I was thinking some more about the Paul Root Wolpe commentary on how scientists avoid thinking about ethics, partly because Benjamin Cohen at The World’s Fair wonders why ethics makes scientists more protective of their individuality than, say, the peer-review system or other bits of institutional scientific furniture do.
My sense is that at least part of what’s going on here is that scientists feel like ethics are being imposed on them from without. Worse, the people exhorting scientists to take ethics seriously often seem to take a finger-wagging approach. And this, I suspect, makes it harder to get what those business types call “buy-in” from the scientists.
The typical story I’ve heard about ethics sessions in industry (and some university settings) goes something like this:
You get a big packet with the regulations you have to follow — to get your protocols approved by the IRB and/or the IACUC, to disclose potential conflicts of interest, to protect the company’s or university’s patent rights, to fill out the appropriate paperwork for hazardous waste disposal, etc., etc. You are admonished against committing the “big three” of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. Sometimes, you are also admonished against sexually harassing those with whom you are working. The whole thing has the feel of being driven by the legal department’s concerns: for goodness sake, don’t do anything that will embarass the organization or get us into hot water with regulators or funders!
Listening to the litany of things you ought not to do, it’s really easy to think: Very bad people do things like this. But I’m not a very bad person. So I can tune this out, and I can kind of ignore ethics.
The decision to tune out ethics is enabled by the fact that the people wagging the fingers at the scientists are generally outsiders (from the legal department, or the philosophy department, or wherever). These outsiders are coming in telling us how to do our jobs! And, the upshot of what they’re telling us seems to be “Don’t be evil,” and we’re not evil! Besides, these outsiders clearly don’t care about (let alone understand) the science so much as avoiding scandals or legal problems. And they don’t really trust us not to be evil.
So just nod earnestly and let’s get this over with.
If ethics is seen as something imposed upon scientists by a group from the outside — one that neither understands science, nor values it, nor trusts that scientists are generally not evil — then scientists will resist ethics. To get “buy-in” from the scientists, they need to see how ethics are intimately connected to the job they’re trying to get done. In other words, scientists need to understand how ethical conduct is essential to the project of doing science. Once scientists make that connection, they will be ethical — not because someone else is telling them to be ethical, but because being ethical is required to make progress on the job of building scientific knowledge.