Scientists and Ethics

Scientists, including physicians and veterinarians, have an unfortunate history of not always representing truth and ethics. The physicians of Nazi Germany come immediately to mind. Anyone who questions the fact that scientists can be as corrupt as anyone else need only read Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. The subtitle of Merchants of Doubt is How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, and that is what the book is about. Many scientists, very respected scientists, have lied in order to advance a political agenda or for money. Some even do so under the guise of representing science.

One tactic for denying truth is paralysis by analysis whereby someone trying to justify a practice deemed wrong or dangerous says that the practice cannot be definitively ruled dangerous or wrong until more data is in. When that data is in, he then calls for more data and so on and so on. There is never enough data to satisfy. (The reader may see some similarities here with the discussion that began with my blog How to Perform Research Without Using Animals.)

Oreskes and Conway ask why scientists who knew the truth about issues like second hand smoke and acid rain, did not challenge the nonsense being put out by the vested interest groups:

If the skeptical arguments pursued by our protagonists were not about science—if they were politics camouflaged as science—then why didn’t scientists recognize this, and say something? Why did the scientific community stand by while this was happening? With the notable exception of the atmospheric science community's defense of Ben Santer, scientists fighting back have been conspicuously scarce.

They go on the explain that the reasons for this, among others, include lack of courage, fear of being misinterpreted by other scientists, the specialization of knowledge, little taste for controversy, lack of communication skills or an outright lack of respect for scientists who do attempt to communicate science to the general nonscientific public, an unwillingness to risk appearing less than objective, naiveté, and fear of censure. All of these are consistent with my experiences both in the animals in research controversy and in science in general. This is not a flattering portrayal of the scientific community, but I am certain that it is a true one.

Oreskes and Conway also discuss these situations in light of  the fact that the media as a whole got the science wrong because they allowed themselves to be fooled by people with a vested interest in a position.

. . . most journalists would not know what we have discovered in five years of research. But the pressures on contemporary journalism cannot be the whole story, because we have seen how, at least in the early stages of this story, media leaders were openly courted by the tobacco industry, Arthur Hays Sulzburger, Edward R. Murrow, and William Randolph Hearst Jr were hardly unsophisticated people, yet they evidently accepted the argument that the tobacco industry's view of the harms tobacco generates merited equal consideration as the scientific community's view. That is rather hard to explain, except to suppose that journalists, like the rest of us are reluctant to accept information we'd rather was not true. Edward R. Murrow [a smoker] no doubt hoped that tobacco smoking wouldn’t kill him. And who among us wouldn’t prefer a world where add rain was no big deal, the ozone hole didn't exist, and global warming didn't matter? Such a world would be far more comforting than the one we actually live in. Faced with challenging situations, we welcome reassurance that everything is going to be all right We may even prefer comforting lies to sobering facts. And the facts denied by our protagonists were more than sobering. They were downright dreadful.

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the media did present the scientific debate over tobacco as unsettled long after scientists had concluded otherwise. In 1999, researchers Gail Kennedy and Lisa Bero at the University of California, San Francisco, examined newspaper and magazine coverage of research on passive smoking and found that 62 percent of all articles published between 1992 and 1994 concluded that the research was "controversial.” Yet, as we saw in chapter 5, the scientific community had by that point reached consensus, and the tobacco industry had known the degree of danger even before that A similar phenomenon developed with acid rain in the 1990s as the media attended to the idea that its cause was still not established—more than a decade after that was no longer true—or the claim that it would cost more to fix than it was worth, which was unsupported by evidence? The press continued to report well into the 1990s that the ozone hole was perhaps caused by volcanoes. Until recently the mass media presented global warming as a raging debate—twelve years after President George H. W. Bush had signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and twenty-five years after the U.S. National Academy of Sciences first announced that there was no reason to doubt that global warming would occur from man’s use of fossil fuels. (p242-3)

Believing the drugs are safe because they have been tested on animals is a comforting thought as is believing that scientists in white coats are working on monkeys everyday in order to develop cures for AIDS and cancer. Comforting, but false.

Merchants of Doubtis a good howbeit depressing read. I recommend it, but then again I would rather know the truth and be uncomfortable than be comfortable with fiction.

(I have no idea where the authors stand on the issues I discuss in my blog. My recommendation of their book and my quoting from it should not be construed as anything other than the obvious.)


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