January 2009 archive

It’s Time for a Scientific Hippocratic Oath

Why on Earth don’t we have one yet? Well, I think it’s time…

In the wake of a decade horribilis for the science in the public arena – one with spectacular cases of scientific fraud; an outrageous, and popular, challenge to one of the most potent and most tested theories in science; a US administration that has actively undermined science; and an ongoing and ideologically charged debated about the science of climate – it’s time to actively work to re-establish science as something more than just another arbitrary perspective on the world.

The Hippocratic oath in the original Greek.

The Hippocratic oath in the original Greek.

Science is special, science is different, science demands more from its practitioners, and as a result, it has proven itself time and again the most powerful tool we have to understand the natural world. And I think it’s time scientists proclaimed this loudly.

Science also has an unparalleled impact on society, for good or ill, and this will only intensify over this century. As such, scientists wield great power to change – and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. If science is to maintain its high standing in society, we need to have confidence that scientists take this responsibility seriously.

Typically scientists don’t want to get involved in ethical debates – but it’s unavoidable that they will, from time to time, confront ethical dilemmas in the course of their research – and how many times have you heard in popular discourse, whether it’s about stem cells, genetically modified food, cloning, transhumanism etc that people just don’t trust scientists to put people before progress? In these situations, we need to know what principles science and scientists stand by – just like we have confidence that medical practitioners will intentionally do no harm.

This is not the first time a scientific oath has been suggested. In 1997 Nobel Laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat called for a scientific oath. In 1999 he repeated the call in Science, eliciting a number of positive responses from the scientific community. More recently, former UK chief boffin, Sir David King, made a renewed call for an oath. But, to date, it hasn’t achieved wide acceptance.

Components of the Oath

So, what would a scientific oath look like? Well, that should be the topic of spirited public debate by scientists, philosophers and members of the broader community. But here are a few thoughts to get the ball rolling.

An oath should express principles and values, not outline explicit practices or rules. It should guide thinking, and from that, guide practice. It should also be a public acknowledgment of responsibilities, and a public affirmation of the values expressed in the oath.

It can also serve as the conditions of membership to an exclusive community – and grounds for expulsion from that community should a clause in the oath be broken. This already happens, as in the case of Hwang Woo-suk, but an oath would make such events more transparent to the public: a la “we, the scientific community, no longer endorse Dr X because they knowingly and deliberately contravened condition Y of the scientific oath.”

In terms of specifics, I think a scientific oath should cover, at the very least, the following:

1) An explicit commitment to the scientific method

Not the content of any particular scientific theory, but the method itself. This could have addressed one of the common failures of science to combat intelligent design – many scientists refused to engage in the debate, believing ID didn’t present a serious challenge to the robust theory of evolution. But what they didn’t realise was that ID was doing much more than just challenging evolution – it was challenging the entire scientific method. Scientists also said they didn’t support suppressing of alternative theories in the classroom, but what they should have been saying is they support alternative scientific theories, not the promotion of non-scientific theories in science class.

Scientists are implicitly advocates of the scientific method. This condition of the oath would make them explicit advocates. So should another ID arise, they could say they support the teaching of various scientific theories, but they unequivocally dismiss any theories that don’t pass muster with the scientific method. For while theories are negotiable, the scientific method is absolutely not.

2) A commitment to present evidence faithfully

This covers both fraud as well as self censorship when evidence contradicts accepted notions or impinges on politically sensitive issues. The interpretations can vary, but the evidence itself is sacred. The only exception to this would be clause 7), where a scientist could choose to withhold (never to misrepresent) evidence for ethical reasons.

3) A commitment to quality independent peer review

Peer review is one of the mightiest pillars of the way science is conducted. It helps scrutinise research before it’s made public and provides a barrier for unsubstantiated claims or personal observations from being regarded as scientific. What kind of peer review system and how it operates should be left out of the oath.

4) A commitment to challenge accepted ideas and theories, and be open to challenge oneself

Unlike other disciplines, science is fundamentally open to self scrutiny, self criticism and self correction. This must be encouraged, for it’s all too easy to let mainstream ideas become entrenched. And far from undermining science, it will only make it stronger – despite the claims that challenging the popular theories in one’s own field is detrimental to one’s authority.

5) A commitment to never engage in arguments ad hominem

Criticism in science must always be directed at the results and their interpretations, never at the authors.

6) A commitment to conduct research according to the ethical guidelines established by ethics committees in the country where the research is to be undertaken

This reinforces that scientists will adhere to the ethical standards of the day, set not only by scientists but by ethics committees made up of elected public officials, community leaders and the public. The specifics of the ethical guidelines should be left out of the oath.

7) A commitment to put ethics before science

This is deliberately vague, and serves more as a public acknowledgment that in some circumstances, what can be done and what should be done don’t always coincide – and won’t be covered by pre-established ethical guidelines. It should be left up to the individual scientists’ conscience and discretion. But their decisions should be respected by public and private institutions, and no scientist should lose their job for refusing to undertake or announce research for ethical reasons. Scientists should also not put money before science, which could conceivably be a separate clause of the oath.

8) That this code itself be regularly scrutinised and revised by a committee including representatives from the sciences, and be supervised and debated by philosophers

It’s time philosophers got out of their towers and had a real, practical task to perform. And this can be one of them. This oath should be regularly debated and revised – a process mediated by philosophers, but involving input from all the sciences as well as other interest groups. After all, what could be more appropriate than a scientific oath that itself is subject to the self scrutiny, self criticism and pursuit of truth that science (and philosophy) embodies.

Where to from here? I very much hope that the scientific community – and the scientific blogging community – begins debating the merits of a scientific oath, and the merits of specific measures within the oath. Then, perhaps some time soon, we might see graduating (and practising) scientists around the world making a commitment to the values and ideals that they already intrinsically embody, but doing so in a way that encourages the world to see what science is all about, and have confidence that it is conducted well, and in the best interests of all humanity.

Why Free Will Doesn’t Matter

Free will is an illusion. There, I said it. Now, let’s move on. For it matters not a jot.

Only, it seems we can’t move on. Despite evidence, physical and metaphysical, to the contrary, a majority of people refuse to acknowledge that we have no free will.

diceBut perhaps this is a good thing? Evidently, people who believe in free will behave in more magnanimous ways. Even if it does result in some startlingly incoherent beliefs:

If we don’t have free will, a perverse kind of anarchism emerges, one which seems to encourage us to act any way we choose.

Hang on… If we don’t have free will – meaning we don’t have choice – we end up having anarchism, where we act any way we choose. That’s pretty clear…

All this says to me that the psychological notion – the illusion – of free will is important in every day life, but let’s divorce that from the physical and metaphysical notions once and for all.

Philosopher, Saul Smilansky, has already outlined a similar position, called Illusionism. From what I’ve read of it, it needs some polish – mainly because the topic as a whole is horrifically confused and riddled with equivocation over what different terms, like ‘free’, mean – but it offers a compelling roadmap to escape the free will dilemma. Basically:

Illusionism is the position that illusion has a large and positive role to play in the issue of free will. In arguing for the importance of illusion, I claim that we can see what it is useful, that it is a reality, and why by and large it ought to continue to be so. Illusory beliefs are in place concerning free will and moral responsibility, and the role they play is largely positive. Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilized morality and personal value. (Smilansky, 2005)

So free will is a kind of ‘error theory’. It doesn’t really exist, but it’s useful to assume it does.

Why am I sympathetic towards this view? Because my own research indicates a similar thing might apply to morality. Yeah yeah… That’s even more contentious than free will, but let the truth take us where we will. Wishful thinking about free will or morality won’t change the facts.

Evolution is Science, Not Religion

Not according to this news piece (not opinion, news) from the Florida, US, based News Chief.

Apparently even atheists admit that evolution is a religion:

Scientific philosopher and ardent Darwinian atheist Michael Ruse has candidly admitted this. “Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion-a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality‚Ķ Evolution is a religion.”

And, of course, if one ‘scientific philosopher’ says something, then it must represent the views of the entire philosophical and scientific community… Well, Ruse (who I respect as a philosopher, not that I agree with him all the time) is wrong on this point. Perhaps some promulgate it as an ideology, but evolution is nothing like religion.

Well, perhaps if religion opened itself up for peer review and the possibility of falsification in the face of evidence, then perhaps evolution would be like religion. But until that day, evolution is science, and religion is not.

But what annoys me about such proclimations from anti-evolutionists is there’s really no arguing against them. They might sound like they’re presenting a logical argument backed up by facts. But they’re not. And no amount of rational discussion or evidence to the contrary will change their mind. That’s what differentiates the anti-creationist zealots from the world of science: barring personal fallibility, scientists and philosophers are at least open to be proven wrong.

But until we figure out a way of persuasively arguing with the anti-evolutionists, it just feels like we’re hurling insults across an impassable chasm, and that’s not really helping anyone.

Don’t Believe The Australian on Climate

It’s hard to belive that horriffic reporting like this example in the newspaper, The Australian, still exists.

It speaks of the heat wave we’re presently experiencing across New South Wales (in fact, I’m shirtless as I write this), but the reporters just couldn’t help themselves and threw in a little dig a climate change:

David Evans, a former adviser to the Australian Greenhouse Office, the precursor to the Department of Climate Change, said that although events such as those of January 1939 were too localised to draw implications on global warming, the 70 years since these maximums were reached was enough to “make you sceptical”.

“The debate has changed,” he said. He predicted that by 2010, the only people who would believe in global warming would be “those who have a financial interest in it, the politically correct and those who believe in big government. Everyone else will think it’s a load of rubbish.”

Note the ‘expert’ they’ve quoted, David Evans. But… he’s no expert.

There are so many excellent high profile, and accessible, climate scientists in Australia, and overseas, it’s fantastically disappointing that The Australian would call on a non-expert sceptic for a piece on record temperatures.

But wait, they do get opinion from the other side:

Many climate scientists disagree. National Climate Centre head David Jones said the fact the maximum temperatures were set so long ago in no way disproved global warming. He said 1939 was a freak once-in-a-century event.

That’s 35 words on the consensus science, compared to 100 from a lay sceptic.

Plus… peak (and trough, for that matter) temperatures say little about climate change; climate is a wildly dynamic system. It’s averages over long stretches of time – even one year figures are a blip in the scales of climate change.

I’ve read objectionable material in The Oz before, but I’m going to not only actively avoid it from now on, but encourage others to do likewise.

Guitar Hero and Musical Ability

Is there a correlation between skill at guitar hero and musical ability? Has anyone tested this?

And could we predict someone’s potential in music, even if they don’t currently play an instrument?

If so, could we develop similar tests for other abilities – perhaps as a way to steer children into pursuits for which they’re naturally suited? Could the PS3 and Wii be the educational diagnostic tools of the future?

Genes, Mental Illness and Bad Reporting

This story has been all over the news today. It’s news of a new study published in medical journal, The Lancet, that suggests a common genetic cause for both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, many outlets reporting the story go one step further and claim that schizophrenia and bipolar could ultimately be the same disorder.

Unless I’m mistaken, that’s just not right. Here’s the findings from the original article in The Lancet:

Similar to molecular genetic studies, we showed evidence that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder partly share a common genetic cause. These results challenge the current nosological dichotomy between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and are consistent with a reappraisal of these disorders as distinct diagnostic entities.

This says that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may end up being two sides of the same coin (or disorder) but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same disorder. It just says, as diagnostic entities, they might not be entirely distinct. That’s a big difference.

Only one outlet I read suggested any kind of nuance and went into any kind of detail: good ol’ Scientific American.

According to Lichtenstein [lead author of the study], this data illustrates the extent to which these two disorders are genetically related. He speculates that hundreds if not thousands of genes are at the root of each disorder, about half of which may overlap.  But, as other researchers have pointed out, the vast majority of these genes are yet to be found.

What troubles me is the perpetuation of a gross miscomprehension of what genes are by the media. Every story that comes out saying ‘gene for X discovered’ is only entrenching a false impression of genetics: that one gene affects this, another gene affects that.

This century is sure to see many more stories about the genes that underly our behaviour, personality, health and even morality – and it’s crucial that journalists (and I include myself here) gain a better understanding of how to communicate these immensely significant studies correctly. To do otherwise could end up being catastrophic.

The Moral Spectrum

It appears as though Jonathan Haidt is getting some attention across the blogosphere, even on blogs with a religious tilt. This is good news. Haidt is breaking new ground in moral thinking – I don’t think he’s answered all the questions, nor that he’s entirely right – but he’s taken ethics in a new direction (and that’s better than no direction at all, which is where it was for much of the 20th century, thanks to G.E. Moore).

One of the most important revelations that emerges from Haidt’s work is that morality, unlike the Model T, comes in a range of colours. And that’s no accident.

Evolution has endowed us with a range of moral intuitions and moral emotions, and they trigger in differing degrees in different people. Some people are more trusting, communitarian and more concerned about fairness; others are less trusting, more prone to forming close knit groups and don’t mind bowing to authority if it improves social cohesion. And everything in between. Thus is a healthy equilibrium formed – one that can respond effectively to a wide range of environments.

Sure, it feels like our moral prescriptions are universal, non-negotiable etc, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are. They just need to feel that way if we’re to be more inclined to obey moral prescriptions over subjective preferences.

The power of this theory is not to be understated. For the first time we not only have a theory that explains why morals feel non-negotiable, but why they in reality aren’t; why each culture or religion feels its moral system is the only right one, but why there are so many on this broad Earth. Then, perhaps, moral philosophers can stop their vain search for the One True Moral System and start mapping the moral landscape.

Is Evolutionary Psychology Garbage?

There are still many who think it is. Sadly, like the blog linked here, many of the attacks are so riddled with unsophisticated ad hominem and vitriol that their more legitimate arguments are undermined.

For example, while I thoroughly agree that much of the research into human sexuality is problematic, I think the field extends so far beyond these studies that to paint the entire discipline with the one brush is misrepresenting evolutionary psychology. Not everyone thinks Buss defines the field.

Another point that seems to have eluded this blogger is that evolutionary psychology as a discipline itself is evolving. Less researchers are talking about ‘evolved behaviours’ and more are talking about ‘evolved faculties’ and ‘sentiments’ that are given content by environmental influences.

This shift was a result of some of the early criticisms against evo psych, such as its tendency to describe universal behaviours without accounting for variations amongst cultures – or the so-called genetic determinism that evo psych was purported to advocate. Such criticisms are beneficial and welcome, particularly if they advance the field. But dismissive ad hominem attacks are somewhat less helpful.

In fact, if this blogger hopes to become an academic herself, I’d advise her to make her criticism constructive rather than cathartic.

This Changes Everything

Been wading through the latest iteration of the annual question over at the Edge.org. Always a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon.

This year’s question is ‘what changes everything’, and besides the usual ebullient predictions of medical breakthroughs, new applications for old technology – and a disappointing amount of rhetoric from some very smart people about how artificial intelligence will solve all our problems – there are a few mentions of the thing that I think will change everything.

I’d love to say it was something philosophical, or that our burgeoning understanding of psychology will radically change the way humanity looks at itself, but it’s not. It’s simple:

The discovery of life outside the Earth.

That changes everything. For better or worse, who can say. But the implications of life elsewhere in the universe will shake us to our very roots. And that shake up may be closer than we think.

Breaking News: The Author Lives

Reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. (How suitable to quote one of the all-time greatest authors in this context.) It still boggles my mind (which, I admit, is easily boggled) that anyone could have subscribed to the notion that a piece of work is only loosely associated with its author. But that’s what arch-post-modernist, Roland Barthes, posited.

Who wrote these? Who cares? Barthes doesn't!

Who wrote these? Who cares? Barthes doesn't!

But then again, it stands to reason that Barthes’ would suggest such a theory. He was a strong proponent of language being a fickle and malleable medium, and one that cannot be unshackled from experience or culture, whether that be the culture of the author or the reader. He was also writing in a charged time, with structuralism giving away to post-structuralism care of Derrida’s deconstructionism.

Oops. Look at what I just did… I just interpreted Barthes’ work by considering the context in which the author wrote it. Silly me.

But turning post-modernism on itself isn’t the only way to reveal its deep banalities – which disciples of po-mo somehow manage to hurl about while keeping a straight face. Cold hard science also weighs in to deconstruct deconstructionism.

Apparently not only does the author matter, but their genes as well. This is not necessarily new stuff. Just two posts back I linked to a fascinating book that takes a Darwinian approach to literature. But what is interesting is the angle this research takes in suggesting that literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way.”

While I don’t doubt that literature does serve to encourage deep rooted notions of eglitarianism, I do wonder whether this interpretation might be arse-backwards. Is it literature that encouraged the spread of altruistic genes? Or was it the presence of altruistic genes that encouraged the authoring of literature with pro-social themes?

I suspect it’s the latter. But I only think that because of my personal beliefs about evolutionary psychology and social science. (Barthes apologists can ignore that last sentence.)

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