Curiousity is more fundamental than rivalry.

u58563 at uic.edu u58563 at uic.edu
Tue Apr 18 20:06:32 EST 1995


In article <134311Z16041995 at anon.penet.fi>, an175779 at anon.penet.fi wrote:
> Poor Richard has been writing on many of these newsgroups on the subject
> of the lack of ethics in Science.  Poor Richard believes there are no
> ethics in Science.  Poor Richard thinks that Scientists are no better
> than car mechanics in this regard, believing that if a car mechanic
> isn't closely watched, he will chisel you, and that Scientists are no better.
While I do not agree with you, I must say that this is well-written.
Unfortunately, the rest is not.
   Whatever the relation or importance of the emotions, Poor Richard
should not forget that there is a fundamental DIFFERENCE between the
scientist and the car mechanic:  As corny as it is to say, a scientist
really -is- figuring out how to do things that no one has ever done
before, and learning things that no one has ever known before... while an
auto mechanic is just making a living from what people pay him.
   This seems like an airy, philosophical sort of consideration; yet it is
the subtle root of all the social distinctions and ethical customs that
have developed to keep most scientists fairly honest.  Because ultimately,
after all, money for science is a -gift-, not a payment.  No one GIVES
money to auto mechanics in the hope that the cars of the city will be
better maintained, after all.
   Given this, we see that those giving the money have come to endorse a
very sophisticated system of academia which, when run properly, is
specifically designed to encourage honesty.  According to the standard
model, people who have proven themselves to be of sufficient quality to do
real science gain positions in which they are tenured.  Once there, they
write -proposals- to get funding, and these proposals are weighted based
on their logic.  In theory, what a person actually gets as a result has NO
bearing on their position or funding; hence, he simply has no incentive to
lie!
   Now obviously, there are deviations from this model, and these
deviations, I would submit, are the root of the dishonesties that do
arise.  For instance, the first-to-invent patent system, while perhaps
well-intentioned, gives a very clear incentive for a researcher to lie to
the government concerning precisely when he discovered something; even a
first-to-file system encourages a researcher to gloss over some details
that he hopes to work out later.
   As I am no fan of the practice of "intellectual property", or of
governments, I would hardly even class such behavior as unethical if it
were not for the incidental effect that in addition to causing the
government to outlaw different people from exercising their rights of free
inquiry and action than it would have otherwise, it also tends to suggest
publication of such fraudulent research in scientific forums, as it
supposedly is the truth!  And in fact, if you examine
http://nyx10.cs.du.edu:8001/~wstewart, the cases he describes seem to root
in such petty considerations.
   I do not rule out other situations, such as the de facto requirement
for "preliminary data" in grant applications, or the not-so-subtle
prerogatives of "established" researchers.  Some of these cases introduce
very gradual degrees of unethical behavior --- for instance, is it
unethical to decide NOT to spend your limited capabilities in extensively
rechecking the validity of interesting preliminary data which you intend
to describe in your research grant?

Despite his somewhat infuriating approach, I feel glad that "Poor Richard"
is asking his questions --- because before we toss out time-honored
institutions for quick-fix "free-market"* alternatives, we should perhaps
consider some of the other things we may be losing!

* Especially when the "free market" involves extensive government
regulation and intervention, as epitomized by the very arbitrary and broad
patent decisions that have been coming out recently.



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