Ethical challenges in science

A childrens book about Darwin and his little theory
A children’s book about Darwin and his little theory. It makes sense, but it requires some speculation, like all scientific theories do.

You hardly ever see or hear it anymore, but many Norwegian radio stations and newspapers used to have an ênquete, often called “five on the street”. I remember one because it was rather amusing. A radio station focused on the sometimes strange questions that appear on the theoretical part of the driving license test. What do you need to have over the car? Some were thinking about something they had to physically cover the car with, like a tarpaulin, but the correct answer was control.

What would your answer be to the question what is science? Some might say it’s about testing ideas through experiments and observations. Then someone else may build on the ideas that turned out to be solid and discard the rest. I would have said that science is that too. Science is also speculation.

When I was studying pedagogics in college in the late 1990’s Jean Piaget was treated with a lot of respect, maybe too much. His theory about childrens cognitive development seems to have been accurate enough, but I wonder how a similar study would have been received today. He used his own children, and in addition to the small amount of subjects it is unclear how scientific his methods were.

Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga were pioneers in split brain research. They severed the corpus callosum, the main bond between the brain’s left and right hemisphere. This is a drastic treatment of epilepsy, and they had done it to ten patients when they started their first study, but only four of them agreed to take part in the study. It turned out to be true that the two hemispheres control different functions, but I wonder how strong that evidence was in the 1960’s.

Giordano Bruno is celebrated as a martyr for science. He was burned at the stake in 1600, although it’s not that clear that it was science that got him into trouble with the Catholics. He suggested that there were distant stars surrounded by exoplanets that could support life. He also believed the universe was infinite. That wasn’t a bad speculation, but it wasn’t based on observations others could test.

People have a lot of opinions about Darwinism, but it’s pretty clear that it can’t give the anwers we want, either you are a Christian or an atheist. There are some questions that will have to be unanswered, but Darwinism certainly doesn’t pose any problems for Christians. I guess it depends on what you do with the survival of the fittest crap. This leads to natural selection, which means that the most adaptable individuals have an advantage.

We are in a fortunate position because we, unlike animals, can change evolution. That means we get to keep people that society may have judged to be useless. I don’t feel comfortable about giving people a diagnose that didn’t exist at the time, but the researcher Michael Fitzgerald calls autism the genius gene, and he has listed names like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and H.G. Wells. These are not bad idols to have for autistic children growing up today. They tell us that it is possible for autistic people to have rich lives too. It counteracts the negative focus, but it may also tell us that life is in some ways harder today. It’s not that simple to get respect, patience, understanding and so on if you are different, no matter how much some people insist that different is good.

We are living in a period where being smart is more important than having big muscles, but we still value social skills more than anything. That worries me because with the increasing focus on the individual’s right to satisfy his/her ego without having any responsibility, it will be harder if you have to rely on kindness. In a Darwinian society it will be hard for many people, for example those with an atypical neurology, to compete against the rest without any help. Adolf Hitler was probably the best Darwinist we’ve had and and we created him. He was inspired by ideas that were popular in Europe and the USA before the war.

Many theories have been viewed as twisted. One of the least popular ones at the moment is the simulation hypothesis, which says that we are living in a computer programme. The tech billionaire Elon Musk is funding research on this. It won’t be easy to prove, but if someone made a simulation that was real enough to convince anyone, it would at least be plausible (but not yet proven). It would be interesting to see what kind of software Elon Musk has access to. This theory isn’t wilder than a lot of other hypothesis researchers have tried to test. Is it fair to dismiss it just like that? In my opinion the only thing a scientist can do is to say that there are no testable observations that supports the theory. That doesn’t make this speculation more hopeless than others.

If you google evolution you’ll find many articles debunking defenders of creationism, intelligent design and other theories. They can usually manage to squeeze in a few less scientific words such as lunatic, balmy, crackpot, gaga etc. The truth is that a lot of science is about trust and faith, and having read a lot of articles about dishonesty in science over the years, I believe researchers have to accept more responsibility. These people are just as human as the rest of us, but we all want complete atonomy as human beings. That means accepting responsibility, and not keep doing something because everyone else is. You can’t claim to follow ethical guidelines if you fail on honesty and integrity. The pharmaceutical industry has major issues in that respect, and most governments. The Norwegian government has, through its oil fund, invested a lot of money in big pharma. That gives them a credibility problem because they are pushing drugs for an industry with a lot of publication bias.

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2 thoughts on “Ethical challenges in science

  1. So much of science is blatantly biased, largely because of the way it’s funded. More often than not the desired results are decided on before the study is ever conducted and then the data is made to fit a previously drawn conclusion. I don’t think this is a new problem in science. And I don’t see it going away, either. It’s just very frustrating right now because we are bombarded with “scientific” studies on a daily basis. It gets so that it’s difficult to trust the reported results of even well-conducted studies.

    1. That’s depressing, but true. I am researching vaccines at the moment, and there is a disturbing unwillingness to debate the results. From what I understand the vaccines offer protection, but the research has some issues. Different studies on the same vaccine could show different results because they compare it to different endpoints. If the endpoint for whooping cough is serious symptoms like fever and coughing bad enough to break ribs, you could get a different result compared to a lab-confirmed case. There are also different definitions for the concentration of antibodies needed, which means they don’t know. It doesn’t mean that vaccines are useless, but I don’t agree with the accusation that pro-vaccine means integrity and objectivity, while skeptics are crazy people that refuse to listen to irrefutable evidence.

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