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Biology Articles » Bioethics » Scientists, Ethics, and Public Engagement

Scientists, Ethics, and Public Engagement

by C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D.

Many scientists argue that the solution to the tension between science and society is to increase public understanding of science. But the problem is not simply a lack of comprehension. The case of stem-cell research is instructive: It is not that opponents do not understand somatic-cell nuclear transfer; they do grasp the fundamental nature of the process, and they don’t like it. The notion of destroying an embryo, no mater how noble the cause, conflicts with their core religious beliefs about when life begins, and its sanctity. More education would not be enough.

Simply lamenting the tension or protesting attacks on the integrity of science and science education won’t work, either. We’ve been doing those for decades, if not centuries, and, as the saying has it, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

Instead of simply increasing public understanding of science, scientists need to have a real dialogue with members of the public, listening to their concerns, their priorities, and the questions they would like us to help answer. We also need to find ways to move science forward while adapting to their legitimate concerns.[i]

I could not agree with him more. Scientific research must not be done in the shadows. Science must be done in full view and in conversation with the citizenry who, after all, fund most of the science in this country, whether through tax funding or through consumer spending.

With so much with which I agree with Dr. Leshner, one almost laments having to introduce a discouraging word, but in the middle of the essay he argues:

Credible scientists never contradict or go beyond the available data. We should never insert our personal values into discussions with the public about scientific issues. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that the rest of society is not constrained in that way and can mix facts and values at will. . . . No matter what a scientist believes about moral issues, if an opponent in a debate introduces values or beliefs, the scientist should disclaim any ability to comment on those issues outside the scientific realm.

But this would make scientists schizophrenic. In one person there is the cool-headed, “objective” scientist and the moral, believing animal, to borrow sociologist Christian Smith’s elegant phrase.[ii] To be a whole person these aspects must be integrated. Just as scientists should not expect the public to jettison their moral and religious beliefs in the face of the scientific discovery du jour, so the public should not require scientists to divest themselves of their moral and religious beliefs. And, whether they like it or not, or acknowledge it or not, every scientist has moral and religious beliefs of some sort—because, at least in part, that’s what it means to be human.

On this side of Auschwitz and Tuskegee, we cannot afford to do science without ethics. Likewise, ethics cannot be done without understanding science. Only within the nexus of the two can genuinely ethical decisions be made.

So, I join Dr. Leshner in his call for scientists to interact with the public. And, I would argue that the general public needs to engage more fully with scientists. Scientific literacy is appallingly low in a high-tech culture like the United States. Similarly, however, ethical literacy is appallingly low in an educated culture like the American scientific community. Instead of extricating scientists from their values, we should be helping scientists to articulate, analyze, and test their values.

Admittedly, a better educated citizenry and a better educated science community may make our public discussions messier in the short run. But in the end, I am convinced that those conversations will be more illuminating and will result in science policy that truly serves the public.

[i] Alan I. Leshner, “Science and Public Engagement,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 1, 2006), B20. http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i08/08b02001.htm 

[ii] Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Culture and Personhood (Oxford University Press, 2003).

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity


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