Adventures in Ethics and Science

The other night as I was falling asleep, a situation occurred to me that struck me as something of a conundrum. (Remarkably, I still remembered the situation when I woke up.) I’ve been working out my own take on this situation — what’s at stake in responding to it one way or another — but I wanted to canvass the commentariat for responses before I put my own analysis out there.

Here’s the situation:


You’re a member of the tribe of science. (Let’s leave your position within the tribe unspecified — you could be a student or a trainee, you could be a mid-career scientist, you could be a senior scientist.)

In the course of a fairly limited engagement with another member of the tribe of science, that other scientist strikes you as shady.

Maybe the engagement is your student rotation through his or her lab. Maybe you are both members of a largish research group. Maybe the two of you have been in communication to broach the possibility of a future collaboration.

What’s important in this situation is that you are presented with a vibe or a gut feeling about this other person — you are not witnessing obvious misconduct, nor are you privy to evidence of same.

On the basis of your impressions from this limited engagement, should you disengage from this individual as quickly as you can? Or should you engage more closely with this individual? Explain the reasoning behind your answer.

Thanks in advance for weighing in. I’ll post my thinking on this conundrum tomorrow night.

Comments

  1. #1 Robyne
    April 29, 2009

    My gut feeling is engage this individual immediately. I come from the “know thy enemy” camp.

  2. #2 Jared
    April 29, 2009

    Wanting to understand human behavior the way I do, I would engage more closely and be far more observant. I try not to act upon gut feelings.

  3. #3 PengieP
    April 29, 2009

    I’d suggest getting away from them as soon as you can. If you continue associated with Shady Scientist- they can take advantage of you and exploit you more easily.

  4. #4 Snogger
    April 29, 2009

    I’d say that I’d try to get closer to get more information.

    But what I’d actually DO would likely be the opposite….

    Although I would like to think of myself as one who would seek out the truth, I don’t think I would really do so. It’s both easier and more comfortable to step away and do nothing.

    Needless (?) to say, I suspect that most of us are like me. Although Jared, above, says he tries not to act upon gut feelings, I believe that each of us, at all times, does what he or she most FEELS like doing. Maybe Jared is more successful than most at suppressing those gut feelings; but in the end, isn’t he doing what he feels most like doing?

  5. #5 Kim Hannula
    April 29, 2009

    I would avoid the person as much as humanly possible.

  6. #6 chezjake
    April 29, 2009

    Based on a long career (I’m now retired) of experience in seeing how my own gut feelings relate to reality, my immediate response is to get out of Dodge ASAP if at all possible.

    Another, perhaps more rational, way of thinking about this is that even if this person turns out to be perfectly OK, just finding that out is going to take more effort and complicate your life more than not having to work with that person.

  7. #7 Bluemagic
    April 30, 2009

    If there is no need to come to a conclusion yet, you can wait and observe, warned by your first impression. People usually can’t hide their true nature, and if someone is unethical or evil in a small thing, the person will be unethical in large things too. Also, I suggest you think back honestly over how your gut feelings have held up in the past, but I personally think gut feelings tend toward a lot more false “positives” than false “negatives”. All that applies to scientists and non-scientists both, of course, though scientists might be more prone to let the ego-driven misanthropes get further along on average than the general populace would permit.

  8. #8 Doug Alder
    April 30, 2009

    I’m not a scientist so you can discard my thoughts on this if you wish – they are purely subjective. Rational analysis is great for those things we have evidence for, or protocols that would lead us to that evidence. The problem there, in situations like this, is that if the person does turn out to be shady, by the time you can mount that evidence it’s altogether too likely that you are in too deep to escape being at least somewhat tainted through guilt by association. I’ve long held that people should listen to “their guts” – I know that had I done so I would have saved myself a lot of heartache over the years. Here’s an example – my first marriage – I’m madly in love with this woman and from all I can tell it is mutual – I’m standing at the altar watching her father walk her down the aisle and this absolutely crazy thought bubbles to the surface “she’s only marrying me because she thinks no one else will ever ask her” (I was her first serious love) – crazy eh – well I put it off to wedding jitters until 4 years later when she left me for someone she had just met on a trip to England and she confessed that very thing to me. Rationally I can go back through that marriage and courtship see everything that made that true – at the time I couldn’t but my “gut” could.

    I think what our “guts” tells us is a synthesis of much more information than we can consciously process in real time based on our lifetime experiences and I thgink it’s wise, in every sense of the word, to listen to your “gut”. When you do you are showing confidence in your own ability and intelligence to survive. I think those “gut” feelings are a leftover from our distant past when survival often meant reacting on instinct rather than analysis, from pre-language days. (and no I do not think this is ESP or some 6th sense or some other new agey woo)

    fwiw that’s my take :)

  9. #9 Stentor
    April 30, 2009

    I’d say engage more closely with other people who have contact with the allegedly shady individual, who can potentially confirm or relieve your concern.

  10. #10 Pat Cahalan
    April 30, 2009

    Gut feelings can come from two things, tacit knowledge buried deep in your head that does some recognition pattern matching and decides this behavior matches something in your brain that is metatagged as “hinky”; or a bad egg salad sandwich. Or no sleep. Or, oh, okay, gut feelings can come from a lot of things, but it boils down to “something” and “something perceived but not actually there”.

    I don’t discount gut feelings because I know how much expertise is buried in the subconscious brain, but on the other hand there’s nothing like a couple of giant boneheaded calls to remind you that usually the reason why you can’t put your finger on what’s bothering you is that whatever is bothering you isn’t actually there, or something that you’re registering as “hinky” science behavior is just some sort of odd personality behavior (heck, they might just be scoping you out for an interpersonal contact of a nonprofessional nature, that’s still hinky, but not in the same class).

    What I would actually do would be highly contextual, though. I don’t imagine that I would feel comfortable doing nothing, especially if I thought they might be someone I would not want to call a colleague. I have a terrible time letting things go, I’d probably want to find out why I thought something odd was going on, and that would mean getting a closer look at the person and what they’re doing.

  11. #11 fvngvs
    April 30, 2009

    How does ‘gut feel’ with a scientist differ from that with a civilian? I submit there’s no difference.

    When my ‘shady’ alarm goes off whilst engaged with a civilian I do become much more cautious. Blatantly obviously so, unfortunately.

    Sadly, this has happened professionally too. And yes, I do get (very obviously) cautious. Normally I eventually find that I’ve just been overly sensitive (to items x,y, and z) in a situation where I shouldn’t have been.

    In the one situation where I was proven right… well, I got trodden on.

  12. #12 jc
    April 30, 2009

    I get the bells and whistles in my head if a conundrum presents itself over time and I have strange repeating nightmares. If the conundrum is an in-my-face instant type thing, I literally physically feel a wrenching in my stomach and knot in my throat at that moment. I *know* something ain’t right.

    Every time I’ve tried to explain, justify, and accept a conundrum as something I don’t understand or that it might magically not be as bad as I thought, my ass got burned. Now, if I get Warning Warning Danger Danger bells or punch gut, I run and don’t look back.

  13. #13 hypatia cade
    April 30, 2009

    I know you said to disregard the power dynamic, but my response is actually related to it…. A student with a lab rotation that’s a bit off, I’d run away as fast as possible. Or cautiously observe from the sidelines. The likelihood that you can effectively solve the problem is low. A senior scientist who is potentially in a whistle blowing situation is different. I think the level of involvement I’d allow myself would be related to the likelihood that I could change the situation of what I observed was inappropriate behavior.

  14. #14 Kate
    April 30, 2009

    Well, here’s the problem with gut reactions: they are inevitably a result of past experiences that may or may not be relevant to the current situation. So past biases against certain types of people (we could be talking about sex, race, etc here, or say, people who just have personalities that we aren’t crazy about — say someone who reminds us of our mom and we have a tough relationship with our mom) can contribute to a “gut” feeling. And for as many times as we can remember being “right” (whatever that really means) about our guts, we can probably recall times being wrong.

    So before running or pulling closer, I would suggest a closer examination of those “gut” feelings. What are the actions, behaviors, language of this individual that is contributing to this feeling that said scientist is shady? If there is nothing specific that can be concretely tied to shadiness, I would suggest getting to know the person better. Then you either get to the root of the insecurities that have made this person appear the way they appear, or you have discovered at least some reason this person is not going to be a good advisor/friend/collaborator.

    Getting closer doesn’t have to mean walking up to that person the next day and saying, “Hey! I want to tell you ALL about my research and then collaborate with you!” I don’t think getting to know a potentially shady person is dangerous if one is careful. We all know people like this that are identifiably, concretely shady, and sometimes it’s good to have a decent relationship with them just to keep you off their radar.

    The last thing I want to say is that in academic science, as in all professions, sometimes you get burned. I’ve gotten burned, I’ve also made some fantastic relationships. The relationships are worth being wrong and being burned sometimes, and I would rather not live in fear but live eager to know people.

  15. #15 Jared
    April 30, 2009

    The ONLY reason I even responded to this question is because I was recently in that position. I try not to speculate on how I WILL behave. I suspected pseudonymous employer had manipulated data from the quality control department. Rather than immediately jump to conclusions, I investigated. My conclusions from these data convinced me to leave the company.

  16. #16 Gwen Aimes
    April 30, 2009

    My thoughts on this have changed radically with experience. A while ago, I began a professional relationship with a scientist. I knew that I didn’t have the skills that the scientist based his/her successes upon, so felt I could learn from said scientist (SS). However, I didn’t trust SS, and had a distinct, queasy, gut reaction upon the first meeting. In the interest of ‘learn thy enemy’, and learning new skills, I went for it, deciding to keep vigilant and take away only the skills I needed and dump whatever was making me queasy.

    I regret that decision. I was in too deep with the relationship & project before I found hard evidence of what my gut was telling me all along. At that point, there was little I could do about it, and little else I could do without a lot of politicking, burned bridges, and (yes) money.

    That said, my outlook on life is now jaded very different. The amount of energy expended on ‘being vigilant’ is energy that could be put to productive use with individuals with whom you can work smoothly and collaboratively. There are many, many people in the world, and even in small scientific arenas there are more people out there than you think. Seek them out. Create a productive, supportive, and collegial working group. Be civil but distanced from those who would create drama require extra energy, and your work and relationships will take you farther.

  17. #17 becca
    April 30, 2009

    I wish I’d listened to my gut reaction when I was a student in a lab rotation. I think if you’re going to put yourself in a position where the other person has a LOT of power over you, you should run and not walk away from shadiness.
    In other circumstances, I generally neither engage nor disengage, but keep an eye out and be cautious.

  18. #18 Avrom
    April 30, 2009

    I’m curious as to what this question particularly has to do with the Tribe of Science. Why would your answer differ from when you have a similar reaction to a colleague in *any* field of human endeavor, or at least any field of human endeavor where a shady or dishonest individual has opportunity to cause harm (which is, I think, most of them)?

  19. #19 Hank Roberts
    May 2, 2009

    I can answer Avrom with a pointer about the difference with science: http://www.google.com/search?q=Feynman+honesty

    in particular: “… I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity ….” (From Cargo Cult Science)

    But I don’t know if that touches on the reason for asking the question, which may really be more about something you should take up with your rabbi or equivalent. The “smell test” turns out to have pretty good reliability — as I recall, you can find this in the science journals on making fast evaluations. But there are exceptions.

  20. #20 Comrade PhysioProf
    May 2, 2009

    I would disengage immediately and move on to greener pastures. Life is too short to waste time trying to figure out whether a gut feeling of shadiness is warranted or not.

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