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Science and Ethics

Dr. Christiana Peppard discusses the relation between science and ethics.

Published September 05, 2013

Science and Ethics

After last week's consideration of the relation between science and the humanities, a few articles on science and ethics especially caught my interest.

According to a study performed by Yale law professor Dan Kahan et al, just thinking about politics messes with one's ability to be objective, even when it comes to something as seemingly apolitical as numeracy. Participants were asked to analyze two identical fake data sets, which they were told represented results from two studies. The subject of one was ideologically neutral (effectiveness of skin creams) and the other was more charged (concerned with gun control laws). People who performed the analysis of the neutral data correctly were more likely to err when it came to the more culturally controversial data set.

In a nearly diametric study, UC Santa Barbara psychology professors Jim Blascovich and Christine Ma-Kellams find, "Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior." The authors contend this may be due to "a lay image or notion of 'science' that is associated with concepts of rationality, impartiality, fairness, technological progress, and ultimately, the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society."

This "might seem encouraging, particularly to fans of science. But one possible cost of assigning moral weight to science is the degree to which it distorts the way we respond to research conclusions," points out psychology professor Dr. Piercarlo Valdesolo in this Scientific American piece. "When faced with a finding that contradicts a cherished belief (e.g. a new study suggesting that humans have, or have not, contributed to global warming), we are more likely to question the integrity of the practitioner. If science is fundamentally moral, then how could it have arrived at such an offensive conclusion? Blame the messenger."

Another paper, regarding the ethics of data stewardship and sharing, further points out that the results and processes of science (in this case, data collection, use, and dissemination) have important social implications.

The juxtaposition of these conclusions powerfully illustrates the idea that science and ethics are profoundly related—in ways that warrant consideration by scientists and non-scientists alike.

Regarding the ethical intersection of science and the humanities, ethicist and biologist Dr. Christiana Peppard says,

"Pitting the humanities against science is a missed educational opportunity.  There's not a binary between total relativism on one hand and scientific realism and objectivity on the other hand.

For science deniers, the issue of uncertainty in science is a real problem, which is why they make way too much of the concept: "If science is fallible, then all sources of authority are equally valid." But, of course, uncertainty isn't a problem. More information may be needed. Maybe our experiment was inappropriate. Maybe we need better methodology or equipment. But this doesn't mean the process isn't sound. On the other hand, for people who tend to be more triumphalistic, there tends to be a more totalizing approach, a sense of, "Hey we know so much and we have all this data! Now we can do anything!"  

Having all this information is totally great and worthy of celebration, but it's not a stopping point. Data isn't actually useful without a framework for interpretation, and these interpretive frameworks warrant at least as much critical consideration as the data and methods of data collection. It's really imperative in many areas of life now to be able to evaluate data and claims about what it means. Humanities critical thinking skills help to parse out what's reasonable conjecture and what's a stretch." 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles on are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the New York Academy of Sciences.