Adventures in Ethics and Science

Here are some of the thoughts and questions that stayed with me from this session. (Here are my tweets from the session and the session’s wiki page.)

The session was led by John McKay and Eric Michael Johnson. John posted the text of his presentation and Eric posted his presentation a la YouTube. I’m going to take this as permission to skip doing a proper recap here. Instead, I’m going to write about the big ideas this session raised for me.

First, I’m struck by how easy it is for those of us who were trained to do science to know very little about where scientific practices come from — especially practices around communicating results and methods to other scientists. Somehow, we either assume it’s always been this way (where “this way” is often the way we were taught to do it), or that the practices were put in place in plenty of time for the scientists of earlier eras who might have needed them, or that the practices that were established as the right ones were so obvious that their adoption was inevitable.

What I’ve gleaned from my coursework and reading in the history of science is that the inevitable usually takes a lot of work (plus some luck).

I also had a nice little flashback to a course I took in grad school where we got to spend a good bit of time looking at early scientific texts from the library’s special collections. So much depends on the right confluence of technologies, resources, and social practices (and each of these can, in turn, influence the others). The shift from hand-copying manuscripts to producing books with the printing press was a crucial step … but then you need to figure out how to produce the diagrams and crucial illustrations in those books (since hand-drawing is no longer an option). It’s amazing what woodcuts could accomplish (as in Copernicus’s De revolutionibus), but I bet they burned through a lot of woodcutters to get those precise geometrical figures on which scientific and mathematical arguments turned. Engraving made illustrating easier … so much so that some of the engravers creating illustrations of New World flora and fauna (going from the descriptions and maybe rough sketches of the explorers who had actually seen them) probably got carried away and introduced details that were pleasing to the eye but not empirically grounded.

Even with printing presses and engraving, the cost of paper was doubtless a damper on publishing scientific findings before you had something really important to share (or a wealthy patron satisfied that publishing your work was a good investment). And I wonder how much the expense of books worked to encourage those doing scientists to meet regularly — maybe at first to share their books, but then to discuss their work in progress and the ideas they had for further experimental or theoretical advances.

This gets at a big question about scientific practice (including, but not limited to, publishing one’s theories and results): Why share? What is the purpose of putting the information out to your peers or the public? What are you establishing? What relationship are you recognizing (or creating) to the people with whom you’re communicating?

There are other closely connected questions: Who is doing science? Where is science done? These two details have changed quite a lot over the history of science as a human activity. Is science democratizing force, or a closed practice? Part of the appeal of science during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was that it offered a source of knowledge that was not restricted to the priestly classes or the closed guilds, but was potentially open to anyone with working sense organs and powers of reason. Still, not all scientific pursuits embraced democratic ideals. An open history of alchemy? Not so much.

Is the knowledge scientists shared in books and early scientific journals or society proceedings broadly applicable (by an educated person), or the kind of thing only a specialist, or a professional, or someone with access to specialized equipment could apply? This is the kind of thing that shifted as distinct disciplines coalesced, as scientific fields became professionalized (rather than the sorts of things in which educated people who were not professional scientists might dabble, to which they might even contribute), and as educational paths and credentialing became more standardized. It’s hard to know what scientific writing, or larger societies, would be like today if gentleman farmers and their ilk had not been marginalized from the “real” scientific discussions in the journals that emerged.

When your role is simply as a spectator to science rather than a minor participant, after all, there’s a chance that you’ll be drawn to spectate by something more appealing.

Another interesting thread in this session was the somewhat uneasy relationship between science and capitalism. Does knowledge want to be free when it requires significant expense to share it? Is knowledge something to be controlled so you can profit from it? Eric pointed to the Mertonian norms that presumably define science and its institutions, noting that secrecy is antithetical to them. Of course, to some extent openness is already in tension with the reward system Merton identifies as driving scientists (priority). Still, scientists feel like it’s part of their job as members of a scientific community to communicate their findings to journals, to review what other scientists have submitted to journals before it is published (which often includes sending detailed comments about the manuscripts) — and to do this for free. Then, they pony up the money to buy these very journals which depend on their (unpaid) labor.

There’s something a little perverse about this, combining an essential function (facilitating communication within a scientific community) with a profit motive. Arguably, what makes a publishing venture worthwhile to scientists might be quite different from what would make it worthwhile to the publisher hoping to profit from it.

Maybe there will be ways to use new technological tools to dial down the influence of profit motive on scientific communications, although this will doubtless require tweaking many of the existing social practices in the tribe of science.


  1. #1 John McKay
    February 9, 2010

    It’s very flattering to hear that our presentation has stuck with someone.

  2. #2 Janne
    February 9, 2010

    “Why share? What is the purpose of putting the information out to your peers or the public? What are you establishing?”

    A CV.

    No, seriously, “sharing” in a broad sense is just something most people like to do. We want to go “Hey everybody, look what I just did!” and get a few happy cheers and a pat on the back. We get paid in group standing, in social currency, in favours returned. Those things are arguably more important than, say, actual money for most of us.

    This is why so many programmers like to participate in open source projects. Why millions of pictures – and not all of them featuring cats! – gets posted every month on Flickr and other sites. Why people eagerly share their spin-off stories using well-known tv and book characters (don’t google “kirk spock love”. Or do, if you’re a literature or psychology major looking for a thesis subject).

    From a sharing point of view, one problem I see with our current publication system is that the actual sharing drowns in a rather deep sea of formalities and barriers. Being precise and exhaustive is good, of course, but when it takes a year of largely drudge work to publish your results, and the resulting paper withers behind some publishing paywall, the actual sharing aspect is largely gone. I can’t be the only one who really attends conferences for the hallway, poster-session and dinner conversations, and sort of wishes we could skip the formal presentations altogether. Most of the information I get, I get through informal conversations and quick e-mails.

    I wish there was a middle ground between a one-on-one email and a formal paper. Something where you can give your rough results to people, and get feedback and discussions on it without burning your chances of doing a formal paper (which you really do need for you CV, which, in turn, you need if you want to pay food and rent down the line). A science version of a beta release or tech demo if you want. Arxiv seems to be partially there, but not quite. Perhaps it’s not possible.

  3. #3 david
    February 10, 2010

    Are there no contrarians on such an important topic? No SWOTI’s?

    All right. The histories given are more like a catechism of religion than they are accurate emphases in history. In other words, they tell you what you are supposed to think and say to conform, not what the history is by particularity where you may draw your own conclusions. Whiggish, Mr. Butterfield? Could have been written by Exxon, Mrs. ______ ? Let’s have a peek.

    I propose a partial example of what has happened to science. Thomas Hunt Morgan’s father was a Union officer and a gentleman who married a southern girl on the square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee during the American Civil War. When T. H. Morgan began his research on fruit flies he raised them in a shed on the side of his house in New York. He expanded to a hired staff when he got funding from the Carnegie Institute. The science model was in part Pasteur gentleman chemist in France. Morgan moved from Columbia to Cal Tech. Nobel Prize. Good enough. We like it, but much is omitted, not so neat.

    In the longer meanwhile, great medical advances were made during the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnamese War. The U.S. military preserves those in special publications with each war. Nice topic, war and medical advances but is it a big part of the history of medical science? Big part, they didn’t tell you?

    And in other circles beginning about the 1890’s the debate rages on the morality of experimental vivisection. Friends split, Wells is for it, Shaw is against it. The experiments put on a mask away from the public. By the 1930’s, logical extension, humans are needed for experiments and only about Germany is the practice revealed, other places effaced. Vivisection, human experimentation, sometimes shady, sorry business, but profitable, and scientific, they didn’t mention it?

    Meanwhile about 1910, Frederic W. Taylor, gentleman, performs his time and motion studies on workers, calls it “scientific management” and architecture changes to provide slave houses which can deliver the worker to the spot on jobsite as needed, but they don’t call them slaves, all scientific living to match the scientific farms. In any case the workers don’t need science training to do what they do and they don’t receive it. They become science-stupid. Science will be done in labs where it can be controlled by the purse strings and made available for American enterprise.

    I suggest to you that the history of science is not so fast nor so glib nor so confident as presented by our speakers of good will. R. G. Collingwood showed us once that the old textbooks were wrong about medieval science. Diderot showed the world they were wrong in how they thought about science. A change in thinking was due.

    Is another change in thinking due? Perhaps you will not have to do anything, your children, or grandchildren, will do it, and you can make the long, slow slide into being an old fogey.

    You know, maybe, what your private definition of science is (your ‘real science’), but, as our moderator indicates, you may not know what its social construct is, successes but also failures and oppressions, and you may not know the history of your personal definition of science and what it omits by intent or negligence or wanton disregard. No need to mention nuclear, but there it is. What are you thinking?

    Cheers to all.

  4. #4 bob koepp
    February 10, 2010

    I was struck by Janet’s observation, “First, I’m struck by how easy it is for those of us who were trained to do science to know very little about where scientific practices come from — especially practices around communicating results and methods to other scientists.”

    I think working scientists would benefit from knowing about the “social history” of science, which explains the development of scientific societies and the the mechanisms of communication they established. But I also think scientists should have a firm grasp of the “intellectual history” of (at least) their own disciplines. After all, it’s hard to stand on the shoulders of giants if you don’t know what those giants were up to.

  5. #5 david
    February 10, 2010

    @ Janne

    Beautiful website in Japan by the way.

    So this sharing, this “open source” is protected by property rights? Or else it’s all feel-good for you, elite scientist in your own mind, who can stay above the fray and be paid by big brother in other ways? Do you know or care?

    Do you think some persons would steal your stuff and apply for property rights themselves? And you get nothing?

    An interesting case is the invention of television. Here’s a link to an abbreviated version of it.

    In this case before his own people had solved many problems with making a TV the president of RCA went to Utah to see how Farnsworth was coming along. Farnsworth, naive, stroked, “shared” freely.

    Well it is on point, isn’t it? and about one of the biggest inventions of the 20th century — so says TIME? and the science was done in a house, not in a big lab with myrmidons?

    How did we today come to receive, and how come to accept, the proffered views of science as being in a lab belonging to a huge enterprise and manned by loyal-scientist workers?

    Is not that proffer more accurately seen as merely a social construct?

    Institutions and corporations rule? Seems they do. Hence the wag that these histories of science could have been written by Exxon.

  6. #6 Janne
    February 10, 2010

    “So this sharing, this “open source” is protected by property rights?”

    Yes, it is. Open source in fact depends on robust property rights to function well. Sharing pictures, slash fiction or whatever online also hinges on having property rights in place that recognizers the creator as owner of their work.

    That’s not to say there aren’t issues with how the idea of immaterial rights is implemented today of course (the patent system is achieving the opposite from its intention in some fields today, for instance).

    That’s not germane to this discussion though. The point I tried to express above, shorter and clearer is simply: “Sharing” for the purpose of establishing a formal record about research progress, and “sharing” for the purpose of informing your co-workers are two distinct activities, and their requirements do not always align very well. It would be better if we could find a way to separate those two activities a little better.

  7. #7 david
    February 10, 2010

    I’m glad for some argument, life becomes more interesting.

    If “it’s not germane” we are talking about two different things. See your statement about eating, beyond CV, which I assume means curriculum vitae. The topic is the history of science. Your post is about sharing which you have connected to the history of science and later clarified as existing in two different ways.

    In disputes you have to prove you are the creator, and the date. You and when. Your word is not enough. Farnsworth had a lot of trouble. People used to send a sealed registered letter to themselves containing the idea in order to have a date. Today in written works deliberate errors are put in as trackers in case of copying. Be a good idea to put it in photos you want to privatize. Still need a date.

    And you have to have an enforcement arm in the various governments that is willing to take your case. Russia, China, very difficult. Not robust.

    Nobody’s going to sue over a photo taken from websites, too much trouble, too far to travel, too little damages. So that is not so robust, though in the US the artist was sued over an AP image in the Obama poster, a very naive artist I might add who handed them the gun to shoot him with so to speak.

    So creator copyright is not robust except maybe for fine arts painters. Inventions of processes and devices need patent-applied-for or patent-granted protection.

    So anytime you share you put your idea at risk except possibly among co-workers or colleagues since usually today big brother owns your work product anyway, that’s science.

    And I guess in a way it is related to the history of science, recent.

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