Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics?

September 16, 2007 at 9:46 pm 3 comments

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


Entry filed under: Ethics, SSK.

Re: Question of the Day on Adventures in Ethics and Science Who Gets to Decide a Scientific Code of Ethics? pt. 2

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Christopher Luna  |  October 16, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    It’s interesting how we talk about the spirit of a code, and I suppose I find it doubly interesting when materialists talk about a spirit of a code.

    I’m assuming here that you’re a materialist (at least that you have strong materialist leanings), so if this is a mistaken assumption, forgiveness. However, I think the comment will still be worthwhile.

    I wonder how you conceive of, or unpack this term, the “spirit of the law” vs. the “letter of the law.” And if we can effectively talk about a spirit of the law (or code) without actually meaning an immaterial wishy-washy “something” (which I do as well), I wonder what kind of implications that would have for our reading of poetic and religious texts.

    Just sort of pondering in a stream-of-consciousness style into your wordpress here.

  • 2. donescience  |  October 16, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    I have to confess that as someone who largely buys into a materialist worldview, I had a little bit of trouble understanding your opening thought regarding the spirit of the law. I think I have it now, and am hoping that this reply gets to you expediently.

    My initial thought (and I’m not sure whether or not I should be ashamed about this) was that there was no problem with a materialist understanding of “the spirit of a law”. The spirit (as opposed to the letter) would consist of the implications a law has, or how much one can read into the intent of the law’s creator. It is impractical (and maybe impossible) to include every possible instance of a law’s application into its definition, and so we form our laws as general statements that are largely open for interpretation and application.

    And then I thought again about the first thought in your comment. It doesn’t seem that this explanation of the spirit of the law is the same version that many theists would give. My brief and imprecise formulation above is entirely compatible with materialism. Could you, then, be proposing that something of a more theological bent has been previously included in “spirit of the law”? After all, including a god or two could definitely lend an ethical code more emotional punch. It’s worked with mixed results for a while, while an ethical system based entirely in a materialist worldview hasn’t had as much time to percolate into culture or be… um… “field tested”.

    As for the implication my unpacking of “spirit of law” has here for religious and poetic texts… I guess I’m still unclear. I’ve done some disambiguation on my part, so now I guess it’s time for some on yours. What do you think?

  • 3. Christopher Luna  |  October 17, 2007 at 10:38 am

    My own unpacking would be rather different, but I don’t think it directly relates to your use of the word– I was really just curious to see how you used it, and what you thought of it as a term.

    My thoughts on a spirit of a law get mixed up in a lot of Christian theology, where God has a law and God has a spirit… and my own reading of the New Testament, whose own ethical code may seem at times quite different from the ethical code laid out in the Tanakh. Because of the Christian claim that Christians are communing with the same God as the Jews were in the Tanakh, a seemingly different set of laws from the same God could be problematic.

    My own reading allows me to see Christ’s teachings as a call to focus on the spirit, and not the letter of God’s laws… which just further leads me to all kinds of interesting musing about what the connection is, if any, between the spirit of the laws of man and the letter of the laws of man, and the Christian correlate.

    But I don’t expect this thought to apply to your use of it… it’s just a phrase I find particularly interesting, especially when materialists use it. How they unpack what the spirit of the law would be.


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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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