<== Site of the Week for 2009-03-16 ==>
Ethics and Science
In my estimation, modern science is not in a happy place.
I contend that the modern image-driven approach to science is undermining science education and has created a politically charged environment for scientific research. The politicalization of research has a detrimental effect both on the study and outcome of scientific research.
I used the term "image-driven" because I worry that current public understanding of science is driven by Hollywood stereotypes, and not by an understanding of the scientific method.
A common Hollywood theme involves the struggle of a heroic scientist against the reactionary elements of society. The reactionary elements are inevitably the church or an evil conservative politician.
The Hollywood movie struggle resolves in a scene with sensational special effects.
Real science, however, is not a Hollywood movie. Real science is the application of logic and reason to the study of nature.
The classical scientist begins a career with an intensive study of a subject. The working scientist spends a career making extremely careful observations of nature recorded as accurately as feasible. The scientist proceeds so that each step can be repeated and confirmed by colleagues. During these studies the scientist is continually making, testing and revising logical propositions.
Real science is hard work. It is hard work that has a track record of returning real benefits. Real science has dramatically improved the quality of life on this planet. As such science has earned a stellar reputation.
The modern image-driven approach to science has evolved through attempts of pundits and politicians to associate the good name of science to their political ideas. This impulse seems particularly strong on the left which dreams of a scientific socialism.
Rightwing kooks are not immune to posing their beliefs as scientific.
Neither good science nor bad science is unique to any political party. Ideally, science is apolitical. A properly trained scientist would attempt to weed out distortions created by politics.
An Imagined Conflict
A repeated theme of the image-driven portrayal of science is that there is some sort of fundamental conflict between ethics (i.e. religion) and science. Anyone who engages in an authentic study of either the history of science or who thinks deeply about science is likely to reject this prototype as absurd.
Historically, one finds that science evolved in the Western tradition and that many of the greatest thinkers in this tradition had very strong ethical standards and deeply held religious beliefs. For that matter, it is the strong ethics inherent in good science that drives the political desire to have the term "science" associated with one's ideology.
On the thought side of the equation. When thinking about science, one is likely to realize that science is not nature. Nature exists regardless of what we think about it.
It is not our thinking that the earth is a sphere that makes it a sphere. It is even possible that the earth is not a sphere. It appears spherical because of our human perspective. After all it is possible that the universe is just one long string of dots and dashes in the great supercomputer in the sky. The spherical nature of the earth might only be apparent to human perspective. A multidimensional creation might see something different.
Human Science is simply an articulated human understanding of nature. Scientific understanding goes through continuous revisions as scientists hone their observation and rational skills. This articulation exists to suit human needs.
Clearly science does not exist for the purpose of nature. Our study of ocean currents does not benefit of the ocean currents. Our study of glaciers does not benefit of glaciers. Our gazing at the stars does not benefit the stars.
The purpose of science is the betterment of mankind.
If science exists for the benefit of mankind; then one is apt to conclude that studies which are directly harmful to mankind should not play a role in science.
At its very core, science is a human-centric ethical debate.
The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics
The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics is an effort to confront the image-driven politics that has many denying the nature of science. The center asks that researchers engaged in biomedical research apply the Hippocratic oath to their work. This oath asks of the researcher "to help, or at least do no harm."
The site is critical of embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cell research involves the creation and cloning—on a large scale—cells which are essentially human embryos.
The site is a strong proponent of adult stem cell research.
Not surprisingly, this ethical approach to biomedical research is likely to result in greater benefit than the "ethics-free" research touted by the pundits. We realize this by thinking through developmental process.
We all begin as a single cell called a fertilized embryo. This embryonic stem cell is capable of producing a full human. All of the cells in a human body can trace back to that cell. Early in the development process, the embryonic stem cells produce adult stem cells. It is these adult stem cells that produced all of the differentiated cells in our body. Adult stem cells produce things like blood cells, bone cells, brain cells, etc.
There appears to be a large number of diseases and cancers resulting from problems with adult stem cells. As these are problems with adult stem cells, the actual cures developed from stem cell research will come from this area of research, and not the embryonic research.
The ethical research is where science will find the technologies that benefit mankind.
In contrast, embryonic stem cell research is 'octo-mom' style science, This is the science that will be used in human engineering and designer babies. This is the science that will produce the 500 pound linebacker or the creatures that haunt the darkest thoughts of Mary Shelley.
Science is the Ethical Debate
Pundits and politicians have invested a great deal of political effort into promoting the image that evil religions are trying to hamper the evolution of science by claims that human embryos are human, and that the persecuted scientists would be able to cure all disease and give us eternal youth if it were not for the reactionaries.
The truth is that embryos are cells that would develop into unique individual humans if implanted in the uterine wall.
Quality science is an inherently ethical pursuit. The appearance of conflicts between ethics and science often indicates that our method of thinking has gone off course.