Archive for September, 2007

Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics? pt. 2

I posted yesterday about a code of ethics created for scientists by Sir David King. My review of the code was pretty negative.

I decided to do some more homework on Sir King’s code today. As part of this, (and I’m kicking myself for publishing before having a more thorough understanding of the topic), I discovered this Letter from the UK Council for Science and Technology. The letter is followed by a draft of the code. While larger than the edition reported by the BBC here, it remains a document about which I am pessimistic.

More interesting than the draft of the code is the letter which the council released prior to the code’s circulation. Both were published in May of 2005 (I was still in High School, so I think it’s forgivable that I missed the announcement). Little seems to have changed between this version and its publication, but it appears that the code went up for a six-month period of something resembling peer review. Institutions were asked for the views on the usefulness of a universal code of ethics for the scientific community.

I wonder if I can dig up the responses (presuming there were any) to the “peer review”? It would be interesting to be able to look inside the guts of a policy paper written by the scientific community in a way that resembles normal scientific discourse. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that soon, in part 3.

September 18, 2007 at 4:32 pm Leave a comment

Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics?

Sir David King does, apparently. In this BBC article, an effort by Sir King (Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government) outlines a code of ethics for scientists. The code is constructed out of the following seven points.


Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date

Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest

Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists

Ensure that research is justified and lawful

Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment

Discuss issues science raises for society

Do not mislead; present evidence honestly


Certainly sounds like a good list. It’s full of common sense, and several points seem to already be well incorporated into how the scientific community operates. “Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists”, for example, is already built into the concept of citation and peer review. Both concepts are included for practical reasons, so tacking them on as ethical considerations seems like an easy thing to do. Likewise, there are very practical reasons for conducting lawful research (it’s hard to continue a career following a felony conviction) and keeping skills up to date.

Unfortunately, (as has been pointed out by at Adventures in Ethics and Science) these ethical guidelines probably won’t have much effect. The idea of a universal scientific code of ethics for scientists is a good idea, but one developed in the terms of policy talking points sounds like one doomed to have little practical impact.

Let’s look at King’s example, as quoted in the article:

“Place yourself in the position of a scientist who works for a tobacco company, and the company asks you to counter evidence about the health impacts of tobacco.

“That scientist would be able to look at the code and say, ‘I can’t do that’.”

I’m fairly confident that, as it stands, the scientists employed by tobacco companies can already say that they follow a code of ethics with a straight face. It’s probably included in Phillip-Morris’ mission statement. In fact, let’s take a look at that mission statement:

Our mission is to be the most responsible, effective and respected developer, manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, especially products intended for adults. Our core business is manufacturing and marketing the best quality tobacco products to adults who use them.

Well, damn. It sounds like the tobacco companies already have a code of ethics. Their mission is to be “responsible” and “effective”, and only manufacture and market” tobacco products to adults who use them.” Why would a company like that ask a scientist to blatantly violate a scientific code of ethics like Sir King’s? And why would a scientist who swore up and down to Sir King’s code of ethics agree to do such a thing, if asked?

Probably because, with a certain amount of talking, they could find a justification for doing so. What if (to borrow a banner waived with fervor by the ID movement), the scientist decided to do research about how tobacco might not have some of the harmful effects ascribed to it in the name of intellectual freedom? The public and the scientific community say one thing, but they might be wrong! They might be doing the wrong tests! How sure are people, anyway, about those statistics linking increased probability of lung cancer to cigarette addiction? It’s possible surely, that all these studies have been conducted in a manner unfair to the tobacco industry. Based on this, wouldn’t Phillip-Morris say that they would have a moral mandate to conduct new research? And conduct it until they got the results they wanted?

Seven bullet points does not a compelling code of ethics make. People do not perform unethical research merely because nobody has yet come along and outlined a code of ethics for them. People perform unethical research before, during, and after reading ethical theory with far more universal, convincing, and thorough arguments than “science would be better if someone proposed a universal code of ethics.” And I do not doubt that people with a copy of Sir King’s code on their wall will, before long, do something that violates the spirit of the text.

What, then, would give it some teeth? A better argument for why scientists should follow this particular code (or any code) would be a good start. Unfortunately, arguments like that are difficult to create and generate far less publicity than the announcement of the UK’s Chief Science Adviser

September 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm 3 comments

Re: Question of the Day on Adventures in Ethics and Science

Question of the Day on Adventures in Ethics and Science: Is extra credit fair?

I think the question is only valid in relation to educational settings in which a grade is given. For schools which use written evaluations (Waldorf schools, New School in Florida, Hampshire College in Mass., Evergreen in Washington, and (formerly) UC Santa Cruz, among others) in place of grades, there can be no problem regarding extra credit. This is so because there is no out-and-out point system of evaluation. Students can be motivated (and encouraged) to do extra work or an extended number of paper revisions as a way of extending their own learning and then exhibiting that learning to the professor. Students who do not do such extra work miss out on those additional benefits, but they are just that: additional.

I suppose the implication for this on more traditional grading systems is this: if the choice to do extra work is ultimately left to the student, free of pressure or constraint (ie: “I have to do this extra paper so I can bump the “C” on the exam up to a “B”.”), then extra work (and accompanying credit) is beneficial. Unfortunately, that lack of pressure seems awfully unrealistic within the trappings of a more conventional setting. Viva alternative education!

September 12, 2007 at 12:20 pm Leave a comment

On Rorty’s Decision to Teach Comparative Literature and Not Philosophy

A book I’ve been having trouble finding for the past two years has turned up three times in the last three months. Today, this time, I was able to sit with it long enough to read the introduction.

The book is Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. It’s his first book, and probably his most influential. It’s also, for whatever reason, hard to find. Or at least it has been for me in the past. Over the summer, I found the copy he gave to Willard Quine in Lame Duck Books near Harvard Square. It’s going price is $1500, which doesn’t seem terribly exorbitant. Quine was one of Rorty’s primary influences, and to have the copy he personally gave (and was able to give!) to someone whose thought he admired would be an amazing piece of history to own. Needless to say, I couldn’t buy it. Almost next door at the Harvard Book store, the book goes for about $30 new. I couldn’t justify purchasing it to myself, so I lost out on reading it for a while.

There are two copies, however, in the W.E. Kennick reading room at Amherst College. I was there earlier today and was able to sit down and read the introduction. It was fantastic; Rorty’s writing is oddly spellbinding for someone who is constantly apologizing for having an analytic style, and his focus on extended metaphor as a model of thought (although he probably would have repudiated my phrasing it as such) is always interesting. Of course, it’s also full of hyperbole (calling the labeling and criticism of Dewey as a relativist a “mindless reflex” near the end of the introduction comes to mind), but, well, it’s Rorty. My feeling on it was probably put best by Daniel Dennet, in a term he invented partially as a joke,

rort, an incorrigible report, hence rorty, incorrigible.

and of course, then

a rortiori, adj., true for even more fashionable continental reasons. (from The Case for Rorts, 1996)

Just reading the introduction something I’ve always been confused about cleared up. Rorty taught philosophy at several major universities (Princeton, UVA), but ended up choosing to teach Comparative Literature (at Stanford) instead. I recall a comment made by him at some point that his treatment as a philosopher at Stanford was a very gracious thing conferred by the institution, but he felt he had no qualification for the title. Considering that he was an author of brilliant philosophy, I hope my confusion over his attitude towards his own status as a philosopher is understandable.

On reflection of the introduction to Philosophy…, however, I think Rorty was only attempting to live out the thoughts he articulated. In the introduction, and throughout his career, Rorty characterized philosophy as a declining discipline. Where it once stood to push aside the curtain of the supernatural, Rorty feels that curtain has largely been tied down. Where philosophy might have stood to create new cultural traditions, its inaccessibility caused it to be shouldered aside by fiction– novels, film, and music. Following the publication of a few books and a successful career in philosophy, why not focus on the thing which you think really matters? If fiction and stories are what create the reality for a culture, why teach philosophy rather than comparative literature? It’s amazing that it doesn’t seem like he, personally at least, ever looked back on something he articulated in the introduction to his first book. It’s also amazing that he ever published at all.

I’m very glad he did, although I’ll continue pursuing philosophy rather than fiction. At least, for now.

September 7, 2007 at 1:40 pm Leave a comment

I Guess I’ve Been a Good Blogger…

… because I’ve been responding to all the comments that have been left recently. So, for some added non-post content, check out the comments. Woo.

September 1, 2007 at 7:29 pm 1 comment

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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