March 04, 2004

Should Ethical Considerations Influence Research Publication?

To anybody who has ever taken a class in the social sciences (or the natural sciences), this may seem like a bit of a no-brainer. Any kind of training in the sciences these days involves, from a very early stage, having the importance of ethical considerations in research hammered into you. But the kind of ethics advocated by most scientists, while admirable, are not what I really want to focus on today. What seems even more important (to me, anyway) are the ethical considerations involved in releasing the results of experiments that may negatively impact society.

An example: following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, several people distorted Darwin's theory to justify sterilizing mentally handicapped people (and others) as part of the Eugenics movement. Obviously, this was not what good ol' Charles had in mind when he wrote the Origin, but the Eugenics movement was nonetheless a consequence of Darwin's work. And if a seemingly benign theory like natural selection can generate such horrific behaviour, perhaps the ethical implications of scientific research are worth thinking about.

Let me digress for a moment and fill in a little bit of background. There are two aspects of human life which are central to this discussion:

First: human life is structured around inherited knowledge. We could not live life the way we do today if we had to experience and find out everything for ourselves. That's why we ask our parents questions, go to school, read books, and so forth-- these things provide a means for compressing several lifetimes' worth of experience into just a few years. We rely inescapably on the authority of others. And therefore, we are conditioned to fairly blindly accept what authority figures tell us without subjecting them to much scrutiny. Just keep that in the back of your head for a while, as I explain the second important point about human life.

It has been demonstrated ad nauseam by countless social scientists that human beings very often justify the status quo by invoking the 'nature' of social arrangements. Item: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (1) has documented that people of all races frequently explain racial segregation as 'natural' (eg. "people like to live with their own kind-- it’s just human nature"). Item: Lillian Rubin (2) has suggested that male/female inequality is often explained away (by women and by men) as natural (eg. "women are emotional, men are rational"). Item: criminal acts are frequently defended by invoking physiological conditions (eg. low blood sugar, PMS), on the grounds that the criminal was suffering from 'natural' problems over which he or she had no control.

So, let's recap: human beings will believe pretty much anything that authorities (specifically scientific authorities) tell them, and human beings justify gross inequality and horrendous acts by claiming that they are 'natural'. So what? Well, knowing these two things, we should recognize that scientific findings may be (and, in fact, have been) taken as true and used to erroneously justify behaviour that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. The Eugenics movement is a good example.

And that brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning: should ethical considerations affect research publication? In a word, yes. What researchers need to recognize is that most people are not scientists. That is, researchers can’t just publish their findings and imagine that their job is done; they need to make sure that their findings aren't used inappropriately. If they are not prepared to accept responsibility for their work then, frankly, they shouldn’t publish it in the first place.

Last week I wrote about a study that 'proved' men were genetically predisposed to be unfaithful. I called the study irresponsible and I stand by that judgment. A scientist with extensive training in evolutionary psychology may understand that even a genetic disposition to a behaviour does not inextricably guarantee that the behaviour will occur. An ordinary person will probably not. What’s more, some people will even use that 'scientific fact' to justify morally repugnant behaviour (like cheating on a significant other).

The problem is compounded by idiot journalists who latch on to one part of a scientific study (taken out of context, usually) and blow it out of proportion into some ridiculously sensationalist 'exposé'. Obviously, this is not really the fault of the researchers, but it is naive and careless to deny any culpability on their part: they know their work could be misinterpreted, yet they release it anyway.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we give up on scientific research, or that scientists stop publishing their findings. I am suggesting that if it seems like a certain study could be misinterpreted easily or maliciously, it should be released with a modicum of caution, and a crapload of qualification. If you're worried about being misquoted in the media, put a prominent legal notice demanding that prior consent be obtained before your work is cited. Above all, if you find that you or your work are being misused somewhere, take all necessary measures to correct the matter-- after all, no one can refute you better than you can.

Some might complain that science will suffer from these measures, that the system of open findings and peer review will be stifled. But let's be clear: ethical considerations already stifle science (by dictating what is and isn't acceptable in research). So let's not be half-assed about it. This is an issue that requires serious thought.

1. Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism Without Racists. 2003.
2. Rubin, Lillian B. Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family. 1992 (1976).


Post a comment

<< Home