Monday, June 26, 2006

Why Scientists Shrug Off Ethics

Dr. Free-Ride at Adventures in Science and Ethics has a couple of interesting meditations on a recent piece in Cell by bioethicist from Penn's med school entitled "Reasons Scientists Avoid Thinking about Ethics".

On the one hand, the reasons he cites from fellow scientists are no different from what we hear from non-scientists -- the "mushiness" of ethics, the "it's not my job" line... On the other hand, the costs seem much higher when we hear these lines from scientists. We have been warned since the end of WWI by philosophers like Husserl of the danger of alienating science from the human context within which it exists.

And the temptation only gets worse. With scientific research getting more and more specialized, with the reward structure for science more and more focused on insular criteria, with the voice of science growing fainter and fainter in the public discourse, it is not only easy, but made personally desirable for most working scientists to remain inside their gated intellectual community. Of course, never has it been more imperative that the voice of science be represented in our conversation.

But to do that, there needs to be a conversation in which to place that voice. We need what I call "civil fucking discourse" -- civil in being an open-minded search for truth that allows all views a seat at the table, uncivil in relentlessly purging positions that show themselves to be fallacious. This is far from what we have now where you get high-horse moralizing from one side and who's to say shoulder shrugging from the other. Rational, authentic moral deliberation is missing. Whose fault is that?

It has a long history and many causal factors, but part of the blame has to be put on philosophers. Maybe it's because I teach at an undergraduate, liberal arts teaching college, where some of us take seriously implications of work beyond technical research, but in the division of intellectual labor, helping to set up the process for deliberative ethical democracy seems to fall on our shoulders. And it is somewhere we haven't done very well. The voices you hear out there belong to charlatans and charismatics. Even the New York Times Magazine's "ethicist" is not really an ethicist. You hear folks like Dennett, but he's stirring the pot rather than shaping the discourse.

Carl Sagan was absolutely right when he said,

"We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the
same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all
about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster."
We need scientists in our conversation. The fact that they aren't there does reflect in part on them and the scientific community more broadly. But, at the same time, we need to structure the conversation where we know when to cue them. And for that philosophers need to step up.

Public outreach is too often seen in all academic fields as selling out, as not doing "real work." Scholarship is not our only job. Teaching in the classroom is wonderful, but we are also members of a larger community and too often we claim that what we get paid for is the sum total of our job. If the fundamentalists are winning the Republican war on science, it is because outside of the environmental movement so few of us have not yet entered the battle.

Scientists shrug off ethics because Americans suck at talking about ethics. Their contribution to the conversation is likely to make little difference and they realize it. In many cases, their cynicism is warranted. But that can change. And we need scientists and philosophers to change it.

UPDATE: Bill Hooker, at the always lively Open Reading Frame, also has some intersting thoughts on this topic. Check him out.