Saturday, June 02, 2007

Scientific Integrity

I've been thinking about scientific integrity a lot recently, and want to put some of my ideas out there. It's almost summer, and this means that the Biomedical Research Integrity series at the University of Washington is about to start. The question I have for this post is:

When you teach ethics to scientists in training, how much do you talk about the history of science?

I think it's fair to say that most people enter science for altruistic motives, each of which could probably be categorized as 'improving society' or 'seeking the truth.' It's only along the way that we are introduced to financial gain, advancement requirements, prestige, funding pressures and the other incentives to lie, cheat and steal.

If we think about the development of empiricism and the scientific method, we can identify that the small number of men who were natural philosophers (there weren't even 'scientists' then) were in it for the altruistic reasons. Am I sugar-coating this to say that there was not motivation for scientific misconduct?

What I am getting at is that it might be useful to contrast the historical conditions surrounding the rise of the scientific tradition in relaying why integrity is such an issue today. We can all identify the pressures that lead to lapses of integrity, but fewer of us admit to temptations and I think fewer of us will (even anonymously) report actions of falsification or plagiarism. The last time I checked there is no Office of Research Integrity ethics topic on history of science.

Maybe it is altruistic to appeal to the traditions and foundations of science, but I think if more people held honesty as the scientist's prime directive, we would not see as many problems with scientific integrity.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I suspect that history lessons are going to provide an unjustifiably rosy view. The idea that even independently wealthy gentleman scientists weren't driven by ego and other concerns is probably a bit naive. There are the occasional stories of direct competition, but that's only from the survivors! what about all the chumps of history who were screwed out of their rightful place? do you really think they didn't exist? sure they did...

thomas said...

It's a good point about the tendency for historical accounts of science (or anything, really) to be cleaner than they really were. We see this in science textbooks all the time!

My feeling (and I cannot really back this up with evidence) is that the power of the scientific method is intimately tied to principles of honesty. Perhaps fraud was more obvious 'back then' because there were fewer scientists and acts of misconduct could not be hidden in a massive body of literature...

What do you think was the origin of the scientific method's dependence on truth-telling?

Drugmonkey said...

it all started with the tendency for Oog to bash Goog over the head with a club when there were not, in fact, ripe berries over by the river as Goog reported...