Professional Ethics, Crimes and Misdemeanors

There is something reassuring about a person in a white coat with a clipboard and probably glasses. Trust the expert. They know what they are talking about. We trust scientists and researchers believing them to be honest reasonable people. Three recent media stories raise questions about the trusting of those in positions of scientific responsibility and the importance of ethics in science.

Firstly there are the climate scientists who seem to suggest they were interested in keeping out of journals research that did not fit the bigger picture of climate change they believed in. The shock of this seems to have caused an increase in people who are skeptical that climate change is real (Seenews.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8500443.stm). The process of publishing research is complex but to get an article into a journal the article is anonymously judged, usually by two reviewers who are also specialists in the field. Research that supports previously supported views might be easier to get published than that which proposes contrary views. A new argument that overturns other arguments needs to be convincing enough to be taken seriously. We have to hope that professional reputations and egos do not cloud the judgement of academic reviewers and journal editors.

Mistakes can be made. The article which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism got into an important medical journal but the research was later found to be flawed and ethically compromised. This led to many children suffering unnecessary conditions they would otherwise have been protected from as concerned mothers withdrew their children from vaccination programmes. The article has now been retracted as false. (See news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8493753.stm andnews.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8483865.stm for information about how the research rules were broken.)

A third case is the recent report into the activity of two 18th century pioneers in medical research into the care of women in childbirth. William Hunter and William Smellie, it is now claimed in a research report, had pregnant women murdered so they could carry out their autopsies. They wanted to be the greatest authorities of the time and had a great rivalry between them and so needed dozens of women to conduct their research (www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/07/british-obstetrics-founders-murders-claim).

These three cases illustrate different examples of ethical and unethical dimensions of science. I may make discoveries but only through immoral actions. I may not allow articles which undermine my career to be published, even if they are good pieces of research. I may seek to publish research that I know is compromised, in the pursuit of my career, and at the expense of public knowledge and in some cases health. Professional ethics are at the heart of these actions but so is a duty on the public to treat media accounts of research carefully. A dramatic story sells more papers than a non-dramatic one. There is a political dimension here too. An unpleasant reality that inconveniently requires us to change our lives is not a pill a politician wants to give the people. A politician must get elected; newspapers must sell stories that appeal to the interests of the readers. This is murky ethical territory and it is the duty of an ethically literate person to dig much deeper than casual reading.

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