Science and Ethics

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But the dispute that we are concerned with here is a bit more subtle: Let us begin with some exponents of the continuity between ethics and science. One way to think of it is proposed by A. Edel observes that science is not value-free, and hence involves some degree of judgment of a kind similar to moral decision making.


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One crucial problem faced by continuity theorists, however, comes from what sense, if any, one can give to the idea of testing ethical theories in a way analogous to scientific ones. In moral theory, according to Rawls, it is indeed possible to reach a consensus about what constitutes a fact, but only because this fact is constructed by certain sections of humanity that share a similar background and view of the world. The post-modern-ist, of course, might argue that the same is true for science, at least in broad terms.


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Another prominent discontinuity theorist is Alan Gibbard, who says that facts in the natural sciences have an explanatory role that cannot possibly find an equivalent in moral theory. In the moral case, to say that something is wrong is to express an attitude, not an empirical finding. As in most situations, however, there may be a happy middle ground between continuity and discontinuity in the science-ethics debate. Indeed, even discontinuity supporters such as Gibbard make heavy use of scientific information, for example from evolutionary biology about the evolution of a moral sense, see E.

Press, , or game theory see my article in Philosophy Now , Issue The idea here seems to strike a good compromise: In science, as in all professions, some people try to cheat the system. Charles Dawson was one of those people — an amateur British archaeologist and paleontologist born in By the late nineteenth century, Dawson had made a number of seemingly important fossil discoveries. Not prone to modesty, he named many of his newly discovered species after himself. For example, Dawson found fossil teeth of a previously unknown species of mammal, which he subsequently named Plagiaulax dawsoni.

He named one of three new species of dinosaur he found Iguanodon dawsoni and a new form of fossil plant Salaginella dawsoni. His work brought him considerable fame: His most famous discovery, however, came in late , when Dawson showed off parts of a human-looking skull and jawbone to the public and convinced scientists that the fossils were from a new species that represented the missing link between man and ape. Dawson's "Piltdown Man," as the find came to be known, made quite an impact, confounding the scientific community for decades, long after Dawson's death in Though a few scientists doubted the find from the beginning, it was largely accepted and admired.

In , Kenneth Oakley, a professor of anthropology at Oxford University, dated the skull using a newly available fluorine absorption test and found that it was years old rather than , Yet even Oakley continued to believe that the skull was genuine, but simply dated incorrectly. In , Joseph Weiner, a student in physical anthropology at Oxford University, attended a paleontology conference and began to realize that Piltdown Man simply did not fit with other human ancestor fossils.

Soon after, the three realized that the skull did not represent the missing link, but rather an elaborate fraud in which the skull of a medieval human was combined with the jawbone of an orangutan and the teeth of a fossilized chimpanzee. The bones were chemically treated to make them look older, and the teeth had even been hand filed to make them fit with the skull. In the wake of this revelation, at least 38 of Dawson's finds have been found to be fakes, created in his pursuit of fame and recognition.

Advances in science depend on the reliability of the research record , so thankfully, hucksters and cheats like Dawson are the exception rather than the norm in the scientific community. But cases like Dawson's play an important role in helping us understand the system of scientific ethics that has evolved to ensure reliability and proper behavior in science.

Ethics is a set of moral obligations that define right and wrong in our practices and decisions. Many professions have a formalized system of ethical practices that help guide professionals in the field. For example, doctors commonly take the Hippocratic Oath, which, among other things, states that doctors "do no harm" to their patients.

Scientific Ethics

Engineers follow an ethical guide that states that they "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. And a breach of ethics is considered very serious, punishable at least within the profession by revocation of a license, for example and sometimes by the law as well. Scientific ethics calls for honesty and integrity in all stages of scientific practice, from reporting results regardless to properly attributing collaborators.

This system of ethics guides the practice of science, from data collection to publication and beyond.

Is Ethics a Science?

As in other professions, the scientific ethic is deeply integrated into the way scientists work, and they are aware that the reliability of their work and scientific knowledge in general depends upon adhering to that ethic. Many of the ethical principles in science relate to the production of unbiased scientific knowledge, which is critical when others try to build upon or extend research findings. The open publication of data, peer review , replication , and collaboration required by the scientific ethic all help to keep science moving forward by validating research findings and confirming or raising questions about results see our module Scientific Literature for further information.

Some breaches of the ethical standards, such as fabrication of data , are dealt with by the scientific community through means similar to ethical breaches in other disciplines — removal from a job, for example. But less obvious challenges to the ethical standard occur more frequently, such as giving a scientific competitor a negative peer review. These incidents are more like parking in a no parking zone — they are against the rules and can be unfair, but they often go unpunished.

Sometimes scientists simply make mistakes that may appear to be ethical breaches, such as improperly citing a source or giving a misleading reference. And like any other group that shares goals and ideals, the scientific community works together to deal with all of these incidents as best as they can — in some cases with more success than others.

Scientists have long maintained an informal system of ethics and guidelines for conducting research , but documented ethical guidelines did not develop until the mid-twentieth century, after a series of well-publicized ethical breaches and war crimes.

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Scientific ethics now refers to a standard of conduct for scientists that is generally delineated into two broad categories Bolton, First, standards of methods and process address the design, procedures, data analysis , interpretation , and reporting of research efforts. Second, standards of topics and findings address the use of human and animal subjects in research and the ethical implications of certain research findings.


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Together, these ethical standards help guide scientific research and ensure that research efforts and researchers abide by several core principles Resnik, , including:. Honesty in reporting of scientific data ; Careful transcription and analysis of scientific results to avoid error; Independent analysis and interpretation of results that is based on data and not on the influence of external sources; Open sharing of methods , data, and interpretations through publication and presentation; Sufficient validation of results through replication and collaboration with peers; Proper crediting of sources of information, data, and ideas; Moral obligations to society in general, and, in some disciplines, responsibility in weighing the rights of human and animal subjects.

Scientists are human, and humans don't always abide by the law. Understanding some examples of scientific misconduct will help us to understand the importance and consequences of scientific integrity.

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The implications were revolutionary — a molecular transistor could allow the development of computer microchips far smaller than any available at the time. However, problems began to appear very quickly. These actions — retractions and firing — are the means by which the scientific community deals with serious scientific misconduct.

In addition, he was banned from working in science for eight years.

Knowledge, Science and Ethics | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Clearly, the consequences of scientific misconduct can be dire: The first step toward uncovering Schon's breach of ethics was when other researchers. In other cases, actions that breach the scientific ethic also breach more fundamental moral and legal standards. One instance in particular, the brutality of Nazi scientists in World War II, was so severe and discriminatory that it led to the adoption of an international code governing research ethics.

Notorious among these efforts were experiments on the effects of hypothermia in humans. During these experiments, concentration camp prisoners were forced to sit in ice water or were left naked outdoors in freezing temperatures for hours at a time. Many victims were left to freeze to death slowly while others were eventually re-warmed with blankets or warm water, or other methods that left them with permanent injuries.

At the end of the war, 23 individuals were tried for war crimes in Nuremberg, Germany, in relation to these studies, and 15 were found guilty Figure 3. The court proceedings led to a set of guidelines, referred to as the Nuremberg Code, which limits research on human subjects. Among other things, the Nuremberg Code requires that individuals be informed of and consent to the research being conducted; the first standard reads, "The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. Importantly, the code also places the responsibility for adhering to the code on "each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment.

The Nuremberg Code was published in and is still a fundamental document guiding ethical behavior in research on human subjects that has been supplemented by additional guidelines and standards in most countries. Other ethical principles also guide the practice of research on human subjects. For example, a number of government funding sources limit or exclude funding for human cloning due to the ethical questions raised by the practice.

Another set of ethical guidelines covers studies involving therapeutic drugs and devices. Research investigating the therapeutic properties of medical devices or drugs is stopped ahead of schedule if a treatment is found to have severe negative side effects. Similarly, large-scale therapeutic studies in which a drug or agent is found to be highly beneficial may be concluded early so that the control patients those not receiving the effective drug or agent can be given the new, beneficial treatment. Scientists are fallible and make mistakes — these do not qualify as misconduct.