Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: Science & Conscience

Science & Conscience
by Gary Bauslaugh

From such warped wood as man is made,
nothing straight can be fashioned.
—Immanuel Kant

If we want to seek the truth about the world we live in, we cannot rely upon our simple perceptions or our beliefs, or what others have imagined, or what we ourselves might think is real. The wood we are made from is too warped. Science was invented so that we could seek truth free of prejudice, superstition, self-interest, dogma or any of the many other human proclivities that lead us away from truth.

Christine looks closer at her epithelial cells from a photographic narrative by Emrys Damon Miller

Science, though, is practised by humans, who for a number of reasons may conduct their investigations imperfectly. Incompetence is one of those reasons, but not one that interests us here. The insistence upon reproducibility eventually reveals simple errors. More problematic is the constellation of human predilections which wilfully corrupt the practice of science. These are sometimes conscious and deliberate. Sometimes they are the result of lack of care that conveniently leads to some desired result. Arguably all of these corruptions of science involve scientists doing things they ought not to do, and which they ought to understand they should not do. Therefore science, which should be the purely objective pursuit of knowledge, is in reality an activity that is much affected by the conscience of its practitioners.

Scientists, like everyone else, are vulnerable to the temptations of self interest. These can be concrete temptations, like research support for those who find results that are agreeable to corporations, or they can be less tangible, such as the gratification of proving one’s ideas right. There are many ways in which these unscientific influences can influence scientists, such as:

Such problems are exacerbated by the troubling business of corporate sponsorship of science. Corporations are institutionalized agencies of self interest. How can research possibly be disinterested and objective if it is following corporate agendas? Companies that conduct research in their own labs have, I suppose, a right to keep the knowledge they generate, but what about research they sponsor in our public universities? How can conscience triumph in a business environment where the goal is not truth but profit? And can it be conscionable for companies to own basic knowledge about nature?

Corporate ownership of science drastically reduces the chances of that science being used in the cautious and thoughtful manner which would most benefit humanity. Instead, when corporate profits are at stake, greedy, hasty, incautious applications of science become inevitable.

Such matters were discussed by speakers at Conscience & Science, a forum on Biotechnology, Ethics and the Future, held at Simon Fraser University this past summer. Forum organizer Hal Weinberg (who is on the cover of this issue) reviews the forum for us, as does Tom Bauslaugh, who attended on behalf of the Humanist in Canada.

A different set of problems involving conscience in science centre around the question of whether or not all knowledge is desirable, or whether or not there are areas that are best left unexplored. Nuclear weaponry, of course, was a major example of the problem with too much knowledge — we all live in the remote hope that nuclear weapon technology will somehow not spread further than it has. The newer concern about scientific knowledge centres on reproductive technologies. Here, as with nuclear technology, there is little chance of suppressing new knowledge, even should we want to. Instead, as Hal Weinberg argues, we need to learn to manage the knowledge in a way that benefits, or at least does not seriously endanger, humanity.

Interestingly, Tom Bauslaugh argues that it is pointless to decry the loss of independence in our research institutions; instead we need to seek to come to a better accommodation with corporations, so that the public can maintain some influence over at least the public aspects of scientific research.

Another, similar, conference was held in Toronto in May of this year, organized by the Center for Inquiry. The title of this one was Science & Ethics, and Derek Kaill of London, Ontario, reports on it for us. Our columnist James Alcock was honoured at the conference for his scientific work; we are honoured to publish the text of his conference presentation Psychology and Ethics.

While on the topic of conscience, we decided to expand our enquiry to other related aspects of the subject. If conscience is relevant to science, what role does religion play in conscience? If we need religion in order to be good, as some religious people argue, then do we need religion to practice good science? Fortunately the premise of this argument is convincingly demolished by Bruce Wildish in his article on Conscience and Belief.

I am most pleased to announce a new regular column in the magazine, Letter from New York by the outstanding young writer, Jonny Diamond. The idea of progress is intimately linked to science and technology, and Jonny writes about Conscience in the Principality of Progress.

Shirley Goldberg, our Film columnist writes about the unconscionable degradation of science that we are observing in the United States under the Bush Administration. And another aspect of Conscience and Science is examined in a book review by Russell MacNeil. He writes about Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who was so unfairly treated by James Watson in his book The Double Helix. Real questions have come to light about the ethics of how the discovery was made, and how credit was apportioned.

Finally, our Practical Philosophy columnist Trudy Govier questions what we really mean when we talk about ‘conscience.’ Hmmm… maybe I better start over again.

Well, maybe not.