Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Conscience of Science: Part 1 Ethics & Accountability

In September, I received disappointing news concerning Volkswagen, the manufacturer of the first car I ever owned.  The carmaker admitted that nearly one-half million cars in the U.S. from model years 2009 to 2015 were equipped with software that skewed exhaust emissions toward more favorable test results.  Volkswagen later acknowledged that the same software was on 11 million cars worldwide.

I still remember the blessing it was
to have this 1963 VW "beetle."
Since the days when I drove my 1963 VW beetle to work at Belden Brick Company in Sugarcreek, OH; and, to Malone College, in Canton, OH, automobiles have been transformed through advances in science and technology into amazing driving machines.  Advances in fuel efficiency and emissions control are just two examples of the steady improvements in automobiles.   But, while progress of science seems limitless, the Volkswagen incident suggests that “progress” is hampered without good ethics to govern the development and use of technology.

During the past century, science has emerged as the principal determiner of what is true about the natural world, about human life and behavior, and even about what is “real” and what is not.  Phrases like, “according to science” or “according to scientific findings” have been routinely used for decades to introduce authoritative claims of truth about nearly every subject being debated.  But interestingly, this year as allegations were emerging against Volkswagen for unethical use of technology for economic gain, events were occurring that raised doubts about the ethics and integrity of science itself.

Writing in the New York Times in May, Benedict Carey outlined a flurry of retractions of articles from scientific journals, including one by the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal, Science.  After two graduate students “raised questions” about a published Science report on how political canvassing affects public opinion of same-sex marriage, editors
pulled the article; but, not before what Carey called “a frenzy of second-guessing, accusations and commentary from all corners of the Internet: “Retraction” as serial drama, rather than footnote.” 

The blog
Retraction Watch was first to report that the Science article had been challenged.   Blog editor Dr. Ivan Oransky noted that “new technology and a push for transparency from younger scientists have…[produced]..more tips (questionable articles) than we can handle.” 

In earlier Oikonomia articles ” (see end of this article), we have emphasized what we call “good science.”  By our definition, “good science” does not overstate its conclusions even under pressure from granting sources or groups with a political agenda.  Nor would “good science” condone publication of statistically altered data.  In short, “good science” has a conscience ((Latin, conscientia = “knowledge of right and wrong within oneself”).  “Good science” is conscientious about being objective, cautious, humble, and unbiased in a culture that can easily bring bias and elicit unethical behavior.

Brian Nosek is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and a founder of the Center for Open Science (COS) which promotes inter-laboratory sharing of data and protocols.  He reports that there is a push toward direct replication of research findings.  Nosek coordinated a volunteer effort by 270 research psychologists to reproduce 100 studies published in 3 leading psychology journals.  Their results, published in Science, revealed that more than half of the findings did not hold up when retested, causing many to conclude that the field of research psychology needs a “strong correction.”  Or, we might say, research psychology needs a “reawakening” of conscience.

Looking closer at one of the psychology studies cited above, Nosek et al. flagged the article because authors
Vohs and Schooler (2008) overstated the influence of genetic determinism as opposed to free will in the tendency of a person to cheat.  The authors’ conclusion that participant exposure to a deterministic message increased cheating was in turn cited in 241 other articles, suggesting the tremendous scope and rapidity of transmission of either “good” or “bad science.”   Interestingly, a listing of 24 “articles citing this article” accompanying the online link to the Vohs and Schooler article published in Psychological Science gave no indication of the Science article in which Nosek, et al had questioned the finding of Vohs and Schooler.

The questionable credibility of social science studies has led to calls for similar scrutiny in other fields.  Our N.Y. Times columnist, Carey, quotes Stefano Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, as saying,  “the effort was long overdue, given that biology has some of the same publication biases as psychology. ‘I call it cartoon biology, where there’s this pressure to publish cleaner, simpler results that don’t tell the entire story, in all its complexity,’ Dr. Bertuzzi said.”

What message should we get from this depressing litany of reports?  Rather than bemoan the deterioration of scientific enterprise, let’s consider approaches that can encourage “good science” in today’s culture of declining moral standards and lack of integrity.   Here are three considerations that may be useful in restoring and maintaining the integrity of science.

First, I am encouraged that the science community has spotlighted the trend toward publication of results lacking good support and even results based on falsification of data.  As noted above, efforts to limit the publication and spread of such scientific articles are expanding.  For example,
Kelly Rae Chi has developed an algorithm to identify papers that have received numerous negative citations.  Such papers could then be red-flagged to discourage their citation and potential “viral spread” of false conclusions into other articles.

Second, and of more fundamental importance is the need to identify the underlying causes and motivations behind the spewing of scientific papers that do not hold up to scrutiny.  Could it be that the increasingly politicized atmosphere around the science laboratory combined with the moral decline in our culture is causing increasing numbers of scientists to cave in to the temptation to cut corners and draw conclusions from scanty data?  Might other scientists succumb to shoddy experimentation in order to increase their publication rate to support tenure or promotion?   

And finally, we must recognize a more subtle temptation— to publish data and conclusions that reflect deeply held philosophical or political biases in controversial areas.  Particular examples include research that relates to the origin of human life, the role of human activities in causing climate change, and the efficacy and potential side-effects of new pharmaceutical drugs.  Controversial topics such as these offer significant threats to the “conscience of science;” and particularly, the ethical consciences of the scientists involved.

Yes, Volkswagen has offered us a new beetle that buzzes with much better technology than the beetles of the past century.  But, science and technology appear to be in great need of a moral and ethical tune-up.  We will discuss factors that contribute toward the decline of “good science” in an upcoming blog article.  Particular emphasis will be upon what many consider as unhealthy political and philosophical influences that threaten the conscience and integrity of science.

Related Articles:
Oikonomia: Halting the Demise of “Liberal” Education
Climate Change Debate Demands “Good Science

Imagination That Contradicts the Reality of Creation

1 comment:

Brad said...

Well written and right on target. Great points!