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.
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.