Adventures in Ethics and Science

This is a follow-up, of a sort, to the previous post on why serious discussions (as opposed to shouting matches or PR campaigns) about the use of animals in research seem to be so difficult to have. One of the contentious issues that keeps coming up in the comments is how (if at all) such discussions ought to deal with prior bad acts that may not be representative of what’s happened since, or even of the actions of most of the scientific community at the time of those prior bad acts.

My sense, however, is that the real issue is who we think we can engage in a serious reasoned dialogue with and who we’ve already written off, who we think is worth engaging because there’s really a shared commitment to take each other’s interests seriously, and who intends to “win” at any cost.

In a discussion of how seriously scientific communities and individual scientists take particular ethical considerations (or regulation, or interests of the taxpayers who may be funding their research, or so on), is it out of bounds to note instances when scientists have messed up? If so, what makes it out of bounds?

Surely, if someone is making the case that scientific communities and/or individual scientists generally do a good job upholding a particular ethical standard or meeting a particular regulatory burden, we ought to be allowed to ask how we know whether the scientists are doing as good a job as we assume they are, right? Empirical evidence is still useful. And if the cases where scientists depart from how the scientific community thinks they ought to be behaving are rare aberrations, isn’t it worth examining those cases to figure out how they slipped by the community unnoticed, and how similar cases can be prevented in the future?

Scientists are good enough at logic to know that claims of the form, “No scientists would do X” can be defeated by a single instance of a scientist doing X. They’re committed enough to empiricism to recognize that you can’t toss data points simply because they don’t fit your hypothesis.

And mostly, at least talking among themselves, scientists seem to be OK with the idea the reality is sometimes messy and complicated.

So maybe the real concern is that, if “dirty laundry” is aired, enemies of science — people who don’t want to help science be better but rather who want to shut it down or undercut its place in the public discourse — will seize upon it to undermine the whole enterprise. Given the rhetorical strategies of groups like PETA, professional global warming skeptics, and the “teach the controversy” crowd, it’s hard not to think that there are forces less interested in an accurate picture of the state of the scientific community than in winning their points.

I don’t like those people. And I certainly don’t like the way that their presence makes it harder for people who do care about making scientific communities work better to get a good grip on things for fear of uncovering (or mentioning aloud) some piece of information that enemies of science will use as a weapon. (After all, it’s not a warranted inference to go from “Some scientists do X” to “All scientists do X.”)

But I’m scared of what happens if the response to the science-haters is a thin white lab-coated line* with a code of silence about what happens inside the communities of science.

Even if scientists weren’t largely supported with public moneys — which arguably, gives the public some kind of say — cover-ups never seem to end well. Transparency — and dealing with facts as they are rather than as we wish they were — not only seems more likely to persuade the public that the eeeevil scientists aren’t up to something, but it also fits better with the whole truth-seeking orientation of science.

Possibly, though, you’ll tell me that the complicated truths that scientists can handle among themselves are no match (at least when it comes to persuading the public) for the rhetorical flourishes of the professional enemies of science. What should we do then? Give up on engaging the public? Learn how to play the rhetoric game? Hope like mad that the bad behavior that (very very rarely) happens in the lab stays in the lab?

*There is a part of me that thinks it would be kind of awesome to cast Dennis Franz as Stephen Jay Gould, though.


  1. #1 Bill
    August 28, 2007

    is it out of bounds to note instances when scientists have messed up?


    This has been another in our series of Easy Answers to Simple Questions. 🙂

  2. #2 Michael E
    August 28, 2007

    I vote for “learning to play the rhetorical game” for two reasons:

    1. Rhetoric is neutral. It has a bad rap, but that’s because most people don’t know all the meanings of the word. All the discussions about “framing science” are really about rhetoric.

    2. When “rhetoric” is bad, scientists and those who support them need to be able to know how to defend against the tactics of the bad actors.

    I think that effective science popularizers should be considered worth their weight in gold. As you note, the bad actors take advantage of the fact that most people believe science is pristine and without error. Science popularizers should be continually reminding people that science has one of the best error-checking mechanisms of all human endeavors – peer review. How do we know that some scientists made errors or even falsified their data? Because other scientists checked.

    A good counterpoint to any finger-wagging on the part of the denialists is, “Yes, we know there were errors. We are learning from them. What have you learned from your errors?”

  3. #3 Mark P
    August 28, 2007

    This is an issue where pragmatism is the best course. Consider the damage done if the scientific community identifies a bad actor. Then consider the damage if the scientific community hides a bad actor and someone else outs that actor.

  4. #4 Janne
    August 28, 2007

    You didn’t define what “mess up” entails, and I think that’s an important factor. The black and white endpoints are pretty clear: “mess up = falsify published data” – hit them, hit them hard, bring them down.

    On the other hand “mess up = doesn’t wash their coffee cup after the weekly staff meeting”, then no, that’s far too trivial for it to be anybody’s business outside the lab group itself.

    And lastly, “mess up = charged with spousal abuse and drunk and disorderly conduct” may perhaps make them rather despicable human beings, but it is orthogonal to their role as scientists, and should again not be the public’s business as far as their research is concerned.

    If it’s relevant to the work in question, hang them out. If not, then not.

  5. #5 Brian
    August 28, 2007

    Scientists will always lose rhetorical battles because the key component of their job is uncovering truth and sharing it. We can’t lie the way that PETA does (e.g., “computer models are just as good as mice” or “mice are too different from humans. this is actually setting back biomedical science).

    When we’re dealing with other anti-science crusaders (creationists, global warming deniers), they don’t care how we do our jobs, they just care about the data (or spinning the data). Since the data is all public anyway, science can’t -and shouldn’t want to- shut these people off from information. The minutiae of how we do our jobs daily is not public. And, the fact is, nearly all biomedical scientists are working in that field because they like life, not hurting things.

    With the state of the AR movement the way it is today, scientists who make a mistake in causing animal suffering don’t only have to fear losing their jobs, but being terrorized by activists. By all means, make instances of deliberate and/or repetitive skirting of the IACUCs public. But I don’t think that we need to make every instance where somebody goes over the line public.

  6. #6 Michael Clarkson
    August 28, 2007

    I would favor clearing the air on bad actors as quickly as is practical and just. The great advantage of science in the debate over animal welfare/rights is that it is the rare occasion when the man on the street is on our side. A demonstration that science as an institution desires to operate as humanely as possible and is intolerant of abuses helps us more than another example of cruelty helps the animal rights crackpots.

  7. #7 kevin
    August 29, 2007

    Thanks for the reasonable post on animal use in science. I read PZ’s recen tpost (I’m usually a big fan), and the others, and the recent news article linked by them. I was severely disappointed in PZ’s response, which comes across as, basically, “any concern by non-scientists for the use of animals by scientists in anti-science, extremist, and hypocritical”. There doesn’t seem to be any recognition that there really are normal, pro-science people out there that *also* care about things like reducing the use of animals, improving the care of animals, keeping the bad actors from doing what they do.

    I’m personally familiar with several people who do animal research. And some clearly are on the good side of things. But even in my tiny anectodal sample size, there seem to be others that, well, basically could care less about animals at all.


  8. #8 Clinton
    August 29, 2007

    “is it out of bounds to note instances when scientists have messed up?”

    Of course not. But the anecdote is not the empirical evidence you seem to seek either. So what is the purpose of using it? To “learn from our mistakes”? Fine and good. This is not the sense in which you have been using it however. You’ve been using it as “See? There is such a thing as a misuse of animals in research. So my discussion of these topics is meritorious, you can’t dismiss me with ‘didn’t happen’!” The trouble is that scientists will spot you this one and stipulate that there are indeed errors in the system. Cases in which the use of animals failed to live up to the established standards. Neither stipulation nor anecdote is able to illuminate the question of how common are the errors in any satisfactory manner. So recognize that it comes across as a talking point- a rhetorical trick to give a particular argument more communicative heft than it objectively contains.

    “But I’m scared of what happens if the response to the science-haters is a thin white lab-coated line* with a code of silence about what happens inside the communities of science.”

    Why? At a higher level, why are you more scared about this than the real potential to shut off particular types of animal research, or all animal research, forever and anon? Is it that you refuse to believe this could ever, really, come to pass? At the level I think you intended the query, why do you think such a thing could happen or does exist? What real evidence do you have for this? (Again the single anecdote is unconvincing…unless you posit tip-of-iceberg.) What do you suspect, specifically, is “going on” that you might uncover in an empirical inquiry?

  9. #9 Steve LaBonne
    August 29, 2007

    …it’s hard not to think that there are forces less interested in an accurate picture of the state of the scientific community than in winning their points.

    How can you recognize this point, and yet insinuate in your previous post that it was somehow nefarious of UNC not to want PETA members infiltrating their staff?

    There are enforcement mechanisms in place to catch “bad actors” and prevent recurrences of their bad acts. Now, it may well be that the current state of surveillance and enforcement mechanisms is unsatisfactory. If you believe this is the case, you should be documenting the problems (using sources more reliable than an old Washington Post story drawing on sources from a notoriously dishonest animal-rights organization) and suggesting solutions. THAT would be a useful and praiseworthy contribution to the debate. What you’re doing now is, to be kind, something well short of that.

  10. #10 leah
    August 29, 2007

    And now there’s even an internet comic commemorating Prism’s ideological downfall:

    We can all have a schadenfreude-ic laugh at their expense… if that’s ethical.

  11. #11 Clinton
    August 29, 2007

    Steve LaBonne: “What you’re doing now is, to be kind, something well short of that.”

    Interestingly while I agree with most all of Steve’s points in these threads I disagree, fairly strongly, with this conclusion. It is good to have an expression of a diversity of opinions to further any debate. Looking at the million comments over at Pharyngula and a much smaller thread a while ago over at denialist blog, we can see that the moral dimension is the big problem. It calls for a professional philosopher of science to delve into the issue. I for one welcome these efforts.

    Frustratingly, I see very little headway being made. I can’t tell if this is because far too few of us took/remember philosophy classes, if philo isn’t actually useful for real problems (sorry Dr. F-R!) or if this is just an insurmountably difficult question.

  12. #12 Steve LaBonne
    August 29, 2007

    Well, I have no doubt that her heart is in the right place, but I believe I have already explained in sufficiently long-winded fashion why I don’t think she’s going about it in the most productive way.

  13. #13 Melinda Barton
    August 30, 2007

    I think you make really great points. I can see how this would be a sensitive issue, similar to the ones we journalists deal with every time we have a Stephen Glass or Jason Blair. My response: Yes, there should be open discussion of the failures for all the reasons you mentioned, but only within the context of daily practice. We should get good data on how common these failures are, what methods are used to catch and prevent them, and how or if the community at large makes it know that they are unacceptable. The whole truth will be far more convincing than secrecy, which is counterproductive.

    As for winning the rhetoric debate, to argue as Brian does, that those who seek truth can never win against those who lie is pessimistic at best. History is filled with those who met lies with truth and won. For the most part, that’s how social attitudes have changed over the centuries.

  14. #14 Clinton
    August 30, 2007

    The difference, Melinda, is that the Jayson Blair incidents, and even the Judith Miller incidents with all those real-world implications, are not met with calls to shoot Jayson or Judith so as to persuade others to be “careful”. Nor are these incidents met with calls to dismantle journalism entirely as a profession and endeavor because these “prove” that the whole purpose of journalism is immoral.

    This speaks to the points that Janet is trying to address with the seemingly uncompromising researcher position. It is not clear that those who evince a “middle” or “shades of gray” position really understand that this is not an academic exercise or a debate about angels and pinheads or a cute analogy with fraudulent/plagiarizing/gov’t shilling journalists.

  15. #15 Melinda Barton
    August 31, 2007


    Do you think we journalists don’t get death threats for how we do our jobs? I got my first death threat 3 years out of school. Last year, 56 journalists were killed in the line of duty. 30 of those were under suspicious circumstances, meaning they were or may have been assassinated. For many journalists, being threatened and assaulted is part of the job. I have a friend who’s been receiving loads of hate mail over a brief entertainment article on Ted Nugent, for goodness sakes. Note that that’s an entertainment article.

    And there are more than enough people who think the whole purpose of journalism is immoral–to spread a leftist anti-G-d agenda or to bolster the status quo for the benefit of the rich and powerful. There’s a reason that whenever tyrannical governments come to power, journalists are often targeted first.

  16. #16 Melinda Barton
    August 31, 2007

    One more thing, you can see the full statistics on journalists killed in the line of duty here:

  17. #17 Clinton
    August 31, 2007

    Melinda, I was perhaps a bit US-centric in my thinking here. Yes, in a war zone, in highly fascistic countries and in places where, say, the narcotrafficantes have it in for you….it is dangerous to be a journalist. Stipulated.

    In the US and other journalistically-stable democracies, I can imagine that you get the occasional hoopla of threats after specific pieces. Do you collectively, however, get chronic targeting, no matter what you write, independent of all other factors save that some vocal, well financed, Hollywood-glamored organizations find all journalism immoral? I think it is hard to sustain the analogy. Some guy who writes a letter after hearing Rush on how JournalistX is supporting the terrorists is a little different from the Humane Society putting up a research-institution hitlist map on their website. I mean for chrissakes it is the *Humane Society*, not everyone knows this has been taken over by the PETA agenda…

    The kneejerk anti-media types who argue “liberal bias, liberal bias” aren’t against journalism. They LIKE media and journalism so long as it follows their agenda. They are not morally against the enterprise itself. It is a difference that matters.

  18. #18 Melinda Barton
    August 31, 2007

    Certain publications and their journalists do receive constant threats and harassment even in the U.S. I’m sure skeptic and LGBT publications have threatening letters up to their ears! I was once the associate editor of a small lesbian mag. A fanatical religious group contacted and threatened every single one of our advertisers.

    Although analogies are rarely exact, I think it’s a lot more similar than you realize. Most scientists aren’t regularly threatened for their work and those that are being threatened are being threatened over one particular issue. This is the case also with journalists. Those of us who spend our careers writing about particular subjects or covering particular beats are regularly harassed, threatened, and assaulted even in the U.S., where targeted assassinations are rare. Is there a particular list somewhere? Not that I know of offhand, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    As for the morality issue, these people are finding one area of science immoral not science as an enterprise. The same with journalism. Yes, they like the journalists who tow the “party line”, but I’m sure the Humane Society likes the scientists who work to protect endangered animals. Unlike with scientists who work to protect endangered species, however, journalists can’t tow the “party line” without violating the ethics of journalism.

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