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.