Humanist Perspectives: issue 151: Science and Ethics: a report on the conference

Science and Ethics:
a report on the conference
from Derek Kaill

Conscience & Ethics was held in Toronto in May 2004. Derek Kaill, President of the Humanist Association of London, attended the conference on behalf of Humanist in Canada. For more information about the conference, contact David Koepsell

Well, here I am in the big, big city. I’ve arrived here today for the first of four days to be spent with some of the greatest humanist and skeptic minds in North America. Like Toronto itself, a little overwhelming. But certainly a good reason to visit.

The conference, Science & Ethics: How Scientific Inquiry Helps Value Judgments, is being presented by the Center for Inquiry, the world’s foremost promoter of a responsible adherence to the scientific method within all aspects of life.

untitled (corona varieta) by Ingrid Mary Percy, an instructor of Visual Art at the University of Victoria (this series of drawings is exhibiting at Kelowna Art Gallery until 16 Jan 2005)

The man at the top of this non-profit educational organization is the founding chairman of Center for Inquiry. He is also the founding chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, which publishes Free Inquiry magazine. Finally, he is the founding chairman of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the organization that publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Amazingly, this man has also found time in his life to teach philosophy at the State University of New York, to found the publishing company, Prometheus Books, and to write or edit 43 books, (and you thought your life was busy). The man’s name is Paul Kurtz.

Reading his paper, Can the Sciences Help Us to Make Wise Ethical Judgments?, Dr Kurtz will be the first of two keynote speakers opening the conference this evening of May 13, 2004. He approaches the microphone, looking out at the anticipating crowd with a small, but sincere, smile:

The central question that we will address in this conference is whether science and reason can be used to develop ethical judgments. Does morality depend on religion, as is commonly held? Theists say ‘yes.’ Naturalists and secularists deny that claim. How and in what sense is morality possible without religion, is a vital issue that needs to be discussed in contemporary society, for this may very well be the hottest issue of the 21st century.

Continuing his introduction, Kurtz approaches the issue of human cloning. Here he makes an interesting point, “We heard loud cries but two generations ago against in vitro fertilization or artificial insemination, techniques that have proven to be a great boon to childless couples.” He speaks of the enormous medical benefits that would almost certainly be gained through stem-cell research.

His introduction completed, Dr Kurtz gives the room a good chuckle, “ ‘One nation under God’ is in the US pledge of allegiance. (We reject that because we insist that the USA is under Canada!)” He continues on the subject of religion, specifically its impeding effect on scientific advancement, both historically and in our own times.

Kurtz goes on to express his disagreement with the post-modern skeptics who both, “say that science is merely one mythological construct among others,” and suggest that matters of ethics are entirely subjective. Kurtz makes very clear his opinion: It is desirable, and certainly possible, for questions of ethics to be answered through the use of the scientific method.

I already have much to digest, but I’m intrigued to hear from the second, and final, keynote speaker. Mario Bunge is the Frothingham Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at McGill University, and holds a PhD in physics. Born and educated in Argentina, Bunge has taught in several universities, in the Americas and in Europe. The author of forty-five books and nearly 500 papers, the professor is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Academie International de Philosophie and the International Academy of Humanism.

Bunge is firmly opposed to the use of scientific knowledge without responsible consideration of ethics. This is particularly apparent in his opinions concerning the development of weapons. He tells us that the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed without necessary research. The scientists who helped develop this knowledge, including Einstein, were promised they would be consulted before nuclear weapons were used in combat. Dr Bunge explains that Truman did not attempt any such consultation.

Obviously, Bunge is not opposed to the advancement of science, only to its abuse, “Science is itself innocent. A piece of scientific knowledge is always good” he asserts.

Overall, Mario Bunge decries the evils of war more than he does religious close-mindedness. He closes however, with a biblical quote (with a twist), “The scientific truth shall make thee free.”

We all head out to the reception area, many of us keen to meet and, time permitting, have a few words with the speakers. Mario Bunge comes across as both a scholarly and a compassionate man. His concern for humanity is apparent in his words both in and out of the lecture hall. Also, I am fortunate enough to meet Dr Kurtz. The admitted nervousness I’m feeling, meeting this man whose books and work with CSICOP I’ve admired since my teens, vanishes almost instantly. Paul Kurtz has an undeniable charm, an entirely human presence.

More than satisfied with this introductory evening, and with a tremendous anticipation for the words of the more than 25 speakers-to-come, I head off to bed.

This morning, I arrive a little before the first speaker is scheduled to speak. This allows me a chance to meet with some of my fellow conventioneers, as well as a few CFI staff members. From 9:00 am until noon, the subject will be ‘The Role of Science in Ethical Inquiry.’ Vern Bullough, the first of several speakers, is founder of the Center for Sex Research at California State University, and one of the founders of Free Inquiry magazine; he is also the author, co-author or editor of over fifty books. Additionally, he is a Laureate of the Academy of Humanism, and former co-president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Bullough concentrates on matters of ethics pertaining to sexuality. He explains that the arguments of earlier medical authorities, who had spoken against masturbation and in favour of circumcision, have in the past century been almost entirely abandoned — the former in the early 20th century, the latter only in recent years. He also considers those who for faith-based reasons still hold both of these views.

After exploring the question of what is to be done in cases where a child is born with both male and female genitalia, Dr Bullough moves on to transsexual, or sex change, surgery. He speaks of the earliest developments of this procedure, researched and conducted in Germany in the 1920s, but concentrates on the more advanced work of Danish endocrinologist, Christian Hamburger, in the 1950s.

Bullough relates a disturbing story, “Hamburger was besieged by applicants whom he generally turned away, although he had to take one who, after being turned down, cut off his own penis and testicles in a hotel room nearby.” To this, he adds, “Still, just because someone wants optional surgery, should it be given? It is a debate which continues in the medical profession.”

Having concluded his consideration of the ethics of transsexual surgery, the remainder of Bullough’s talk is devoted to the issue of birth control. He offers a wealth of information on the subject, particularly oral contraceptives. “The problem was that the first pill, Enovid, included 10 milligrams of progestin and 150 micrograms of estrogen, and had considerable side effects for many women. These were originally downplayed by the manufacturer and ignored by most segments of the medical community until militant feminists staged demonstrations against the manufacturer in the late 60s,” says Bullough.

The topic under discussion during the memorably enjoyable meal we share at lunch is ‘The Assault on Scientific Medicine.’ One of the speakers is the man I’ll eventually come to know best of all those at the conference, Andrew Skolnick.

Skolnick is the executive director of yet another important organization affiliated with CFI and CSICOP, the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health. Many times recognized for his tireless battles against medical pseudoscience, including useless (or worse, often dangerous) alternative ‘healing’ practices, he served for 10 years as an associate editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It is immediately apparent that Andrew Skolnick possesses an endearing sense of humour. The title he offers for his presentation is, ‘The Concise History of Four Thousand Years of Medical Practice.’ He begins by offering information on past and present ‘snake oil’ practitioners. He speaks critically about ‘healing’ magnets, which are said to relieve aches and pains by better centring the user within the earth’s magnetic poles (or some such thing.) Skolnick displays one of these ‘miraculous’ devices (essentially a fridge magnet) and with a directional compass, provides a demonstration. In addition to being a baseless medical practice, the effectiveness of the device is further discredited by the apparent fact that is an extremely weak magnet (the compass needle barely moves as he waves the useless thing directly over it).

Skolnick goes on to deny the validity of both acupuncture and chiropractic. Most of us can’t help but laugh when he sarcastically suggests an as-yet unexplored possibility, ‘acuvoodoopuncture.’

We’ve had a short break after our meal, and it’s time to begin the next segment of the conference ‘Medicine and Ethics.’ The panel consists of four medical doctors. I am particularly interested in hearing Robert Buckman speak. This man, currently the president of the Humanist Association of Canada, became a qualified physician at Cambridge University in 1972, and received a PhD for his work in the field of oncology at The Royal Marsden Hospital in 1985. While he is currently employed in that same field at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, many will recognize Buckman from his work, and many appearances, on television. Human Wildlife, his latest series, was broadcast on the Discovery Channel, and received two awards at the 2003 Chicago Television festival.

Dr Buckman takes to the podium and presents the title of his talk, ‘Doing Right in the Life Sciences.’ He is one of the very few speakers who offers what he himself refers to as a pragmatic definition of ethics. He defines it as simply, “The things we should do, as opposed to what we can do.” Further, he offers an analogy, (paraphrased): “Traffic lights don’t work because ‘red’ mystically means ‘stop.’ These things are determined by community.”

While it’s obvious Buckman holds that a responsible system of ethics can certainly be greatly facilitated by the use of the sciences, he suggests that we be patient. “Ethics takes time.”

Saturday morning, May the 15th. It’s 9:00 am, and once again we’re about to begin a three-hour session that will include a series of interesting speakers. The topic is ‘Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.’ During today’s luncheon, I have a chance to speak for several minutes with Andrew Skolnick. He is a friendly fellow and remarkably quick with a joke. We discuss past investigative work that he and his colleagues have conducted. I shake my head, astounded by the quackery and charlatanism Skolnick has witnessed.

Moving on to religion, Skolnick notes some of the incredible similarities shared by Scientology and Christian Science. He goes on to reveal an amazing possibility: L Ron Hubbard was the reincarnation of Mary Baker Eddy! Each founded one of those two religions. Baker died in 1910, the same year Hubbard was born. His final words on the subject are, “Not really. I don’t believe in reincarnation… but I used to in a previous life.” It would be hard not to like Andrew Skolnick.

Today’s afternoon series of speakers will be addressing the issue of ‘Human Behavior and Ethics.’ The first speaker is James Alcock, professor of psychology York University, and a fellow of CSICOP. Dr Alcock’s talk is presented in his regular column in this issue of the Humanist in Canada.

The final speaker of the afternoon is the chair of the Society of BC Skeptics and a member of the Executive Council of CSICOP, Barry Beyerstein. An editor of Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Beyerstein is employed as an associate professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University. The title of his talk is ‘Ethical Issues and Pharmaceutical Company Practices.’

Beyerstein posits that insufficient attention is afforded to the development of necessary drugs and treatments, specifically for ‘neglected diseases’ (that is, less common, less profitable, and/or non-media friendly ailments). It’s made clear he considers the fact that most scientists are “choosing profitable drug research over necessary drug research” to be a serious problem. Also, Dr Beyerstein speaks unfavourably about the excessive pricing of drugs.

There is a banquet this evening, where Jim Underdown, the Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry West, and a very entertaining speaker, presents awards on behalf of the CFI. One is received by James Alcock, and a second by a man who will speak tomorrow morning, Professor Irving Horowitz.

It is Sunday, May the 16th, at 9:00 am. After hearing his short and gracious acceptance speech last night, I am intrigued to be present while Irving Horowitz offers his views on one of this morning’s concurrent sessions, ‘Policy and Ethical Judgments.’

Horowitz is a Professor Emeritus of Hannah Arendt University at Rutgers, and the founder of the publishing company Transaction Books. One of many books he has written is The Idea of War and Peace in Contemporary Philosophy, which was honoured with a Rockefeller Prize in Scholarly Publishing in 1956.

Horowitz speaks to us of the horrors of religious war and the sufferings of those who have had to endure its misery. It is obvious that this is a man who has been contemplating, and imparting these contemplations, for many years. These are not ideas he formed while reading a recently published essay on the current situation on Iraq.

The last speaker to be heard from in this session, and in fact, the last speaker I will hear at this conference, is the Editor in Chief of Free Inquiry magazine, Tom Flynn. In addition to his work with Free Inquiry, Flynn is the Special Projects Director of Center for Inquiry International, and has produced various video, radio and television series that challenge the validity of paranormal claims.

The title of the talk Flynn will be giving this morning is ‘Policy, Ethics, Belief and Morality.’ He begins by presenting his negative opinion on religious believers receiving their moral instruction from (perceived) divine revelation, “and if God, or Yahweh, or Shiva, or Glurt chose in His, Her, or Its eternal wisdom not to share that revelation with you… well then, humanists are plain out of luck.”

Flynn speaks highly of William Clifford’s essay of 1876, The Ethics of Belief. One of Clifford’s messages, perhaps the central one, was that “belief without evidence is immoral,” as Flynn puts it. He tells us of an illustration Clifford used to support this position, “A ship-owner has reason to suspect that an older ship may no longer be seaworthy; he considers spending heavily to have the craft refitted. At length he succeeds in overcoming his doubts. He orders the vessel to sail to the new world as it is.”

Then Flynn, considering Clifford, makes his point. If the ship had sunk, no one would question whether the ship-owner had behaved unethically in acting against his knowledge. He continues, “What if, despite its frailties, the ship had safely completed its Atlantic crossing? The owner would be no less guilty, Clifford charged, because based on the evidence before him he had no right to expect that outcome.”

Flynn concludes his speech by stating his position that humanists and other critical thinkers are justified “in maintaining — if, one hopes, sparingly — the position that the critical inquirer’s reluctance to believe is morally superior to the credulist’s unquestioned belief.”

As a final summary of my experience at the Science and Ethics Conference, I’ll offer my own opinion on the subject. While I have learned a great deal, my views on the subject are essentially the same as they were when I arrived in Toronto four days ago. I certainly think it is desirable, even necessary, to employ the scientific method as a means of determining a responsible system of ethics. But in agreement with one of the speakers, Jillian McIntosh, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, and a decided minority amongst the other speakers, I suggest that human emotion, particularly empathy, is also required.