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The Philosophy of Science: Part the third

June 19th, 2010 · No Comments · Philosophy of Science

And then Science turns out to be a total bitch.

Ethics, I want to be good, can you tell me how?

Adam Toon 1

I read up on an experiment and say why the hell did they do that? I get the feeling that some research is performed more because the researcher hates monkey than any real scientific advancement. A prime example of this is the experiments undertaken by the American psychologist Harry Harlow. Dr Harlow was interested in developing a model of human depression by inducing similar mental states in rhesus monkeys. He did this by taking newborn monkeys and isolating them in a pitch-black isolation chamber for a year. During this period interaction with the animal was kept at a bare minimum, except for a feed shoot and the occasional medical check to ensure the animal was still alive. Unsurprisingly the subject animals emerged severely psychologically damaged and unable to relate normally with other monkeys.

Harlow determined that this was a successful experiment.

What the hell? That’s bullshit! There were far easier, simpler and much less harmful ways to investigate depression, how about talking to people who already suffer depression? The outputs of the experiment had little or no value and were plainly obvious; finally the experiments themselves just seem stupid and cruel.

Truth to tell that type of experimentation wasn’t acceptable as ethical research but it was still seen as science. Note the difference, science by itself is pure, cold and hard. It does not care how results are found as long as a clear process is followed and appropriate methodology utilised. It’s not until those squiggly things like giving a shit about the test subjects or caring about the harm the research is doing get in the road that problems arise. Damn humans and their filthy emotions, without them there would be no need to consider the ethics of how and why the research is being undertaken.

Ethical research looks at the all-encompassing picture and determines the value of the science compared to what society and the researcher themselves judges as an acceptable cost. This judgement is one of the many facets of the ethics of science.

So with this kind of reflection what kind of science would we allow? Research into brain tumours has involved inducing highly malignant tumours in puppies so the effects of the tumours can be further researched. This is done by growing the original tumour under the skin of the puppies while they are still in the womb and before the animal has a developed immune system that could interfere with the growth of the cancer. After the animal is born and once the tumour has reached sufficient size it is excised and implanting directly into the brain of the subject via a hole drilled through the skull. Thus the growth and development of brain tumours can be monitored, measured, researched.

These studies have led to a greater understanding of how and why tumours develop, creating new therapies, ways of mitigating the pain and bringing hope to thousands who only had death in front of them. This research led to stillbirths and birth defects of subject animals, those that survive birth and the subsequent operations had (mercifully) short lives of unimaginable suffering as tumours the size of golf balls crushed what remained of their brains against the inside of their own skulls.

This was seen as ethical science because it was felt that the benefits of the research to mankind outweighed the cost in animal suffering. Also as a part of ethical research every opportunity to reduce the misery of the animals that did not interfere with the science was utilised and only when there was no other way to move the research forward was an animal hurt. I have to wonder though did the researchers felt remorse; did they care for the animals or simply see them as living research instruments valued more for the tumour growing inside them? Ethically does actually it matter if they cared about the animals as long as they ensured their health and safety? Did they feel the satisfaction of a job well done?

These are of course extreme examples of research that has been undertaken and have deliberately been chosen for their shock value. But they are good examples of the kinds of ethical questions a researcher needs to answer. Pretty much every piece of research has some kind of ethical consideration. Even I as a technologist looking at sustainable energy systems am not exempt. I have to make considerations such as the birds mortalities from windmill hits compared to the net benefit of providing sustainable power. Everyone faces similar questions when we use the products developed by science, I try and use non-animal tested products but I also get bad eczema and use a skin steroid to control it. I know for damn sure some poor dog would have had this crap stuck in its eye and I still use it because I’m a giant hypocrite.

This raises one of the major aspects about ethics, ethics are a very personal thing and often depend on the context. I find the idea of eugenics (selective breeding of humans) offensive yet I know of several prominent Maori who have made calls for planned breeding in order to ensure the continuation of the race. I’m sure there are also plenty of other areas of ethics we can all disagree on. This individuality of perception makes any decision about what is ethical and what isn’t pretty damn hard.

So if we are all flawed, who then makes these ethical decisions? Well the person who first and foremost needs to make this call is the researcher themselves. I believe that a good researcher should be able to justify the value of their research in their own mind first. They are the ones who will be the one doing the experimentation and will have to look at themselves in the mirror afterwards.

Sometimes I get the feeling that researchers unload their guilt at doing an experiment because they’ve got approval from an ethics committee. It’s like they say to themselves “hey, this isn’t my fault, I got ethics approval”. Ethics approval is not a magic elixir that washes away your sin, ethics approval means your experimental design has met the minimum requirements set by the University. You are still doing the experiment; no matter the future benefit right here and now your experiment is inflicting harm. I hope you respect that and respect the suffering you are putting your subjects through.

The second group that should make such a judgment call is other scientists, part of being a good scientist is to not only ensure your own actions are ethical but also the actions of your fellow scientists. This can be a surprisingly hard concept for many scientists to grasp, as most only see themselves as responsible for their own research. Questioning another scientist’s way of performing research is “rude” and a unwanted intrusion on “their” science. As members of the scientific community we all have an equal responsibility in maintaining good science because we are the ones best equipped to recognise and act against poor practice.

Finally society itself sets the context for what is ethical science and what is un-ethical science. Some of the science that we would consider un-ethical now days was considered perfectly all right a mere few decades ago and some of the science that would have been considered as un-ethical then is considered as fine now. A good example of this is in vitro fertilisation (IVF) of humans, when IVF was first advanced as a science it was hugely controversial with many governments banning it outright. Now days IVF is commonplace in many countries including New Zealand and is seen as a regular practice.

So what does all this mean, do I believe in ethical research? Well yes, but my measure of what is ethical is far different from what other researchers consider ethical. Talking to some of my friends who are in research and they have mentioned work which I consider unethical BUT I also know that they respect their subjects be they animal, human or environmental, that they are doing their research in a manner of minimum harm for maximum benefit and I can see how their research will help future generations.

And I also know they aren’t doing it because they hate monkeys.

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