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Author Topic: How does a scientist appraise the ethical aspects of his work?  (Read 10546 times)

Offline john ford

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Pardon for the intrusion, again.  I could not help but notice that the question of ethics has arisen in the posts concerning fuel and carbon.  How does a scientist measure ethics?  Please, this is not a set-up Q.  It seems Science is rather good at measuring some things but might be lacking in the area of ethics.  I am no Scientist but interested in what I have missed on during my life.
« Last Edit: 04/03/2008 23:22:53 by chris »


 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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I don't think it's a case of measuring ethics; judgment has to be used. And, of course, there is bound to be disagreement. Take the instance of animal experiments. Some people regard that as perfectly acceptable, others rail against it or commit terrorist acts to try to prevent it.

In my field, psychology, there are guidelines and any research that goes beyond those guidelines is frowned upon. In extreme cases, sanctions, including expulsion, can be applied by professional bodies.

There have been cases in the past when certain pieces of research have been carried out only to be regarded later as unethical (a classic example was that performed by Philip Zimbardo in 1971 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment)
 

Offline rhade

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Call me a cynic, but I always think, wait for a few experiments to be done on humans, and go wrong. Then people will be calling for the reintroduction of animal testing.
Also, I have a problem with that area of science, which we are all familiar with, where new areas of research are branded "unethical." You know the type I mean- cloning, genetic modification, stem cell research. It seems to be the case that to some people, "new" in science equates to "unethical". Then the guidelines DoctorBeavor refers to get put in place, before any harm from the area of research has been clearly identified. But I would say that, 'cause I'm a Nietzschean.
« Last Edit: 12/09/2008 17:25:01 by rhade »
 

Offline john ford

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Thank you both for your replies and I take your several points.

However, I am left with my initial question - when is an expriment ethical and when is it not?  Where are the criteria - particular in those areas which have not been previously experienced, like the Sandford Prison project? I had expected an answer that might have said something to the effect, 'I would know when something is unethical'.  Then I would have asked. 'On what would you have base that decision'?  Sorry - don't mean to be difficult - and I'm not some leftie looking for a chance to spring all those mice and rats. 
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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I can only speak of ethics in relation to psychology research.

Rhade's point about experiments going wrong is valid but John is right in raising the issue of research in new areas where the question of what harm may be done is not understood. Do we stop all research on the grounds that someone may come to harm in some manner we cannot foresee?

I take the view that if no harm can be foreseen then the research is valid. If, after the event, it is found that harm has been done then that line of research should be halted or at least modified to eliminate the risk.

Then there is the question of subjective or objective research. Would you consider covert surveillance in a psychology experiment to be unethical? Some people quite probably would. But how else can you test people's natural reaction to situations? If the subject knows he/she is being observed their behaviour may well change.

Often, a double-pronged approach is taken. For instance, you tell the subjects they are going to be observed in a certain situation and maybe have an observer in the room with them. You then throw in something unexpected that is the real area of interest. Someone else is the actual observer and what they are looking for is the subjects' reactions to the unexpected situation. That way, the subjects have consented to being observed but just not in the manner they expect.
 

another_someone

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I suspect there are three issues here.

The abstract study of ethics.

The personal notion of one's own ethics.  In this case, one needs no consistency (personal ethics typically have areas of great inconsistency), although some people may try and apply some consistent structure to their ethics (depending on their temperament), but this is never going to achieve total consistency and structure.

Agreed legal criteria (whether laid down in national law, or in the statutes of a professional body), which is the politically agreed position on ethical issues.  Since it is a political position, it will always be more about pragmatism than applying a theoretical structure, and will have to take into account vested interests, and the relative power of different persons and entities involved in drawing up the consensus.
« Last Edit: 28/02/2008 14:04:25 by another_someone »
 

Offline JimBob

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Ethics are entirely dependent on the personal psychology of the scientist. I have faced this myself. In the '80, environmental laws were lax in Texas and the oil business could get away with spills that contaminate - though not severely - water sources.

As a person who enabled these practices, however remotely as a geologist, I tried changing professions. However, it soon became apparent that the supply of available oil and gas resources were going to run out and cause a crisis before there were in place alternative sources of energy established to replace the need for petroleum products. There is also the consideration that many items, such as medications, disposable syringes for medical use, tubing and bagging for IV's and a host of non-medical items depended on a continued supply of the raw materials derived from oil and gas products.

The idiocy of ethanol from corn (maze) as it is being now made here in the US is that it drives up food costs dramatically while there is a net loss of energy when the final product is used - the cooking and distilling take more energy than what is produced. The Brazillian model is much more effective and they are energy independent because of it. Sugar Cane is grown on marginal land, then  processed for its juice, which is fermented and distilled using the heat from the discarded and squeezed stalks of cane as the fuel source. It is energy efficient. In this respect there is an ethical use of energy.

But back to petroleum. It is in it's decline. The largest field in the world, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, has reached its peak production and is in it's decline. This is true for all of the other giant fields except those recently discovered in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.   

So what am I, a person who believes that global warming is being accelerated - not caused by - the addition of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere, to do? I look at the cattle industry. More and more the livestock of the world increases as population increase. Cattle, pigs, goats, even camels, produce methane in such quantities that it rivals petroleum emissions in it effects.

What it all boils down to is that there needs to be a sensible plan to decrease reliance on fossil fuels while other sources of energy are developed. Petroleum and natural gas is needed to produce the energy required to make solar panels (quartz must be melted somehow,) wind generators (most of their component parts are made from plastics and aluminum), passive tidal and wave generators that depend on steel made with coke from coal and natural gas - the list is all inclusive. 

And hydrogen is not much of a solution, either. When used for combustion, it produces water vapor. This gas is as effective a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

It is therefore incumbent on me to again do as much as I can to bridge the gap while knowing I am also helping accelerate global warming. The present warming trend started 13,000 years ago and is not man made. What we are doing is highly speeding the process by our use of fossil fuels. Solar power and geothermal energy are probably the best bet in the long run.

The ethics become very complicated, as I hope I have demonstrated by my personal experience.

« Last Edit: 29/02/2008 01:48:51 by JimBob »
 

Offline john ford

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Interesting perspectives.  It would appear then, apart from some areas of research such as universities, that there is no established documented criteria on which to base decisions of ethics - it's more a personal matter.  Yet, as Jim outlines, is this fair?  I raise this matter at a time when Australia is lifting its ban of planting GM canola.  Listening to the debate I cannot make any decision one way or the other - yet, some would have me believe that the risk factor is enormous with a potential for an escalation in the reliance on a particular cohort of seed, fertilizer, and herbacide companys.  I'm not against making money per se but creating a market for the sake of creating a reliance on that market seems questionable.

I digress.

It seems I need to ask something further - persistent sod that I am.  Is it in the realm of science to ask ethical questions, or perhaps, to supply some answers to those questions?  If it is within the purview of science, where would you turn to access the necessary information?  Aristotle?  The Church?  The Government?
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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It seems I need to ask something further - persistent sod that I am.  Is it in the realm of science to ask ethical questions, or perhaps, to supply some answers to those questions?  If it is within the purview of science, where would you turn to access the necessary information?  Aristotle?  The Church?  The Government?

Society as a whole determines ethics. Mostly, it begins with what was laid down hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago in religious doctrine. But that can only give general guidance. When, for instance, the 10 commandments or the Qu'ran were written, GM crops and animal testing were centuries in the future. It is up to the current society to establish what it believes to be ethical.

These ethics can, however, be shaped by the sort of social engineering the UK government (and, I dare say, other governments around the world) are engaged in - smoking in public places, fox hunting, etc - or by pressure groups. This means that ethics evolve. What was considered ethical 100 years ago - or even a decade ago - may now be taboo & vice versa.

I find myself having to disagree with Jim when he says...
Ethics are entirely dependent on the personal psychology of the scientist.

An individual scientist can only apply his own standards of ethics within the framework of those laid down by his society. In other words, he can be more strict than society would ordinarily dictate. If, however, his ethics ran contrary to those of society he could land himself in serious trouble.

So, to answer your question "Is it in the realm of science to ask ethical questions, or perhaps, to supply some answers to those questions?", yes - science needs to ask questions of itself to ensure it stays within the framework of societal norms. But it is not the place of science to impose ethics, merely to ensure it adheres to them.
« Last Edit: 28/02/2008 23:51:43 by DoctorBeaver »
 

another_someone

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So, to answer your question "Is it in the realm of science to ask ethical questions, or perhaps, to supply some answers to those questions?", yes - science needs to ask questions of itself to ensure it stays within the framework of societal norms. But it is not the place of science to impose ethics, merely to ensure it adheres to them.

Are you sure you are talking about science, or talking about scientists - they are not the same thing.  Scientists are human beings who happen to be experts in matters scientific, but that does not mean that everything a scientist does is in the realm of science, and they still perform as social humans; so the question is still whether science does (or can) ask questions pertaining to ethics, or whether scientists, as social humans, need to ask those question?
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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Obviously science as an academic discipline cannot ask questions. I used the term "science" to mean the scientific community in the same way that saying "Football needs to clean up its act" doesn't refer to just a round ball of wind that gets kicked around - it means players, managers, administrators etc.
 

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Obviously science as an academic discipline cannot ask questions. I used the term "science" to mean the scientific community in the same way that saying "Football needs to clean up its act" doesn't refer to just a round ball of wind that gets kicked around - it means players, managers, administrators etc.

Science, as an academic discipline, is very much about asking questions, and specifying how those questions should be formulated, and how answers to those question should be sought.  That is why the ambiguity to your statement.

Science can legitimately ask questions about how an electron will behave (OK, you may argue that technically it is the scientist that is asking the question, but science gives him the domain in which to ask the question, and the means to formulate the question).

In the English language, it is very easy to differentiate the statements "Football needs to clean up it's act" and "The football needs to clean up it's act" - but "What does science say about ethics?" is not synonymous with "What does the scientific community have to say about ethics?".

To ask "What does science have to say about ethics?" would either be to say that it is not in the realm of science but of wider philosophical enquiry, or to regard it as a branch of sociology.
 

Offline JimBob

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I would disagree. The Hippocratic Oath that physicians (who are scientists) take is a set of ethics established by the scientist themselves. To become a Certified petroleum Geologist, one needs to agree to live by a set of "professional standards" established by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

I believe other professional organizations are doing similar things.

To believe that we are different from any other human in our decision making process, whether it is personally or a coalition, is naive in the extreme. We cannot separate ourselves from societies ethics any more than we can turn purple at will.
« Last Edit: 29/02/2008 01:55:19 by JimBob »
 

another_someone

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To believe that we are different from any other human in our decision making process, whether it is personally or a coalition, is naive in the extreme. We cannot separate ourselves from societies ethics any more than we can turn purple at will.

Turning purple at will is easy, just stop breathing.

As for the rest, I would not disagree (and have not contradicted that), but am merely saying that asking what science has to say about ethics is like asking what computer programming has to say about ethics - but that is not to say that scientists and computer programmers should not behave ethically.
 

Offline john ford

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I listen to a weekly 10 minute science program on ABC Radio National (Australia) where 4 or 5 new scientific discoveries are discussed.  All these discoveries have at the end of their day some human impact - and for the good.  It seems to me that science leads the world in many areas so why not a 'science' of ethics?  Science and scientists have the given the world much yet stagger at the very thing which is at the end of their pursuit - an ethical (better) world.
 

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It seems to me that science leads the world in many areas so why not a 'science' of ethics?  Science and scientists have the given the world much yet stagger at the very thing which is at the end of their pursuit - an ethical (better) world.

Would you want science to create an 'ethical' or 'better' world?  I don't think I would.

Ethics is about personal behaviour, and personal choices.  If those choices are dictated by scientists or by scientific processes, then where does personal freedom come into it?

That scientists should look after their own ethics is one thing, that they should look after the ethics of the world is something quite different.
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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Science, as an academic discipline, is very much about asking questions, and specifying how those questions should be formulated, and how answers to those question should be
Science can legitimately ask questions about how an electron will behave (OK, you may argue that technically it is the scientist that is asking the question, but science gives him the domain in which to ask the question, and the means to formulate the question).

We were talking about the question of ethics, not the behaviour of electrons, but your first statement "Science, as an academic discipline, is very much about asking questions, and specifying how those questions should be formulated, and how answers to those question should be" uses the term "academic discipline" in the same way I did.

"What does science say about ethics?" is not synonymous with "What does the scientific community have to say about ethics?".

It certainly can be and frequently is; especially in the non-scientific community.

To ask "What does science have to say about ethics?" would either be to say that it is not in the realm of science but of wider philosophical enquiry, or to regard it as a branch of sociology.

OK, to be strictly accurate, I should have phrased it as "What does science (as in the scientific community) say about how ethical issues apply to scientific endeavour?", but that seems a long-winded way to say something that should have been self-evident in the context of this thread.
« Last Edit: 29/02/2008 08:26:40 by DoctorBeaver »
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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I would disagree. The Hippocratic Oath that physicians (who are scientists) take is a set of ethics established by the scientist themselves. To become a Certified petroleum Geologist, one needs to agree to live by a set of "professional standards" established by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

I believe other professional organizations are doing similar things.

To believe that we are different from any other human in our decision making process, whether it is personally or a coalition, is naive in the extreme. We cannot separate ourselves from societies ethics any more than we can turn purple at will.


I am fully aware of that, but any ethics that a professional body applies must lie within the framework of the ethics of society at large. That is why there is such debate about, for instance, assisted euthenasia. It is against the ethics of society to take someone's life (unless you're doing the government's bidding in Iraq, of course). Were murder legal then there would be no debate.

It is a pity that upper management of large corporations do not apply the same standards to themselves as they do to their more humble employees.
« Last Edit: 29/02/2008 07:53:45 by DoctorBeaver »
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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I listen to a weekly 10 minute science program on ABC Radio National (Australia) where 4 or 5 new scientific discoveries are discussed.  All these discoveries have at the end of their day some human impact - and for the good.  It seems to me that science leads the world in many areas so why not a 'science' of ethics?  Science and scientists have the given the world much yet stagger at the very thing which is at the end of their pursuit - an ethical (better) world.

Science deals with facts, deriving the laws that control the way things work and I would consider that the "end of their pursuit" is knowledge, not an ethical (better) world.

There is debate as to whether psychology and sociology are actually sciences for that very reason. There are certainly areas of psychology that fall into the realms of science - neuro-psychology, for instance - and the scientific approach is used in research; but no-one can say for certain whether there are hard and fast psychological laws that govern how we behave. Were psychology all about nature then quite possibly genetics would supply those laws, but when nurture is considered, there are just too many variables for anything concrete to be established.

Psychology is about probabilities (Quantum Psychology? hmmm). We can say that under given circumstances there is a probability of a person's reacting in a given way - some probabilities are very high, some very low - but we cannot predict with certainty (how many times have you heard someone's behaviour described as being totally out of character?). Social psychology and sociology can be more exact as when the behaviour of a lot of people is considered, there is greater probability of them behaving en masse in a predictable way. Isaac Asimov uses this to great effect in his Foundation And Empire series of books with his concept of psychohistory.
 

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OK, going back to what science can tell us about 'ethics' - as DoctorBeaver says, science can say very little about ethics, but it can say something about social structures and what are the outcomes of certain social management models (to determine ethics you need both the model and the desired outcome, and science can at best provide you with the model).

But one area that has been discussed is what we have learnt with regard to the Stanford Prison Experiment.  When the problems in Abu Ghraib came to light, the comment everybody made was that if anybody in the political and military management structures had bothered to learn the lessons of the Stanford Prisoner Experiment, they could easily have anticipated the outcome in Abu Ghraib.  So, while science cannot say whether the events in Abu Ghraib are desirable or not (that is a decision we have to make outside the remit of science), it can provide us with models about how we could have avoided the events if we considered it undesirable.
 

Offline john ford

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Ethics is about personal behaviour, and personal choices.  If those choices are dictated by scientists or by scientific processes, then where does personal freedom come into it?

Hmmm.   Am I only the only way that can see the elephant in the room?

Science has no room for personal choices - yet it seems that's what scientists do - make a whole range of personal choices about where to go, what to do next, how to construct an experiement.  But I'm told choices are a 'personal' matter and therefore deemed 'outside' of science. 

And 'freedom' - freedom to do what?  Freedom from what?  The fact that scientists made choices seems to indicate freedom.  But, I can make choices and I'm not a scientist.  It seems that the scientific process dictates (lack of freedom) that those engaged in science are in no way encumbered yet many of the above posts indicate the opposite - that you, as scientists, do exercise a 'freedom' in how you exercise matters of ethics.

So I'm left with some uncomfortable conclusions.  Science cannot do many things yet it balks at those areas which impact on the scientific endeavour - like, how do we make choices.  (I would have assumed that this would be a fruitful avenue for scientic pursuit).  Science does not have the tools to deal in a constructive way with personal matters because it is concerned with 'freedom' - something which science claims is 'outside' its role.  These seem contridictory and I would have thought - bad science.

 

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Ethics is about personal behaviour, and personal choices.  If those choices are dictated by scientists or by scientific processes, then where does personal freedom come into it?

Hmmm.   Am I only the only way that can see the elephant in the room?

Science has no room for personal choices - yet it seems that's what scientists do - make a whole range of personal choices about where to go, what to do next, how to construct an experiement.  But I'm told choices are a 'personal' matter and therefore deemed 'outside' of science. 

And 'freedom' - freedom to do what?  Freedom from what?  The fact that scientists made choices seems to indicate freedom.  But, I can make choices and I'm not a scientist.  It seems that the scientific process dictates (lack of freedom) that those engaged in science are in no way encumbered yet many of the above posts indicate the opposite - that you, as scientists, do exercise a 'freedom' in how you exercise matters of ethics.

So I'm left with some uncomfortable conclusions.  Science cannot do many things yet it balks at those areas which impact on the scientific endeavour - like, how do we make choices.  (I would have assumed that this would be a fruitful avenue for scientic pursuit).  Science does not have the tools to deal in a constructive way with personal matters because it is concerned with 'freedom' - something which science claims is 'outside' its role.  These seem contridictory and I would have thought - bad science.

Sorry, but the above confuses me totally.

"It seems that the scientific process dictates (lack of freedom) that those engaged in science are in no way encumbered yet many of the above posts indicate the opposite - that you, as scientists, do exercise a 'freedom' in how you exercise matters of ethics." -

what does this mean?

Who has said that scientists don't care about ethics.  On the contrary, everyone has said that scientists do care about ethics.  The question you asked was whether science has anything to say about ethics, and the answer is that science does not dictate action, but that is not the same as saying that scientists have nothing to say about ethics.

As has been indicated above, doctors have a strict ethical code; but nobody in their right mind would suggest they could give a medical explanation of ethics.
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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"It seems that the scientific process dictates (lack of freedom) that those engaged in science are in no way encumbered yet many of the above posts indicate the opposite - that you, as scientists, do exercise a 'freedom' in how you exercise matters of ethics."

I would not say that science "dictates" anything. True, ideally scientists would be free to do whatever experiments are necessary to further knowledge. However, as we have all said, scientists are ethical (certainly the vast majority, at least) and so place constraints on themselves.
 

Offline rhade

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How does a scientist appraise the ethical aspects of his work?
« Reply #23 on: 06/03/2008 10:36:45 »
Nietzsche said "the difference between the greatest and the least of men is so small."
I have to ask, who's definition of ethics is to be used? As Nietzsche explained, the ethics of the west are based on the Christian concept of good and evil. Other cultures (Islam, for example) don't use the Christian definitian. The great man considered it necessary to ditch the Christian definition and look beyond good and evil.
« Last Edit: 12/09/2008 17:25:40 by rhade »
 

Offline BenV

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How does a scientist appraise the ethical aspects of his work?
« Reply #24 on: 06/03/2008 11:59:37 »
Essentially, before any research goes ahead, the scientists must seek 'ethical approval' from their institution, just as they need to perform a risk assessment.  This means that the scientists do not make ethical decisions, but merely highlight any ethical concerns.  An ethics panel at the institution make decisions as to what research can go ahead, and what needs to be taken into account to ensure the research complies with guidelines.

A 'science of ethics' would be rather difficult, as what is or isn't ethically acceptable is a subjective, rather than objective decision.  Although certain ethical issues can be codified (much like risk assesments) these codings are also subjective.
 

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How does a scientist appraise the ethical aspects of his work?
« Reply #24 on: 06/03/2008 11:59:37 »

 

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