This post has been brewing in my drafts far too long so I decided to let it free.
I recently (not so recently anymore) listened to a BBC radio4 programme that enraged me far beyond my usual curmudgeonly old man level. It was an episode of the Moral maze asking the question – is science morally neutral.
As anyone who has had to write a scientific paper knows, the very first thing you have to do after interesting your topic broadly is to precisely define some of the key terms/concepts you will be addressing and to lay out the current status quo in terms of our understanding of the issue at hand, before moving on to make your arguments. The BBC programme went straight from broadly introducing science and morality to launching arguments, and the result was an unhelpful mess.
Let’s start where they should have, with the definitions. No definition was offered of the discussion’s two main themes – science and morality. Taking science first, there’s a traditional definition that seemed to be generally accepted in the BBC discussion. This particular abstract concept was of science as the study of the natural world in order to improve our understanding of it. This seemed to be accepted by the whole panel without challenge. I wonder if anyone reading this, even those from the natural sciences, could say that such a model is a good descriptor of the current practice of science. I am aware of research being carried out that fits that bill. I suggest, however, that most research carried out these days has the stated purpose of improving understanding or knowledge to address a stated problem. Natural science, defined as research of the natural world carried out using the scientific method, is about growing crops, preventing climate disasters, curing diseases or making new materials. No this doesn’t preclude curiosity for its own sake, but it channels it in a particular direction. That’s the reality of science today, and it requires important moral decisions. To implicitly define science as the pure pursuit of knowledge, which some but not all of the panel on the programme did, is to beg the question.
Morality as a concept was also unchallenged. Yet the discussion at hand ranged from scientific misconduct to robot armies, from dodgy emissions data to the interpretation of clinical trials. Yes morality is involved in all these areas but in different ways, and its important to differentiate these. Scientific misconduct is about integrity. Interpretation of clinical trials is about how to disseminate information in order to prevent harm to the public. Robot armies and other such future apocalyptic scenarios are about unintended consequences (does possible future harm make it immoral to pursue present benefit).
So much for science and morality, what about the scientist? The scientist was at sometimes the brilliant academic in an ivory-tower and at other times anybody who dons a labcoat. Techincians involved in VW emissions testing, were addressed in the same way as Copernicus charting the cosmos. This topic of who is an insider and who is an outsider is one that continually intrigues me and one I have addressed on this blog before. In the discussion of scientific morality it is of great practical importance. Suggestions were made of how to regulate the morality of scientists, such as an oath made by researchers or better oversight from funding bodies. Such measures will only reach the traditional core of academic science. Scientists within Industry would have free rein, as would engineers/plant breeders/pharmaceuticals companies i.e. the people who turn scientific knowledge into tangible outputs that affect our everyday lives. Arguably those involved in translational work (going from knowledge to product) deserve greater oversight. It was even acknowledged again and again in the programme that science was morally neutral but its applications were not.
After skipping the definitions they also skipped the discussion of the status quo. There was much spoken in the programme about the need for funding agencies to make moral decisions for scientists by deciding what to fund, without addressing the ways that funding agencies already do this. Governments impose strict moral standards by law in some cases: animal testing, human clinical and psychological trials, use of stem-cells, human cloning. There also are examples of scientists self-regulating on moral issues, and imposing moratoria on certain research (Molecular cloning at Asilomar, CRISPR more recently). There are already multiple different ways that moral decisions are implemented to restrain/channel what scientists do, which was for the most part (not completely, in fairness) ignored in the programme. I might be offending too fields at once here, but I felt the programme took a more classical History and Philosophy of Science approach that asked the big picture question about whether it is conceptually logical that science is morally netural. I think the Science and Technology Studies approach of studying what scientists actually do in order to address the why and how questions would have been more useful.
So they brushed over the status quo of regulation. They also seemed to largely skip probably the single most relevant discussion point – the actual moral impacts of research. A couple of examples were brought up again and again, namely falsified emissions testing and the impact of disseminating bad science that can’t be repeated, if its in the field of public health. Both of these are really bad examples, that are about 1) Industrial standards regulation or 2) Science communication. Far more relevant would have been to take examples of academic research and follow through to it’s moral consequences. Look at some particular research, ask who the stakeholders are and how they will be affected. What vision of future agriculture and rural lifestyles are promoted by our plant science, what vision of human health from our biomedical research? How does biomedcial research define health and disease and what are the moral implications of that? What has been the moral impact of the internet (a more direct product of basic research than most of our major technologies)? What is the morality of spending $13.25 billion on the large hadron collider? Was it morally neutral for Henrietta Lack to have her cells taken without permission to be used in research labs around the world? No such questions were asked. Instead the panelists wrung their hands about whether super robots will destroy us all, which whilst really interesting in itself is impossible to answer and thus not very helpful to move the discussion forward.
Sticking to the big picture, conceptual, approach would have been all well and good except that specific ‘remedies’ for the very loosely defined problem were proposed. One ‘witness’ (provider of expert testimony’) insisted that scientists should be self-governing on moral issues because they will use the scientific method to address moral questions (lay people, one is to assume from the tone of the witness, simply fling their feces into random patterns and divine from these what path they should take in life). Now I have sat in a lot of discussions with scientists about politics, religion, economics etc., and I can vouch for the fact that most people who use the scientific method for their work do not extend the approach to every opinion they have in life. Scientists are humans who, like other humans, are swayed by emotions and by their peers in powerful ways. That’s before you even get to the question of how you could use the scientific method to answer moral questions, even if you were inclined to. I think taking a slightly more Marxist view would be helpful here. Remember scientists are a societal group with common interests that they are pursuing. Scientists want to do what they love and they want money for it. To imagine that such self-interest is irrelevant in moral discussions seems pretty naive.
I won’t go on much longer for fear of this rant descending into verbal diarrhoea. To summarise, I think that in this case a topic I deeply care was butchered. If they had more clearly defined terms and laid out the status quo I believe that the only realistic answer to the question they wanted to address would be that science is not morally neutral. The fact that governments, funding agencies and scientists themselves act to constrain/direct science on moral grounds would support this. Any cursory glance at research carried out today and in the last hundred years would also show that science has moral implications. I’m not just ranting for the sake of it (though I do love a rant), I also believe very strongly that the public is not just entitled but is required to be part of debate on moral issues within research. We scientists need non-scientists to temper and guide us, and we need them because they are the majority of the world and the whole world will be impacted by what we do, if we are lucky. I have a particular idea about engaging non-scientists in citizen panels/juries, as used in Canada and the US state of Orgeon to guide political decision making. But that’s something I’ll return to at a later date. For now I’ll end with a plea: let’s not shroud science in a fog of mystery and pretend it is a morally neutral pursuit of toga-clad natural philosophers; science is drenched in moral implication and the important question is what we do about it.
In defence of the BBC: I subsequently heard a really nice programme on misconduct from them – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072jdqm . I generally think the there is a lot of great science programming on the BBC, in particular The Life Scientific, Inside Science and the science episodes of In Our Time (and I have to mention More or Less, falling as it does within what one might call ‘the scientific world view’). So this is not an attack on Radio4 in general, just on this really shitty programme in particular.