A Most Human Enterprise: Controversies in the Social Sciences

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This is particularly true in the United States and other industrialized nations, but also in the developing world. While a high regard for science is certainly a desirable public attitude, it can be associated with an uncritical acceptance of any conclusion or opinion that is presented in the name of science. By presenting science to students as the product of the work of fallible human agents, rather than as a body of unassailable factual knowledge about the universe, gleaned by means of value-free observation and deduction, we can teach students proper respect for science, while nurturing an appropriate attitude of skepticism.

Bringing scientists down from a pedestal is necessary if students are to recognize their own humble efforts in school science laboratories as requiring the same honesty in the reporting of observations and treatment of data that they assume was employed in the deduction of the scientific knowledge contained in their textbooks. In an essay entitled "The Ethical Dimensions of Scientific Research" 13 the widely published logician and philosopher of science Nicholas Rescher attacks the view that science is value free, and shows how ethical considerations enter into many aspects of the practice of scientific research.

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Rescher describes ethical problems and issues in science under several headings. We will use Rescher's headings, describing the major ethical issues that he discusses, and adding a few that he doesn't mention. Rescher states, Perhaps the most basic and pervasive way in which ethical problems arise in connection with the prosecution of scientific research is in regard to the choice of research problems, the setting of research goals, and the allocation of resources both human and material to the prosecution of research efforts At the national level, he asks whether we are morally justified in committing such a large fraction of the federal research budget to space exploration at the expense of larger appropriations for the advancement of knowledge in medicine, agriculture and other fields of technology bearing directly on human welfare.

Other major value-laden choices that he doesn't mention are the balance between the funding of military versus non-military research and between the funding of fossil fuel and nuclear energy investigations as opposed to those involving renewable energy sources. A recent issue that has divided the public, politicians and the scientific community is the extent to which "BIG SCIENCE" projects like the supercollider subatomic particle accelerator or the Human Genome Project should be funded as compared to funding a broader variety of more modest "small" science endeavors. At the institutional level of the department, laboratory or research institute, Rescher mentions the issue of support for pure, or basic, versus applied, or practical, research.

Today, with an increasing fraction of research being done by, or funded by, industry the constraints imposed by corporate interests on the choice of research projects, or on the direction of the research is becoming an increasingly significant ethical issue. At the individual level Rescher cites difficult, and even painful, ethical decisions that often must be made.

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These include the choice between pure and, frequently more lucrative, applied research, and for those who choose applied science, such questions as whether to work on military projects. Recently the media have publicized the problem of whether former researchers for the tobacco industry should violate secrecy agreements by revealing that the industry knew more about the addictive nature of nicotine than was claimed in sworn testimony by company spokespeople. Rescher includes under this heading the ethical concerns that arise when scientists become administrators of large sums of public money that are needed to fund most forms of contemporary scientific research.

As he points out, the increasing administrative responsibilities imposed on scientists is an ethical issue, in and of itself, because it impairs a scientist's ability to devote his or her energies to the practice of science. In research at universities, the employment of graduate students to do research raises issues about whether the assigned research is the optimal work in terms of the education and the training of the student.

An additional ethical concern related to staffing a research group is the fact that women and minority members have historically been under-represented in scientific research. Making good on commitments to equal opportunity is a serious moral obligation of the scientist as research administrator. The ethical concerns related to the use of human subjects and animals in research are the focus of Rescher's remarks about issues related to the methods of research.

We will discuss the topic of human subjects in some detail, both in the next chapter and in connection with the case study about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in Chapter 4. The heightened public concern about animals as research subjects resulting from the animal rights movement is an issue familiar to most science teachers, particularly biology teachers.

The deletion of experiments using animals in school science laboratories, due to moral objections by teachers, students, parents or the community, is becoming an increasingly common occurrence. Other ethics and values issues related to research methods include such questions as whether a double-blind protocol is needed in cases where subjective interpretations of research data may influence experimental results.

Additionally, there are issues related to the manipulation and presentation of data, many of which are discussed in connection with the Millikan case study in Chapter 4. The use of placebos in tests of the effectiveness of a new drug can raise ethical issues associated with the withholding of a potentially effective treatment of a serious illness.

Rescher discusses the issue of the amount of evidence a scientist must accumulate before announcing his or her findings. As he states, "This problem of standards of proof is ethical, and not merely theoretical or methodological in nature, because it bridges the gap between scientific understanding and action, between thinking and doing The fact that positive results are often rewarded by increased funding from research sponsors increases this temptation.

In most cases, the science establishment scorns the scientist who chooses to announce his or her findings via public media before they have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. As discussed by Rescher, there is good reason to be concerned about premature publicity about findings that have not been accepted as valid by the scientific community.

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Well known researchers or research institutions can use the sensationalism, which is as much a characteristic of science reporting as other types of journalism, to influence public opinion and governmental funding agencies. The media emphasis on such values as the novel and the spectacular which, if translated into more funds for this type of study, can distort the development of science. Other types of ethical conflict, not mentioned by Rescher, may result from publication standards.

A scientist may be convinced that the results of a study are valid, and may have significant, perhaps even urgent, social value, although they do not quite meet the often rigid standards set by his or her peers. No possibility exists of doing further studies that might increase the certainty of the result. The scientist must make the decision whether to accept this judgment or risk the opprobrium of colleagues and make the results known by seeking the help of news-hungry science journalists.

Rescher affirms that scientists have a duty to control and suppress scientific misinformation. This obligation extends to preventing erroneous research findings from misleading their colleagues and, perhaps more urgently, to protect against the danger that false results may endanger the health or welfare of the public. On the other hand, Rescher warns against misusing this need to censor misinformation in a way that stifles novelty and innovation. Too often in the history of science, scientists, particularly those who are young and not yet well-established, have found it very difficult to gain acceptance for revolutionary discoveries that do not fit within the prevailing disciplinary paradigm.

Rescher also raises the issue of science versus pseudo-science. Whereas the need to control misinformation would logically extend to pseudo-science, he points out that the distinction between what is accepted as science and what some members of the scientific community would label as pseudo-science is not always clear.

As examples of contemporary problems in this area are the scientific standing of various forms of extra-sensory perception, herbal and other non-Western, traditional medicines, acupuncture and the recent controversy over the validity of "cold fusion. He suggests, instead that scientists have faith that truth will For obvious reasons, scientists are no less interested than those in any other field of endeavor in receiving appropriate credit for their work.

Don’t jump to conclusions about climate change and civil conflict

Rescher mentions the bitter disputes that have arisen over the years with regard to decisions about who should receive credit for a particular discovery or invention. The agreement by the international scientific community to give such credit to the scientist s whose report of the discovery is first submitted to an appropriate journal has provided a means for resolving most, but not all such disputes.

The recent controversy over the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS demonstrates that this procedure is not infallible, at least in cases where it may be difficult to determine if research reports from different laboratories are describing the same phenomenon. Furthermore since different laboratories frequently make nearly simultaneous, independent discoveries of the same scientific result or phenomenon, the question arises as to the ethical justification for giving all of the credit to the one who just happens to be first to submit the results for publication.

As Rescher points out, the fact that since scientific work is usually a collaborative effort, either within a single research facility, or involving several laboratories, the issue of allocating credit can be very complicated. This has become an even more problematic issue since Rescher first wrote his essay in In some fields, like high energy nuclear physics, the list of authors can exceed ten, or even twenty.


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Cases where junior colleagues or graduate students believe that a senior researcher has usurped credit that they deserve are not uncommon. Even issues like the order of the names on a published research article -- should they be listed alphabetically, in decreasing order of the contribution made, or in order of seniority -- can result in controversy.

A current ethical issue related to credit, and to authorship of research reports, is the extent to which a scientist whose name appears as an author should be held responsible for all the data and results reported in a published paper. This issue emerged from cases where data in a paper have been challenged as being wrong and perhaps fraudulently represented. If the work is a collaborative effort, involving researchers from different scientific disciplines, is it reasonable to expect all of them to vouch for the entire content of the paper?

If not, should each author's contribution be clearly stated in the paper, or in a footnote? One source of disputes concerning credit for research ideas and ownership of intellectual property is the peer review process. The National Science Foundation reports that accusations that a peer reviewer appropriated an experimental or theoretical idea or result from a research proposal or paper he or she was sent to evaluate, is the largest category of scientific misconduct complaints that it receives.

Of course, the number of such serious accusations is only a very small fraction of all the proposals and papers that are reviewed. This completes our discussion of ethical issues related to the practice of science under the headings in Rescher's essay. It is by no means an exhaustive list of issues of the types he discussed. There are also other important categories of ethical concerns not mentioned by Rescher. For example, there are ethical concerns related to the relative importance of cooperation and competition in scientific research, and the related issue of the extent to which scientists are obliged to share their data.

This issue is discussed in chapter 4 in connection with the case study on the discovery of the structure of DNA. Rescher explicitly states that he chose to ignore ethical issues related to societal uses of science as opposed to those associated with the practice of science. He claims that issues related to the exploitation of science "are not ethical choices that confront the scientist himself.

Not only is the obvious point made that scientists are members of society, and are therefore confronted by questions related to the social uses of science, a more controversial ethical claim is made by those who take issue with Rescher's disclaimer. They assert that scientists, because of their special knowledge, and because of the support they demand from society, have a social obligation to concern themselves with the uses that society makes of science, and to help the lay public make informed choices about technological issues.

Independent of this question concerning the social responsibility of the scientist, we believe that the introduction of ethical issues in the secondary school science curriculum should definitely include those related to the social uses, as well as the doing of science. Most students will not become scientists, but all students will need to participate, as citizens, in making informed choices about the uses of science. We will mention two major contemporary developments in which numerous ethics and values issues related to the uses of science arise.

The first is the rapidly developing field of bioengineering, including the application of the powerful techniques associated with modern genetics research. The results of the massive international Human Genome Project will further expand the need to confront a long list of extremely controversial social uses of this work. With increasing frequency, front page headlines and prime time TV news stories draw public attention to these controversies.

Should society condone, or even encourage the cloning of animals, and perhaps human beings? Should prospective parents be able to buy embryos, with specific genetic pedigrees, for implantation into the woman's uterus? Should an individual's genetic code be kept on file by the government, and if so, to whom should it be available? A second contemporary development that poses numerous ethics and values choices related to applied science is the worldwide concern about the potential conflict between industrial development and the ecological health of the planet.

trovbudugang.ga The growing list of serious local, regional and global environmental problems, including the pollution of air, water and land, acid precipitation, soil erosion, stratospheric ozone depletion and global warming, has spawned an increased sense of urgency among the world's people and their political leaders about the present and future health of the earth's ecosystems. Decisions concerning what to do about these problems involve an evaluation of the scientific facts in the context of many other value-laden social and political factors. Should the developing nations of the world be denied the benefits of the technologies that have resulted in serious pollution problems as a result of their widespread use by the developed nations?

Is it appropriate to base environmental decisions on cost-benefit analysis when this requires measuring such human values as life, health and beauty in economic terms? Should the use of a chemical be banned when it is estimated to cause one death in a million, ten thousand or one thousand exposed people?

What roles should scientists, political leaders and informed citizens play in making environmental decisions? Discussion of ethics and values issues related to the doing and using of science will be found in connection with the examples used in Chapters 2 and 3, and in more detail in association with the case studies presented in Chapter 4.

Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. A Most Human Enterprise looks at controversial social science research methods and their effects on subjects and researchers. In detailing case studies in which plagiarism was alleged, subjects were mislead or seriously abused, and research denigrated certain demographics, Donald O. Granberg and John F. Galliher demonstrate how social scientists have strayed from the ethical standards of scientific research.

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Case studies include the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the well-known pseudo-prison work of Philip Zimbardo, the obedience research of Stanley Milgram, and the study of sex in public places by sociologist Laud Humphreys. Many of the studies that were most damaging to human subjects were funded by government, making the current concerns of university Institutional Review Boards seem ironic.

A Most Human Enterprise also investigates consequences of plagiarism in the social sciences, the role that whistle blowers can play, and the consequences of their acts. Humans are, of course, capable of lofty and amazing accomplishments. Yet they are, nevertheless, also subject to bias, prejudice, ego involvement, and poor judgment.

This book demonstrates the inadequacy of Institutional Review Boards in limiting ethical lapses in the social sciences, and seeks to create a reader more sensitive to the problems and pitfalls that arise in the course of doing social research. Galliher is professor of sociology and director of peace studies at University of Missouri-Columbia.