Scientific Progress and Ethics (was Re: Ethics in research question)

Jonathan Kochmer evolutio at carson.u.washington.edu
Wed Sep 8 07:19:59 EST 1993


Ellen Wijsman writes:

> Of course, wouldn't we all like to work in a utopia!  But seriously, the
> original post was a request for a discussion on ethics and possible
> ramifications on the fate of scientific progress...

well, let's start a new, more general thread then...

For those interested in substantive analysis of this larger question, I
highly recommend David Hull's _Science as a Process_ (U. Chicago Press,
1988), which is based on an exemplary study of the contentious and
frequently _ad hominem_ debates and power struggles in systematics. 

Here's what Hull writes about the "true", as opposed to the ostensively
utopian vision of science, which should provide a good bolus on which to
ruminate (note especially the 2nd paragraph!): 

  "I am afraid that no one will read the first half of this book without
   periodic gasps of dismay. Perhaps scientists are not disembodied
   intellects... The political infighting, the name calling, the parody and
   ridicule, the arrogance, elitism, and use of raw power are likely to
   strike some readers as distasteful. This response calls for two comments.
   First, some of the virtues which scientists fail to exemplify are not and
   never have been part of the ethos of science. Neither humility nor
   egalitarianism has ever characterized scientists, and no one has ever
   given any good reasons why they should. Second, scientists behave no worse
   in these respects than do members of other professions. The behavior of
   the scientists whose careers I chronicle may not look very good when
   compared to some Platonic ideal scientist, but it looks very good when
   compared to the behavior of doctors, politicians, or bankers."

  "I argue an even stronger thesis: some of the behavior that appears to 
   be most improper actually facilitates the manifest goals of science.
   Mitroff remarks that the 'problem is how objective knowledge results in
   science not despite bias and committment, but because of them.' Although
   knowledge through bias and committment sounds as paradoxical as bombs
   for peace, I agree that the existence and ultimate rationality of 
   science can be explained in terms of bias, jealousy, and irrationality.
   As it turns out, the least productive scientists tend to behave the most
   admirably, while those who make the greatest contributions just as
   frequently behave the most deplorably..."
                                               Hull (1988:31-32)
                                                     
As a bright eyed and bushy tailed graduate student in the biology
department at Yale  (Hi Una! We've never met, but I bet you've got one of
my old offices.. :)  my idealism was repeatedly challenged not so much by
blatant and highly publicized cases of fraud, data theft, and forgery: gee,
after all, they were statistically rare, solemnly exposed in editorials in
_Science_, and their perpetrators were properly punished by the community of
reason! ... or so it seemed. 

More disheartening was the pervasive, insidious, elitism and self
aggrandizing arrogance which in moderate but nonetheless mildly toxic
concentrations, is rewarded by academia as it is currently operated. As I
learned the essential survival (e.g., combat) skills of getting grants,
arguing in seminars and meetings, and jockeying for prestige, I was
overcome by a case of cognitive dissonance: weren't many of the
psychological skill sets I was learning and loving at odds with the
putative moral purity of science? Perhaps some of you have had similar
feelings... 

But... 

...as Hull notes, and as I can attest from having worked in universities,
research institutions, the music industry, and private firms, the ethical
behavior of scientists (and more generally, researchers) compares quite
favorably to folks in the "real world": it's just that we have been
indoctrinated with a naive and overly idealized vision of the "purity" of
science, and the detatchment of scientists. Remember reading stories in
grammar school about the selfless Curies? The gentle Einstein? Perhaps
they should be tempered with stories like Mendel's probable fudging, Cyril
Burt's indubitable fabrications, the magic marker mouse (say, wasn't that
at Rockefeller?), etc. etc. 

Even scientists, our secular priesthood, are only human, and more
prone to be hyperbolic hypocrites than heavenly Hippocratics...

I am not sure that I agree with Hull's stronger, thesis, which to me
borders on proscriptive conceptual Darwinism: that unethical or even vile
behavior by individuals is tolerable because it furthers the goals of
science as a whole. But he makes a good case which is well worth reading...


  jonathan kochmer           "There are *exactly* two kinds of people in
  university of washington    the world: 1) those who make dichotomies; 
  seattle, wa                 2) those who don't; and 3) everyone else."      
           
                                                          Kochmer, 1989



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