The Role of Ethics in Science

By The Intersection | August 19, 2009 1:19 pm

by Joel Barkan

Over the past three days, our class has shifted gears to a discussion on the role of ethics in science.  Dr. Craig Callender of UCSD’s philosophy department and Dr. Jay Odenbaugh, a professor of philosophy visiting from Lewis and Clark College, have joined us to offer a philosophical perspective to the topic of marine biodiversity and conservation.  

The discussions have been both meditative and downright wacky:  today, the subject of distributing “reproduction permits” to capable couples for the right to have children—a sort of cap-and-trade system of controlling the world’s population problem—was brought up (as a purely hypothetical, of course).  You can imagine what the rest of our philosophical discussions were like.

One topic that provoked a lively debate was that of scientists using their professional achievements and status to advocate personal values.  For instance:  is it ethical for an accomplished fisheries biologist to advocate for widespread marine protected areas, which may have significant economic effects, but would protect the fisheries valued by the biologist? 

Scientists are responsible for producing results that shape public policy, but should scientists also take on the role of advocating for that policy?  Where do scientists draw the line between their role as researchers and as a citizens?

During this discussion, our course coordinator, Dr. Jeremy Jackson, brought up Dr. James Hansen of NASA as an example of a scientist who has dared to test the imaginary boundary between scientist and public advocate.  Dr. Hansen, who was profiled extensively in Chris Mooney’s Storm World, has famously campaigned for action to limit human-induced climate change.  Dodging a barrage of resistance from global warming skeptics and censorship by his own government, Dr. Hansen remained unwavering in his beliefs.  Dr. Jackson—never one to be muzzled himself—referred to Dr. Hansen as a personal hero in this respect.

When science and politics intersect, roles and boundaries are often muddied.  As Scripps graduate students, our own roles as both scientists and advocates will undoubtedly come into focus as we address issues in marine conservation.


Comments (25)

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  1. Anna K.

    I think it is UNethical for a fisheries biologist who personally believes that marine protection should be expanded, to remain silent about publicly promoting marine protected areas.

    Would we say it’s unethical for a family services social worker to advocate publicly for changes in family policies or healthcare policy or education policy?

    Back to the biologist scenario, is it also unethical for those who have economic interests at stake to advocate for fisheries jobs?

    What happens to the free market of ideas if the people who are most involved with situations which potentially have wide societal impacts, stay silent?

    Personally I think the biologist is ethically obliged to speak up. And so are members of the fishing industry. Maybe if all parties concerned speak up, we can come up with solutions that benefit all concerned.

    I don’t see where silence serves the public at all.

  2. Trevor

    This is an interesting issue and reminds me of how politics and judges can often face the same moral dilemma. In fact, it was not until 1988 that Canada allowed federal judges to even vote for members of parliament in federal elections. The reasoning being that judges must refrain from the mere appearance of political leanings.

    For scientists, I think it is important that their right (as human beings like anyone else) to speak out in support or opposition to any policy they wish. However, it would seem unethical for them to claim that “science” supports policy X or policy Y, in some objective sense.

    For Dr. Hansen, establishing through careful research that humans are a significant contributors to a warming planet is not sufficient to conclude that cap-and-trade, carbon tax, CAFE standards, or whatever, must be enacted. It is a moral (ideological?) question, not a scientific one, about what the government ought or ought not to do.

    Dr. Hansen the scientist is not the same person as Mr. Hansen the advocate. As long as people remember that distinction, then is there still an ethical dilemma left?

    Am I thinking about this correctly? It is certainly an interesting question.

  3. I share Anna’s intuitions, and echo them. And there is a remarkable history of scientists that, over the course of the 20th century, have expressed precisely those ideas. Scientists are also, in a sense, stewards of their subject matter. But I worry that unless we justify (and extend) those intuitions, we will have a harder time at selling them to skeptics.

    On the other hand, if we run to the wall for those intuitions, then it will hard to get away from the conclusion that our cultural practices that are values-directed, like activism, will overlap deeply with those cultural practices that we see as facts-directed, like science.

    What I would ask everyone is, is that overlap a good or a bad thing, and why?

  4. foolfodder

    Why wouldn’t it be ethical? The only reason that I can think of is that it could undermine a public perception of impartiality, something that anti-scientists (what’s a better term?) are more than willing to undermine. If this concern is ignored for the moment, then I think Anna K. is right, in that they possibly have something close to a duty to speak out.

    I think Trevor has a point, but I think that the concern might more broadly be phrased as “should scientists misrepresent science to advocate a position?” – if I’ve got that right, then my answer would be no.

  5. Arbitrary Arbiter

    I find it amusing that James Hansen is cited as a positive example. Hansen has basically become a pariah at NASA with the rest of the scientists truly ashamed of his junk science and lunacy.

  6. Anna K.

    @Benjamin S. Nelson, #3,

    When it comes to making policy, I’m not sure how we would avoid overlap. How do you separate values from facts when you’re advocating for a particular policy? Overlap is unavoidable, I think, because policy is the attempt to assert certain cultural values over competing values; more or less informed by facts.

    Actually I think the values of the different players pretty much determine which facts they consider legitimately obtained and/or properly applicable.

    Look at ongoing policy debates over roles of men and women (i.e. should women serve in combat? should biological fathers who want to raise their child have a say in whether or not a woman can go through with an abortion?) , or the causes and responses around climate change — different players all claim to have facts on their side — except that they brandish different facts obtained from different studies which just happen to support their values.

  7. Sorbet

    James Hansen has been a tremendously important and authoritative voice in the battle for climate change legislation. Yet he poses a dilemma since people have criticized him for overstepping the boundaries of his field of expertise and stepping from science into public policy and politics, fields in which he is not an expert. Elizabeth Kolbert’s profile of Hansen in the New Yorker makes some of these interesting points.

  8. You know, we’ve actually debated this a lot in therms of Unscientific America and while I don’t want to start ANOTHER flamewar on the book specifically, I recall many of my fellow scientists who postulate the the “normative” statements used to advocate for particular policy solutions are, in fact, unethical if they are advocted from using one’s scientific credentials.

    That belief, vaild though it is, seems to be confined to the science community itself. Returning to the fisheries example, there are many fisheries managment bodies here in the U.S. who want scientists to come out and advocate for a “solution” based on the science – in part so the management bodies have someone to hide behind if something goes wrong with implementing a new management scheme. Thus, many of our number conclude that only “positive statements,” i.e. those based on facts documented in the peer reviewed literature, are what scientists should be making, and leave the normative stuff to policy makers.

    My problem with that is that, as is the case in the climate crisis debate, when the scientists do not speak out, or speak out in small disjointed numbers, it becomes all too easy for others, with far more nefarious motives, to hijack the debate. Then instead of leading from a position of good science, scientists have to waste time and energy trying to refuet and clean up.

    So I’d say not only is it ethical – its NECESSARY for scientists to do these things, and to do so with their “I’m a Scientist” hats on.

  9. MadScientist

    “For instance: is it ethical for an accomplished fisheries biologist to advocate for widespread marine protected areas, which may have significant economic effects, but would protect the fisheries valued by the biologist?”

    No offense intended, but that is a genuinely stupid question. Any area decimated by overfishing will decline in economic value. The most important thing is to ensure that the resources will remain viable in the future, and we know that most commercial outfits couldn’t care less – they will follow the regulation and if the area is destroyed so what – they’re not to blame because they were following the rules. Shifting blame seems to be a common attitude with humans around the world and denying that humans act that way is certainly not productive.

    As far as moral questions goes, that has got to be one of the most superficial and trivial. If you sit idle and let things fall apart that’s just plain stupid; after all, who would say that something needs to be done except for the people who know what’s going on? You may get the occasional rabid buckeroo but then again basing major decisions on the advice of a single person is also pretty high up the stupid ladder (sadly, governments do this all the time). Odds are that there are many other people who can make an assessment and review the claims.

  10. Eskimo

    There’s an interesting opinion piece in the most recent issue of Nature on “neuroactive compounds.”
    It opens with a description of how Russian special forces retook a theatre where Chechen rebels had taken >750 people hostage in 2002, using knockout gas that killed 124 of the hostages.
    Bioethicist Malcolm Dando goes on to ask whether neuroscientists have a responsibility to resist the militarization of their work.

  11. Any discussion of The Honest Broker, Roger Pielke Jr.‘s book on this subject? (I haven’t read it, just wondering if others found it helpful.)

  12. MadScientist

    @Philip H. : In addition I’d say that the issue of climate change is also poisoned by people who engage in scaremongering while lobbying for more money for new supercomputers etc. and obscuring more fundamental issues.

    In a tangentially related field I know of a certain group providing bum advice to a collaborative research group for the sole purpose of getting a bit more funding; oddly enough said group’s papers are not subject to review by myself (oh, the social engineering that went on to exclude me) and the authors would never dare attempt to publish in journals specializing in atmospheric measurements. I’m not worried though because said group’s publications are patent BS and when competent international scientists have a look at it they will say so.

    So there – while stating what you know based on science is not unethical, providing sham advice to get funding certainly is, and there is always a danger that people will lie for money. In the particular case I’m involved with, it could all have been avoided if the directors had taken my advice and actually had appropriate external reviewers look things over (just so no one whines that I’m a sour old kraut poo-pooing their work for my own enjoyment).

  13. John Kwok

    Anna K. and Benjamin S. Nelson –

    I think an excellent example of a scientist who is striving to forge a consensus towards preserving biodiversity is of course E. O. Wilson. Moreover, Wilson recognizes the necessity of trying to be “accomodationist” in his dealings with evolution-denying Evangelical Christians, by pointing out that they have as much a moral and selfish (in the sense of preserving that which could be economically useful to humans, etc.) stake in encouraging ample efforts in successful conservation biology. But here it can be argued that Wilson may be more tactful in dealing with his potential audience, than perhaps, Hansen has been.

  14. Joel Barkan

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. From my very brief experience of following this blog, it seems like this discussion has been a bit more productive than the normal back-and-forth here. It probably helps that I didn’t mention the Big Guy in the Sky, as one commenter pointed out.

    My intent was to pose a purely philosophical question about the dual roles of being both a scientist and also a citizen with an opinion–not all scientists are robots, after all. One school of thought is that a scientist’s primary duty is to produce data from his or her research, then step away and let that data speak for itself. It is then up to the public and policy makers to incorporate that data into policy actions. Do I agree with this school of thought? Definitely not. Does anyone? Maybe a microscopic minority. Why should we ask scientists not to advocate for their beliefs when we typically don’t ask people in other professions to do the same? Still, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment.

    And I hate to only respond specifically to the one negative comment, when each of the other comments were very substantive, but I can’t help it. So, @MadScientist: I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from several fisheries biologists here at Scripps. Some of them are NOAA employees and have a very heavy, if not overwhelming, influence on fishery management decisions. They fully acknowledge the sorry plight of most fisheries, but not a single one is recommending substantial MPAs (in the 30-50% range that some ecologists, like Dr. Jackson, are proposing). A fisheries biologist would not advocate for massive fishery closures–even if they are the only way to “ensure that the resources will remain viable in the future”, as you put it–because of the heavy influence of commercial fishermen. Virtually every fishery management plan for major fisheries is written with weighted language that would maintain the fishery so the fishermen can continue to receive economic benefits, even to the detriment of the fish stock. Thus, fisheries biologists cannot realistically recommend–and then advocate for–substantial MPAs, even if they believe MPAs are the strongest method of conserving the fish stock. A fisheries biologist may value the fish, but the massive influence of commercial fishing stakeholders makes it difficult for him to be an advocate purely on the fishes’ behalf.

    Fisheries management is full of uncertainty, which both the biologists and the fishermen play tug-of-war with to argue their positions. Perhaps this will be the subject of a future blog post?

  15. @MadScientist:

    So there – while stating what you know based on science is not unethical, providing sham advice to get funding certainly is, and there is always a danger that people will lie for money.

    Yo must work in a weird place, because the scientists I know and work with are about as likely to do that as a blue whale is to stroll down mainstreet. And yes, there is a danger people will lie for money – like all the “scientists” funded by oil companies, coal burning power companies and other who stand to loose big if we shift away from a fossil fuel economy. Lying is not ethical, its not moral, and in many cases its not legal.

  16. Woody Tanaka

    This article and this discussion is a perfect example of why those on the right side of issues can often lose.

    Do you think that the industries clearing the oceans of fish like locusts are sitting around wondering what the “ethics” of their actions are, or whether advocating for the right to kill the last fish for sushi is worried about their lack of impartiality??? How about the corporations that destroy forests or rip the tops off of mountains?? Are those who benefit from these acts sitting around gazing at their navels wondering if it is “ethical”? Do you think that the big oil companies and their delusional denialist abetters are worried about an appearance of impropriety as they go about their evil work???

    But that’s okay. When the oceans are empty, the forests destroyed and the environment is all but dead, you can hold your head up high, because you, as scientists, lived up to standards of “professional ethics.” Because, after all, your feelings are more important than silly stuff like the environment…

  17. Gaythia

    If advocacy is rejected from one set of scientists because their research in that area is seen as a bias, and input from another set of scientists is rejected because they are speaking outside of their area of expertise, that pretty much does in getting any policy advice from scientists at all.

  18. Anna,

    I think my question was a bit too broad. Let me try to reign my worries in a little bit.

    I think that scientists are successful at avoiding overlap by focusing on primary professional goals. So, we might talk about the scientist qua scientist, as Trevor does. And he makes for a pretty powerful argument. As a question of professional standards, we want to be able to look at our scientists as objective, fair, and neutral.

    If we mean to say that activism is permissible to — or, as Philip says, necessary to — what you do as a scientist, then how do we give our due to Trevor’s point? Is there something to being a scientist qua scientist, a special clause in the contract, that says, “it is your professional duty to advocate this-and-that policy”?

  19. Joel,

    I think MadScientist’s point was entrenched in his professional experiences, which are quite serious even if they’re not the norm. So I would disagree with your characterization of his post as lacking substance.

  20. Joel Barkan


    My intention was not to imply that his post was lacking substance; rather, I was just pointing out that the other posts that I didn’t respond to were all quite interesting. On the contrary, I thought MadScientist’s post was thought-provoking and worth discussing further (hence my reply).

  21. Anna K.

    To Benjamin @ #18,

    Okay, hopefully to clarify, I agree with what Trevor wrote here:

    “For scientists, I think it is important that their right (as human beings like anyone else) to speak out in support or opposition to any policy they wish. However, it would seem unethical for them to claim that “science” supports policy X or policy Y, in some objective sense.”

    and with what Trevor wrote here:

    “Dr. Hansen the scientist is not the same person as Mr. Hansen the advocate. As long as people remember that distinction, then is there still an ethical dilemma left?”

    Science is value-neutral. But scientists are not. I agree with Trevor that we have to make distinctions between the science and the advocacy.

    I also don’t think it’s a professional duty, as I understand you to have put it, for ALL scientists to become advocates; but I think there might very well be a moral duty, in certain cases – let’s take a scientist for example who believes critical values are at stake politically and who is a good communicator to non-scientific audiences (obviously, not all scientists are).

    Here we have a well-informed person with an understanding of the issue, a moral commitment to the issue, and an ability to communicate. Does that person then have a moral obligation to take a public stand?

    I am wondering what do we mean by scientists being ‘objective, fair and neutral’ when it comes to policy where they believe that critical values are at stake.

    What does that mean in practice? Specifically, how does being ‘objective, fair and neutral’ play out in politics, which in practice is usually none of those? I think it is great to strive to be objective, fair and neutral, but not if we take it to mean that scientists are ethically bound to muzzle themselves while mining companies feel free to engage in devastating the environment by mountaintopping, the fishing industry feels free to fish species to extinction, and religious groups feel free to claim that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ and can be ‘cured.’

    When does claiming to be ‘objective, neutral and fair’ mean — in practice – permitting injustices?

    To my mind ideas about objectivity, neutrality and fairness sometimes do seem to conflict with ideas about justice:

    “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel

    Thanks to all on this thread for this thought-provoking discussion.

  22. Anna,

    Certainly you pinpoint one way to approach the problem. Terms like “objective, fair, neutral” are the aims of the professional rules (or regulative principles), and they do work more or less to that effect. But nobody thinks they’re absolutes that can be perfectly satisfied. These ideals have limited scope. They only deal with the conduct of the scientist as scientist, and not the scientist as moralist. And surely, professional norms should not curb one’s moral duties, like speaking out on vital issues.

    But as Woody suggested, that might not be enough. If we just talk about general moral principles (and not specific professional commitments), then while we’ve settled upon something that seems fine in the abstract, we’re also setting ourselves up in such a way that we depend on the courage of moral mavericks that happen to be scientists. That would seem to be too weak to be practical.

  23. Anna K.


    Good points. Agreed.


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