By A.L. Sapinsky–
What is the line between right and wrong? Between personal opinions and factuality? In the scientific realm, the answers have proven inconclusive. A study released this month by Elaine Ecklund, author of Scientists Vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think, shows that when it comes to science, specifically physics, there is a world of ethical ambiguity ruling the conscience of today’s leading minds.
A 2% misconduct rate in the scientific field, according to Duccio Fanelli’s study of scientific integrity– PLoS One, suggests that unethical behavior is not a big problem in the science of physics. Physicists don’t have a whole lot to worry about ethically– there are no human or animal lives on the line, nor much poaching of intellectual property. Even peer reviews make it extremely difficult for individual researchers to bend the rules. But Ecklund and co-researchers David Johnson and Kirstin Matthews’ study titled “Ethics Among Physicists in Cross-National Context” has proven that ethical issues are not exactly black and white in this field of science.
“Our data show that although physicists associate misconduct with fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, they also include more routine and mundane issues in their work when discussing misconduct,” Ecklund said. “Moreover, how scientists perceive the line between ethical and unethical behavior is much more ambiguous than official definitions imply.”
170 physicists from US and UK universities interviewed for the study and fell into two broad categories– those who narrowly define unethical conduct as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, and others who detected more subtle ethical issues in their field.
Some scientists were asked to comment on the responsibility they have.
“Responsibility for what? I wouldn’t be able to do any military research… . So by definition, a lot of the responsibility that … other theoretical physicists might have to consider doesn’t actually crop up in my case,” one physicist replied.
“I don’t see anything as black and white…There are gray areas. Much like sometimes you have to do white lies for the greater good,” another scientist responded.
According to the study, scientists like the one mentioned above, were much more likely to report the more subtle ethical issues that they saw. For many, the ethical gray area included everything from accepting funding for military research, misusing research funds, abusing the peer-review system, misallocating credit and ownership of work, playing favorites, overhyping research results, and exploiting subordinates. But there were some scientists that didn’t see these things as wrong, instead they claimed such action “good” for science.
“There are gray areas, where people are tempted to … exaggerate or hype … in order to keep funding going [and] keep the people they’re responsible for employed,” a British physicist explained.
“In our field, the ethos is if you touched the work with a barge pole, you should probably have your name on it,” a US physicist said.
“The most important thing was that I didn’t feel my student suffered,” one scientist said, excusing himself for stealing another’s idea.
According to Ecklund and her colleagues, competition seems to be the main force behind this immoral behavior. But is there a deeper reason why science is built on a house of lies and thievery? Is there a connection between a scientist’s own moral code and their personal religious beliefs?
“Of the 171 US and UK scientists we interviewed, there are 14 British scientists and 22 US scientists who stated that exposure to religion or present religious beliefs inform their sense of ethics,” Ecklund explained. “But they rarely have a lot to say – it’s most often the case that it is indirect exposure.”
Though some scientists did reference religion, it is difficult to say how much influence it has on their choices. Scientists rarely articulate exactly how religion is relevant to how they apply an ethical perspective in science, Ecklund said. But a small handful do articulate it.
“I guess I picked up Jewish ethics, but I don’t refer specifically to any religious source or any philosophical source when I’m trying to make a decision,” one scientist said.
Through Religio’s own survey, more research was conducted on the effects religion plays on ethical decisions of scientists of all kinds.
“In my experience, both religious and non-religious scientists are equally ethical in their research — and equally prone to err,” said USC Professor Michael Arbib, a leading mind in the field of computational neuroscience.
“Although many are what I would consider black and white, there are also many gray areas [in my field],” said UCI Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Professor James Earthman, who identifies as a Christian. “Religious thought provides me with a feasible and meaningful foundation for ethics.”
“Unethical actions I have observed in my field include exaggerating results to get promoted, and taking grant money from the military to design war machinery,” said UCI Emeritus Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace engineering, James Bobrow, a self declared anti-religious atheist. “I believe it is unethical to lie to yourself or others about the existence of supernatural beings that in fact do not exist,” he continued. “My ethics com from secular sources and my own inherently strong sense of right and wrong. I don’t need a 2,000 year old mistranslated and culturally irrelevant book to guide my ethics.”
Though anyone could appreciate Professor Bobrow’s honesty, it is this type of critical perspective within the scientific community that keeps scientists who do actually hold religious faith, from revealing such information to their colleagues. Instead, religious minded professors often keep such beliefs a secret.
In her other study, “Scientist Vs. Religion” Ecklund interviewed 275 scientists about their religious beliefs or lack of. Sixty-five percent of the people she talked to claimed to be spiritual or spiritually interested, without necessarily being bound to a religion. Of that number, a smaller 36 percent actually believe in God and were either Christian/Catholic, Islamic, Jewish or of another dominant monotheistic faith.
Is there a standard held to the faithful scientists that doesn’t exist for others? For the most part, everyone understands the difference between right and wrong. Even if a burglar can justify to himself that stealing is ok, he still only does his job when no one is watching – in his conscience, he knows it’s wrong. So what’s the difference between the two? Let’s say for example, two different scientists walk into a lab and find the unpublished data for the cure to cancer on the countertop. They can take the study, claim it their own, and never get caught. Would they do it? Even if the scientists don’t get caught, the religious one expects his wrong actions will be watched by and followed with punishment from God, whereas the non religious one only has to worry about his conscience.
It’s not to say that the non religious scientist wouldn’t feel bad for doing something of ethical compromise, but it’s worth speculating whether the added sense of a moral code adds to how narrow one’s definition of right and wrong are.