It’s Time for a Scientific Hippocratic Oath

Published by timdean on

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.


davelove · 27th January 2009 at 4:40 pm

There are some interesting interwoven relationships between #3, 4, & 5. Perhaps 4 & 5 can be combined in a way that unites these ideas.

I would also add two points to an oath:

i) ageism: From my perspective the system is heavily skewed towards the older generations, which can be to the detriment of new ideas.

ii) outreach with humility: I see too many findings being filed away in reports and manuscripts with no attempt to convey these ideas to the general public. Scientist can be reminded in an oath of their obligation to speak out about scientific issues they are knowledgeable about, and reminded that a PhD in one field doesn’t necessarily make them an expert in every field (humility).

Robert Sarver · 27th January 2009 at 10:13 pm

This is a terrible idea. You would let scientists or even politicians decide what science is, what is considered off limits for scientific discussion, tell scientists how to practice science, and many other horrors. For example, those scientists who don’t think global warming is significantly caused by mankind could either be permanently silenced or would be drummed out of science by politicians.

See another example of abuse (politics trumping science) in Newsweek “What has science got to do with it?”. By putting political correctness above science the politically correct crowd has caused vast needless suffering and many premature deaths.

Approval of a required Oath as recommended in this article would be to the detriment of science and would cause much more serious problems than such an oath would solve.

Tim Dean · 27th January 2009 at 10:36 pm

Robert, thanks for the comment, but I’m not sure if you actually read the post. Nowhere do I endorse the notion of having “politicians decide what science is” (although, oddly, I’m curious as to why you’re against scientists deciding what science is). Also, you’ll notice that point 8) is that the code be debated and revised by none other than scientists and philosophers. Not politicians.

Give the post another read and see if you feel the same way about a scientific oath.

Diversity · 29th January 2009 at 4:52 am

I think that what you outline is a revisable code; not an oath that individuals can take and abide by in this gereation and those to come.

As a draft of an oath – for chopping, totally changing and improving – how about:

“In committing my self to science and its advancement, I undertake:

In the first place, to not falsify, nor suppress, nor exaggerate evidence;

To maintain that all the hypotheses, theories and laws of science are potentially falsifiable by evidence;

To respect my peers, looking to them to challenge me as I look to challenge them;

And to co-operate, trust and verify in the ethical advancement of science.”

davelove · 3rd February 2009 at 4:49 am

Diversity, that sounds great. Are these your own words? What other oaths have you read that were influential to you. BTW, what is the difference between an oath and a code?

Chris · 22nd June 2009 at 7:03 am

What’s all this, don’t you know ethics is a fictional abstraction?

Tim · 22nd June 2009 at 10:35 am

Hi Chris. I’m not sure what your point is. If you would care to elaborate, that’d be great. If not, I’ll delete your post for being irrelevant.

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