carried out” might evolve, these principles must remain steadfast.
  4. Protestant work ethicPhysOrg posted an unusual article about a study performed at the University of Warwick that claims the Protestant work ethic was responsible for the economic and social progress of northern European countries over their southern counterparts.  Dr. Sascha Becker looked at 450 counties in the 19th century Prussia. “Religiosity was also more pervasive at this time,” Becker said.  “It seems religion was the main driver behind education differences, Protestants were more encouraged to go to school and read the bible [sic], and this higher level of education translated into higher incomes than their Catholic neighbours.”  More Protestants went to the university, and Protestant counties granted more individual liberty to citizens, including women, who were educated along with the men.  Becker traced these advantages to “16th Century Reformers [who] pushed to make sure there were church schools operating in all parishes.”  Needless to say, a higher percentage of university graduates would also translate into a higher number of scientists (known as natural philosophers until 1833).

On a more purely philosophical note, PhysOrg posted an interesting new look into the theory of causation.  How do we distinguish between prediction and causation?  For instance, does a loud sound cause a frog to jump, or does the frog jump because it anticipates harm from whatever caused the sound?  The article got into the weeds about “transfer entropy” and “information flow” and other concepts that Shawn Pethel at the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama is trying to work out in his model, but the headline points out the interesting idea that “Information theory may hold the key” to solving this long-standing philosophical debate.

The last entry points out that science is inevitably tied to philosophy just as it is tied to ethics.  Clearly, though, Pethel cannot hope to arrive at the “truth about nature” without having a personal commitment to integrity.  Can you imagine science without integrity?  Even if it is not always achieved, it’s like trying to imagine an airplane without air, a fish without water, or a game without rules.  If there’s even “honor among thieves,” it’s clear that no field of human endeavor is productive without some measure of integrity.  Science should rise among those endeavors with the highest standards.

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