Science and ethics

Right & wrong in research

Scientists rarely work by themselves, although scientific breakthrough may be credited for a single individual. When a scientist comes up with a new theory, many other scientists will empirically test it. Only after the scientific community accepts the theory, it will become recognized.

Even the most important scientists who have created paradigm shifts have not worked alone. Newton, one of the most brilliant physicists in the history of science, admitted he was only able to create his theory because many other scientists had made discoveries before him. "I was able to see further because I was standing on the shoulder of giants."

Hoping to become famous and make breakthrough discoveries scientists are sometimes tempted to use questionable methods. They may steal someone else's research data and ideas and take the credit. This happened for example in 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick were credited for discovering the structure of the DNA, when in fact the credit should have gone to a brilliant female biologist Rosalind Franklin.

Franklin came up with the double helix structure based on X-ray images of the DNA. Her supervisor passed her data to Watson and Crick who at the time were also studying the DNA and realized Franklin was on the right track. In 1962 Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for 'their' discovery. Franklin on the other hand was already dead. She died at the age of 38 due to radiation exposure she got from taking X-rays as part of her original research.

Right & wrong of new knowledge

Sometimes new knowledge can be misused. In 1905 as part of his research for Special Theory of Relativity Einstein realized that huge amounts of energy could be released from a small amount of matter. This idea is expressed in his famous equation E=mc2 (energy = mass times the speed of light squared). If one could split the nucleus of the atom a huge explosion would follow. A bomb based on this principle would be a devastating weapon.

In 1939 Nazi Germany started WW II and many were afraid Hitler might try to develop the nuclear bomb. Einstein among other German physicists who had escaped from Nazi Germany decided to send the US President Roosevelt a letter asking the USA to build atomic bomb before the Germans.

By 1945 the work was finished and immediately after that it was used against Japan killing around 200 000 people with only two bombs. Einstein was shocked. In 1954 just before he died he said "I made one great mistake in my life... when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made." Also J. R. Oppenheimer (both in the picture), who was in charge of the development of the nuclear bomb, regretted he had helped to bring about such a terrible weapon.

Thankfully the world has never experienced a nuclear war but it did experience the Cold War, a power stuggle between the two superpowers the USA and the USSR. The USA alone is estimated to have spent over $ 10 trillion on nuclear arms during the Cold War (1945 - 1990). What could have been achieved if this money would have been spent on infrastructure, health care, education and medical research?

Right & wrong in science today

Genetic research is a modern area of study that raises many ethical questions. For example, for gene therapies it is sometime necessary to harvest stem cells from human embryos. Is it right to harvest these cells, even if it is done to cure someone? The embryo could develop into a healthy baby.

To study human genes researchers have fertilized eggs that contain both human and animal DNA. Is producing hybrid fetuses morally right? Are we playing god when we conduct such experiments? Some hybrid animals that have been created by researches are quite bizarre like a mouse with a human ear. Some genetically manipulated animals are used to produce medicine, for example genetically manipulated cows that produce insulin for diabetics.

Probably the most heated debate is over genetically manipulated crops. Scientists have improved qualities of some plants so that they grow better or produce greater harvests. Nobody knows if eating such foods that uses such plants poses a health risk for humans, and nobody knows for sure how such crops may alter natural evolution. The debate is over if genetically manipulated food should be allowed or not.

However the advancement of genetic research holds much promise. In 2003 researchers managed to map out entire human DNA. We now are at verge of understanding the genetic basis for many diseases, and with genetic manipulation possibly curing them. For example couples could be screened so they know what risk they have to give births to a baby with a hereditary disease. If the risk is great they could opt to have a test tube baby that has been screened not to carry faulty genes, or through genetic manipulation the faulty gene could be replaced by a healthy one before planting the egg in the womb.

The pursuit of new knowledge and technologies forces us to face new ethical questions. Through rational and balanced arguments we may be able to come to wise judgments regarding the use of new knowledge and technologies even when it is impossible to predict all the consequences these may bring about.

How do scientists do science?

Rules of the game

Scientists try to figure out the rules behind natural phenomena. We simulated this in our "dice experiment" during the lesson. The interesting thing about this experiment was that we came up with different rules to explain the same phenomenon. This often happens in science.

Of course doing real science is more complicated and involves laboratory experiments, measuring devices and teamwork with other scientists. Science is very much a social endeavour.

Bit like trying to figure out the rules for the “dice experiment”, some philosophers have tried to figure out the rules for doing science. They have asked how do scientists think when they do science?

Inductive thinking

The first answer to this question was that scientists think inductively. They observe phenomena and produce generalisations regarding how things seem to work. These generalisations could be called laws of nature.

This theory of science has some problems however. Imagine what you would say if your biology teacher set you this homework “Go to the Khao Sok national park and observe!” Your first question would probably be, “What are we supposed to observe?” It seems therefore that there is no pure observation, but we always think of our observations through some kind of theory. The theory precedes observation.

If you look at this picture you may observe and interpret it according to female face theory or saxophone theory. The mind is actively interprets all our sense perceptions.

There are other problems too. No matter how many observations we have of a particular phenomenon, we can never draw certain conclusions. Inductive thinking never gives us certainty. Even if all swans we have seen were white, it is possible there are black swans, and indeed there are, in Australia!

Hypothetico-deductive thinking

So, if science is not based on inductive thinking what is it based on? Karl Popper was an Austrian philosopher tried to come up with an answer to this question. You know he was a German speaker because his answer was: hypothetico-deductive thinking. (The Germans are famous for their long words).

Popper thinks that scientist first create a hypothesis (a guess what the rules behind observations may be), then conduct empirical tests to see if the hypothesis can be falsified (proved wrong). If the hypothesis cannot be falsified, i.e. results of the test are as the hypothesis predicts them to be, we tentatively accept the hypothesis as a new theory.

According to Popper scientists should try to falsify existing scientific theories as quickly as possible and replace them with theories that explain the phenomena better. This is how science makes progress.

So, why is this called hypothetico-deductive method? Because firstly you create hypothesis (a guess) and then you test and use deductive logic to reach a conclusion. If the did not prove the hypothesis wrong, we accept that hypothesis. Accepting hypothesis because it is not wrong and an example of deductive thinking.

Popper's idea is interesting because we can use it tell apart theories that are truly scientific from those that only look scientific. Any hypothesis or theory that we cannot be proved wrong is not really scientific.
  • Example 1. A statement ‘metals expand when heated’ is scientific, because we can imagine a situation in which this statement would be falsified (i.e. heating a metal and finding out that it does note expand).
  • Example 2. A statement ‘human behaviour is caused by unconscious desires’ is unscientific because we cannot imagine a behaviour that would falsify this statement. (This is why Freud’s theories are not really scientific).

Paradigm shifts
When many scientists in a particular field think alike about some important issues, we say that there is a paradigm. Sometimes a brilliant scientist who is an original thinker comes along and proposes a theory that completely revolutionises the way we think.

For example in physics Newton was such a scientist. So wonderful was his theory that for a long time people thought we knew pretty much everything about physics and there was nothing to discover (Newton suggested that mass is constant). That is until Einstein came along and completely revolutionarised our understanding of physics (Einstein suggested that the speed of light is constant). His theory was better than Newton's. It explained more and it matched better with empirical observations.

When scientific revolutions like this happen we call them paradigm shifts. They do not happen very often but when they do science is taking huge leaps forward. There are some philosophers who are trying to figure out how and why these paradigm shifts happen. The first philosopher to introduce the idea of paradigm shifts was Thomas Kuhn. According to him these revolutions are so profound that one paradigm is incommensurable (incompatible) with one another. This means that it is impossible to marry Newton’s and Einstein’s theories, they just do not fit.

There are other interesting thinkers who explain how scientists think and how science progresses but this is already plenty. The main lesson to learn is that scientist do not prove their theories but disprove them and replace them with better one, and that science does not progress steadily but sometimes there are revolutions.