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ETHICS IN SCIENCE SHOULD NOT BE TRAMMELLED

 

By

C.H.Fernando, Department of Biology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, CANADA

INTRODUCTION

This paper is dedicated to my valued and greatly missed friend Professor S.R.Kottegoda. The title I have chosen reflects the attitude Professor Kottegoda had towards ethics in Science. He was a pragmatist and also a person who put human welfare and the rights of the individual above ideological and other attitudes that trammel our lives and decision making. This is evident in his brief paper (Kottegoda 1988) on ethics in human research. Professor Kottegoda, like most of us, was loathe to put pen to paper and this is a loss to all of us because what he did write was both concise, incisive and well thought out in addition to being relevant and honest. He had lots of interesting and creative ideas both in science and many other subjects. He was a very literate person with a sense of history, a sense of humor and a feel for language. I also chose the title because of my own personal experience as a scientist and a citizen. We do not choose where and when we are born and it is evident that one often adopts the religion or ideology of one’s parents and grows up in one or many cultures with the biases and its heritage. With modern communication and the massive movement of people the old parochial attitudes are being threatened and people’s opinions are being influenced not by one or a small set of values that influenced one’s thinking but by many different sets of values. Science is the common endeavor of humanity driven by curiosity and the desire to solve problems. It is not the preserve of a set of values originating with a religious leader or a person advocating a way of life or ideology like Marxism. Science like democracy is constantly being reshaped and there is no appeal to authority like religious leaders and prophets to justify a particular point of view. However as Gould (1999) has shown, science grows in an atmosphere of various cultural, social and other influences that trammel its practice. Ethics in science is violated not only by commission of unethical acts but also by omitting to take a course in thinking because this may lead to some unpleasant consequences, as in the case of Galileo (Hellman 1998), when he propounded the Heliocentric theory untrammelled by the religious beliefs of the time. Science shares a universal accessibility and acceptance with a few major human activities like art, music, literature and games that are not partisan and divisive. These are open to people of all classes all over the world. Science even more than other universal human activities cannot appeal to geography, nationalism, religion or culture to justify an idea. There is no Chinese, Indian or German science with its own rules and gurus.

I shall deal with some instances of the clash of Ethics in Science as trammelled by various human beliefs and activities, and will attempt to see clearly where the basis of ethics in science lies.

 

 

A brief look at local and other literature

The present meeting in remembrance of Professor Kottegoda has been preceded by orations and collections of papers by Paintel (1996), Jayakody (1998), Arsecularatne (1999) and Wijeratne (2000). The subjects covered are wide in ethics as it concerns science and scientists, both in the profession of medicine, and outside this area of study. The previous contributors dealt with the questionable ethics of giving honorary authorship to the supervisors of graduate students, the use of fraudulent data, the ethics of professional scientists, ethics in general, ethics in teaching, industrial and plantation research ethics, biomedical ethics and the trammelling of ethical practices by cultural, political, and individual ambition over ethical considerations.

There is a large and rapidly growing literature on ethics in science. Our sensitivity to human, and. more recently, animal experimentation and treatment, has spawned a rich and varied literature on these subjects like the work of Beauchamp and Childress (1983) on biomedical ethics. The environment and its protection has given rise to a wide spectrum of ethical issues. The two publications on "Ethics, money and politics" and "Is the biodiversity tail wagging the zoological dog", deal with issues facing zoologists in their profession (Lunney and Dawson 1998 and Lunney, Dawson and Dickman 1998). Somerville (2000) covers ethics, science and society more broadly.

Bronowski (1960) provided a very accurate and concise characterization of science. He also discussed the accusation that science is a destroyer. This accusation, he pointed out, is patently false. True, the tremendous destructive power unleashed by technology and science are awesome when it comes to harm that can be caused, but this is not the purpose of science. It is its misuse. Let us not forget the enormous improvements made to our lives as a result of science and technology. Science is fueled by curiosity and the joy and the challenge of solving problems. Science gets a rather bad name when it and technology are used in war or to further a government’s inhumane policy of displacing people in the name of progress as was the case in India. Roy (2000) makes a scathing attack on this attitude of bureaucracies and also the nationalistic and chauvinistic dominance in the building of massive showcase dams and the atom bomb, by India and Pakistan. She points out that in the name of progress, the government using scientific technology has violated the basic rights of people in India. I have not come across any literature on ethics for engineers but surely a great deal of such literature must exist. Examples are the code of ethics of the Sri Lanka Institution of Engineers and the code of Environmental ethics of the international Institute Environmental Engineers (Fide V. Basnayake, Colombo) The Indian example is by no means a rare event in today’s world.

Science as a universal, non-partisan human activity

Science is one of the oldest human activities. The unknown scientists who domesticated plants and animals were among those we can point to as the earliest known scientists. Theirs was a practical science. Their findings were inclusive and not exclusive because the benefits come not to believers only as in religion but to all those who wished and had the ability to use their findings. The scientific activities of these pre-historic people is well documented by Diamond (1997). A very lucid and accurate portrayal of science and the scientific method is the slim volume of Bronowski (1960) first published in 1952. Science, he states, is common sense like the bases of all human inquiry. However, science is methodical and systematic. He also states that there are many human values like goodness, right conduct, and beauty that have their echoes within science. However there is one value, freedom of ideas, that is essential for the health of science. This is why ethics in science should not be trammelled by curtailment of freedom of ideas whether these are dictated by religion, culture, ideology or any other imposition. Feynman (1985) and Sagan (1997) give us a glimpse of how science is perceived by the public and how science is organized and the activities of scientists. Odum (1971) discusses ethics in science and proposes ten commandments based on energy ethics. He states that religion has survival value and when this survival value diminishes religions disappear like the Inca religion at the time the Spaniards arrived and conquered Peru and the Egyptian religion that lasted four millennia at least. In the U.S.A. there are about 65,000 religions constantly adding new religions and losing old ones. The same loss of survival value probably applies to the rapid diminishing of Kings, Queens and assorted royalty in the twentieth century worldwide.

A very interesting and promising theory to explain differences in cultural attitudes and languages has been put forward by Blackmore (2000). She states that many of our behaviors and beliefs are acquired by imitation of memes which are replicated like genes but with much less fidelity. Her views have been criticized for being too simple and not comprehensive in coverage. However the memetic theory offers some amazing insights into human beliefs and cultural differences. Interestingly she states that the scientific methodology has mechanisms for identifying and throwing out memes that are vacuous or plain wrong.

Some actual cases of trammelling and independence in the face of trammelling

Trammelling means impeding free actions in any way. For me a trammel net used in fishing is the epitome of impeding and confining. Unlike a normal net like a drift net, a trammel net is three nets hung vertically to entangle and prevent the escape of a fish once it is caught. The culture, religion, ideology and the general milieu we are born into and raised in is like a trammel net. Most people cannot break loose from the confining influences we are born into and raised in, in spite of education and exposure to a variety of other contradictory influences and ideas. Ethics in science requires that a scientist must always practice the freedom of thought and action that is the basis of science.. There are many instances where this freedom has not been exercised because of a variety of trammelling situations. I shall discuss briefly a few, well documented cases, where the trammelling of ethical behavior has been responsible for an idea not being developed and cases where the trammelling did not prevent the scientist from carrying out an ethical responsibility in spite of. severe constraint. Sacks (1995) makes a very strong case for the view that both Newton and Galileo were trammelled by the current religious opinions in exploring the Chaos theory. Newton’s unwillingness to jeopardize his important public position in the state by holding unorthodox opinions has also been noted by Westfall (1994). Galileo did follow an ethical course in propounding the Heliocentric theory for which he suffered very serious consequences. A well documented case of putting forward a new idea unacceptable to the scientific establishment is Wegener’s theory of continental drift (Hellman 1998). This theory was found to be abhorrent by most scientists at that time. The best known case of scientific theory breaking down deeply held opinions is that of the theory of evolution which is perhaps the greatest intellectual influence the world has known. There are much smaller and less well known cases where scientists have acted ethically to follow ideas however distasteful to some. The award of a human rights prize was made recently for a very contentious but logical view that male circumcision is criminal assault.(Maclean’s 1998). The same author has also discussed this subject in Somerville (2000). Bailey (2000) documents a case where a politically incorrect opinion that introduced organisms are per se not dangerous and pointing out benefits of such introductions has stigmatized a scientist. My own experience of holding the same opinions based on my research lost me a research grant that stated among other things that the committee was concerned about fish introductions. I had been warned that this would happen if I persisted in my studies and views.

We have no data on how much the ethical pursuit of scientific research has been and is being trammelled. The cases where evidence is available are very few but the actual cases must be very numerous.

Ambition, personality clashes and deference to authority

Like all human activities science and ethical behavior in its practice is trammelled by personal ambitions, personality clashes, bloody mindedness and the unwillingness to accept new ideas to replace old ones that have an authoritative stamp. Hellman (1998) chronicles ten famous feuds between scientists and prominent people ranging from the universally known case of Galileo and the Pope through Voltaire versus Needham, Newton versus Leibnitz, Wegener versus everybody and Derek Freeman versus Margaret Mead. Silvers (1995) covers some little known histories of science trammelled by personal disagreements and inability to accept a change of ideas.

Ambition led to the notorious Piltdown skull fraud. A very interesting and unexpected case of botanical fraud driven by ambition is recorded and lucidly described by Sabbagh (2000). This is a case where a distinguished botanist transplanted plants on an isolated island to prove a theory that he held.Itis also interesting that the fraud was covered up by the powers that be since the scientist was an authority in his field. Paintel (1997) mentions a case where a prominent scientist made fraudulent claims in his research and even when he was exposed, continued his career unimpeded and was even awarded a prestigious prize.

Trammelling by political correctness.

Political correctness can be a very severe obstacle to the exercise of ethical scientific attitudes. This subject is discussed briefly in relation to environment by Dawson (1998). Now that the spectre of nuclear war has receded somewhat from the time that Bronowski (1960) wrote his views about science, a new Luddite attitude has emerged to claim that science is a major danger to humanity via food and biodiversity reduction. GM (Genetically Modified) foods are labeled frankenfoods (after Frankenstein). This attitude is not new but it is different from a century or two ago when the potato was condemned because it is not mentioned in the Bible (Zuckerman 1999). But the trammelling of scientific research can be temporarily quite potent. Mercifully today, science is not greatly hampered by religious dogma and cultural chauvinism. A free press and democracy are now widespread and controversies can be aired without overt danger to antagonists. Bailey (2000) considers that preaching ecological xenophobia in regard to introducing exotic species of organisms may not only be trammelling scientific research but even holding back progress to a better life in certain parts of the world, and in addition is hampering democratic development.

Voodoo science, predictions and prophecies

Individuals trained in science sometimes indulge in voodoo science as detailed by Park (1999). He mentions many such instances of unscientific attitudes. A specific case is that of a medically qualified scientist who claims that aging can be halted by mental exercises.. The author saw this claimant recently and he had aged visibly. Godfrey (1983) provides a number of essays on the voodoo science of creationists. Here religious belief is pitted against the theory of evolution

From time to time doomsday predictions have been made. Sometimes these have been given a scientific basis. Prediction and prophecy may not be too far apart in these scenarios provided. In the 1950’s - 1970’s it was common to hear about scenarios predicting imminent starvation, lack of essential chemical elements, the catastrophic condition of cities and the collapse of farming in general. Ehrlich (1958) and Ehrlich and Ehrlich (1970) are typical examples of this type of predictions. Lewis (2000) who profiled Paul R. Erhlich found him unrepentent about his failed predictions. He now advocates the view that cultural evolution plays a greater role than gene composition in determining human behavior. He is looking for ways that will make it possible to change our cultural evolution to deal more benignly with the environment.

Carson (1962) in a classic work on pollution predicted the worldwide ill effects of the continued use of pesticides. Her warnings were timely. Fortunately her worst prognostications have not been fulfilled. On the contrary there have been many positive changes as regards human living conditions and food availability (Easterbrook 1997). Scientific and technological advances that could not have been predicted in the mid- nineteen fifties have radically altered the human situation and largely for the better.

 

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

The oldest intellectual activity fueled by curiosity, and the need to solve problems were not directly connected with survival, was science. Science has contributed to human survival more than any other human activity. Science is a universal human activity without borders and this activity should not be trammelled by dogmas and political expediency. The ethics of science is freedom of ideas and this freedom should be without restriction. Scientists should have the opportunity of pursuing their ideas without fear or favor. This ideal state of affairs does not exist. However it is a goal to keep in view. With democratization of society the trammelling of science has lessened but is by no means absent.

Science is fueled by curiosity and innovation. Great scientific discoveries are not predictable and are the result of genius and intuition. Opportunities for realizing the fruits of genius, creativity and intuition, and sometimes serendipity, play their part in scientific discovery. The freedom of science and scientists is essential for such discovery and use of science and the freedom of scientists should not be trammelled.

In this short essay I have dealt very briefly with some aspects of ethics in science. This subject is becoming more and more topical as the complexity of the technical aspects of science grows and our social and politically influenced institutions become more and more liberalized.

Acknowledgements

I have benefited from discussions with many colleagues and friends. SLAAS sent me a copy of Paintel’s paper that I had misplaced. Theo Hobbs, Sydney, Australia sent me a number of valuable documents on ethics in science unsolicited. I corresponded with Margaret Somerville, Montreal, about human genital mutilation and she kindly sent me an unpublished manuscript, U. S. Amarasinghe, Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, shared my enthusiasm for the writing of Arundhati Roy. My wife, M.A. Fernando and my daughter S. I. Fernando read the manuscript and offered comments. Their expertise is in Medicine, molecular biology, Parasitology and Political science respectively. I wish to thank Professor Valentine Basnayake, Colombo for asking me to contribute this paper, reading it critically and for giving me references to literature on ethics for engineers.

Epilogue from Canada

Canada’s national magazine, Maclean’s asked readers in 1927 for the greatest living Canadians. Frederick Banting one of the discovers of insulin was followed by an agricultural scientist who had developed an early maturing variety of wheat. They came out on top of the list. In 2000 Maclean’s magazine listed 25 Canadians who had inspired the world. Five scientists made the list plus some who used science and technology. Lawyers, entrepreneurs and the arts were well represented. No politicians were named (except Lester Pearson for his UN peacekeeping efforts). No religious leaders made the list. Perhaps Canadians are moving away from the dogmatic and divisive to scientific and democratic leaders for their values in society.

 

References

Arsecularatne, S. N. 1999. Our orientation in biomedical ethics. SLAAS, S.R.Kottegoda memorial oration, Sri Lanka 24 pp.

Bailey, K. 2000. Preaching ecological xenophobia. Reason Magazine Aug./Sept. 2000.

Beauchamp, T. L. and J. E. Childress. 1993. Principles of biomedical ethics. Oxford University Press 362 pp.

Blackmore, S. 2000. The power of memes. With criticisms by L.A. Dugatkin, Robert Boyd and P.J. Richerson and H. Plotkin. Scientific American 283: 64-73.

Bronowski, J. 1960. The common sense of science. Penguin 159 pp.

Carson, R. 1962. Silent spring. A Fawcett Crest Book, Greenwich Conn. 304 pp.

Dawson, T.J. 1998. The tension between scientific objectivity and political correctness. pp 1-4 In D. Lunney and T. Dawson (ed) Ethics, money and politics. Modern dilemmas for zoology. Trans. R. Zool. Soc. NSW.

Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, germs and steel. The fate of human societies. Norton, New York 480 pp.

Easterbrook,G. 1997. Forgotten benefactor of humanity. The Atlantic Monthly. January 1997 pp.75-82.

Ehrlich, P. R. 1958. The population bomb. Ballantyne Books New York 223 pp.

Ehrlich, P. R. and A. H. Ehrlich, 1970. Population, resources, environment" Issues in Human ecology. Freeman New York 383 pp.

Feynman, R. P. 1985. Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman. Norton New York 350 pp.

Godfrey, L. R. (ed) 1983. Scientists confront creationism. Norton New York 324 pp.

Gould., S .J. 1999. Lying stones of Marrakech. Harmony books New York 372 pp.

Hellman, H. 1998. Great feuds in science. John Wiley New York 240 pp.

Jayakody, R.L. (ed), 1998. SLAAS, S.R. Kottegoda memorial meeting, Sri Lanka 37pp.

Kottegoda, S.R. 1998. Ethics in human research. Ceylon Med. J. 33: 77-80.

Lewis, J. 2000. Six billion and counting: Profile of biologist Paul R. Erhlich. Scientific American 283: 30-32.

Lunney, D and T. Dawson, 1998. Ethics, money and politics. Modern dilemmas for zoology. Trans. R. Zool. Soc. NSW. 61pp.

Lunney, D., T. Dawson and C.R. Dickman 1998. Is the biodiversity tail wagging the zoological dog? Trans. R. Zool. Soc. NSW 70 pp.

Maclean’s. 1998. Award of human rights prize to Margaret Somerville. The award recognizes her assertion that male circumcision is criminal assault..Maclean’s Magazine 17 August p. 13

Maclean’s 2000. Canadians who have inspired the world. Maclean’s Magazine 4 September pp. 26-48.

Odum, H. T. 1971. Environment, power, and society. Wiley Interscience 331 pp.

Paintal, A. S. 1996. Some ethical values in scientific research. SLAAS, S. R. Kottegoda memorial oration, Sri Lanka pp. 3-8.

Park, L.R. 2000. Voodoo science. Oxford University Press 256 pp.

Roy, A. 1999. The cost of living and the end of imagination. Random House, Toronto 126 pp.

Sabbagh, K. 2000. A rum affair: The true story of botanical fraud. Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York 268 pp.

Sacks, O. 1995. Scotoma: Forgetting and neglect in science. pp.141-188 In R. B. Silvers (ed) Hidden histories of science. New York Review Book New York

Sagan, C. 1997. The demon- haunted world. Ballantyne Books New York 457 pp.

Silvers, R. B. (ed), 1995. Hidden histories of science. New York Review Book New York 193 pp.

Somerville. M. 2000. Ethical canary: Science, society and the human spirit. Penguin

Wijeratne, M.J.S. 2000. Ethics in the practice of science and science education. SLAAS S. R. Kottegoda Memorial Oration, Sri Lanka 24 pp.

Westfall, R. 1994. The life of Isaac Newton. Canto, Cambridge University Press 328 pp.

Zuckerman, L. 1999.The potato: How the humble spud rescued the western world. North Point Press New York 319 pp.


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