On Whose Shoulders We Stand: Reflections on a Historical Debate Concerning Scientific Ethics
Let no one else’s work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize
Only be sure always to call it please “research”
In his song, “Lobachevky”, American songwriter, mathematician, and satirist Tom Lehrer claims that the secret to success is plagiarism. The limerick-like lyrics of the song humourously depicts several aspects of academic life: the competitive nature of research, the need to publish to remain in the game, and the large dependence of scientific advancement on prior knowledge. The notion that future developments in science rests on a foundation of past knowledge is a fundamental property of the scientific process, since a complete understanding of the empirical world is simply impossible to achieve within a lifetime (or even a many lifetimes).
One stereotype that exists is the notion that scientists are eccentric and unethical people. Often, the question of a scientist’s morality has little to do with his or her intent, but rather, the means by which s/he realizes those intentions. That is, the concept of the betterment of humanity through understanding our physical world is generally considered a noble and worthy pursuit, but how that knowledge is attained is usually a more morally complicated matter. Government and research funding agencies make a commendable effort to ensure that the research that they support is ethical, but in light of the fact that scientific achievement relies on past findings, a complete dialogue between experimentation and ethics also require us to evaluate the morality of past research.
The retrospective moral assessment of scientific data is more difficult than an ethical review for a proposed set of studies that has yet to be done. Firstly, a retrospective ethical assessment of an experiment requires distinguishing between the morality of the methods and results. This is problematic because the relationship between the ethics of an experimental procedure and the results produced is ill-defined, since results are not available for the majority of cases at the time of an ethics review.
It has been argued that scientific data is information and therefore is not inherently good or evil and that the concept of morality can only be applied to how that information is used. But even if data is morally neutral, there are clearly moral implications and societal consequences of utilizing data derived from unethical experiments. Secondly, given the assumption that the ultimate goal of science is obtain a better understanding of the physical world through empirical experimentation, is it even possible to unlearn what we already know? Like prematurely discovering the ending of a movie you are about to see, it is difficult to forget something you know that is relevant to what you are about to do. Thirdly, even if forgetting was possible, would it be ethical to do so?
The reason I ask these questions is because I have recently become familiar with the Nazi Experiments. During WWII, Nazi doctors and scientists performed experiments on individuals deemed “lives unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben), among them: Jews, Gypsies, physically or mentally ill patients, political dissidents and prisoners, and homosexuals. The experiments consisted of studies on twin genetics, freezing and hypothermia, infectious agents, high altitude, sterilization, experimental surgery, and traumatic injury.
These studies were without doubt, carried out in the most inhumane fashion and with utmost disrespect for human lives. Some examples of these methods included subjecting victims to life-threatening environmental conditions such as freezing temperatures and low pressures and intentionally infecting victims with organisms causing immeasurable suffering and sometimes death. Yet, the lack of ethical standards governing these studies created a chance for some unique data to be produced: these experiments were performed on humans, as opposed to via computational means or via the use of animal models, which often have limitations as to the extent they represent the complexity of human biology.
As such, they may be much more relevant to understanding how the human body works and thus, have the potential to contribute to life-saving research. For example, University of Victoria’s Dr. John Hayward cited cooling curves obtained from Nazi hypothermia experiments that described the rate of temperature loss of humans over time at low temperatures to design the Thermofloat coat, which reduces heat loss in capsized boaters. Coast Guard testimonies show that these coats save lives.
Alternatively, there are concerns about whether citing or developing protocols based on these data imply a silent approval of the heinous violations of human rights committed to obtain the data. Using the data implicitly validates its usefulness. Does acknowledging the validity of data equate to condoning how the data was obtained? Especially with respect to the Dachau hypothermia experiments, bioethicists, philosophers, and scientists have long engaged in a debate whether these data should be used. Even though the validity of the Nazi data has been questioned, the question of whether valid unethical data can be morally used is a necessary question to ponder on because although the Nazi experiments represent the most extreme example of breeched ethics, they are not the sole example.
It is easy to condemn atrocious acts committed in a nation that was driven by discriminatory ideologies, or to accept such acts as examples of horrible things that happen in war. Yet, examples of unethical post-WWII studies in America conducted during peacetime are also documented (see: Tuskagee Study, New York University Hepatitis B Study; 7). Even today, the morality of using unethical data as the foundation for further scientific work needs to be discussed to keep in check contemporary research questions that are both interesting and ethically questionable.
The discussion centers on three main questions, the first being, can the means justify the end? If we look at those involved with biomedical research today, much of this research is done with the goal to find cures or save lives. That too, was (at least part of) the motivation of the Nazi scientists. Indeed, the rationale behind the Dachau hypothermia experiments was to obtain data on human response to cooling to develop strategies to reduce Air Force fatalities resulting from freezing, a common cause of death for pilots who crashed into the frigid waters of the Atlantic. Yet, we condemn the Dachau experiments because of who the experiments were performed on. Clearly, the means did not justify the end. At the Doctors’ trial, the international tribunal that tried some of the Nazi scientists on the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, a review of some of the defendant testimonies showed that the defendant often justified their actions by comparing the number of experimental subjects (hundreds) with the number of people who may potentially benefit from the experiments (thousands), an argument that could potentially be used to justify almost any proposed research project today.
Interestingly, psychologists who have attempted to identify the traits that make a person evil in the Nuremberg defendants have failed to find any; instead, evil seems to be a result of ordinary people (quite like the rest of us) making progressively larger moral concessions. Considering the whole reason why there is any debate at all regarding the use of Nazi data is because their work, though morbid, may be potentially useful if not also interesting – so we are reminded that perhaps, we are not all that different from the doctor scientists tried at Nuremberg. However, history warns us against using the greater good to justify the ideal of pursuing knowledge at all costs.
The crucial difference is that in this case, what is unethical is already done. If the ends do not justify the end, then, can some good at least come from evil that has already been committed? On one hand, it would seem contrary to scientific progress to discard data that has already been obtained. It might not be ethical to do so, especially if the data has potential to do good. Some argue that future scientific progress based on data derived from unethical means may give purpose to the senseless suffering of the victims of unethical research. Others argue that it is best to leave a senseless tragedy as such, for to assign purpose to unethical research would be to acknowledge that the perpetrators of unethical research were somehow rational and less unethical.
However, by establishing that the end does not justify the means, we are already making data independent of the methods. Therefore, using the same line of reasoning, I do not believe that utilizing data generated from unethical methods make the methods any less immoral. The greater fear is of setting precedence for unethical research: if unethical research data is accepted as kosher foundation for future progress, scientists may be inclined to forgo ethical considerations for the sake of making groundbreaking discoveries. To balance respect for past victims and the obligation to saving future lives is not an easy task, but it is certainly necessary and relevant to modern science. For example, one of the issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research concerns the morality of abortion. Even people who believe that having an abortion is morally wrong may argue that there is some legitimacy in using legally aborted embryos as a source of cells for research for cures to diseases, such that some benefit might be reaped from an evil act that cannot be reversed. The concern is that people may become more accepting of abortion if it ends up as a technique for obtaining valuable embryonic stem cells. In such instances, the expertise of bioethicists, philosophers, and policy makers are certainly valuable, but the involvement of the scientist is paramount for the sole reason that s/he is ultimately the person who will be conducting the research. Reasonable and valid arguments can usually be made for both sides of any ethical dilemma, but eventually a consensus has to be made as to what is acceptable not only in theory but also in practice.
Transforming the debate from a theoretical discussion to practice leads us to yet another question: should unethical data be published? Publications are the tangible medium for passing knowledge from generation to generation, which we have already identified as fundamental to the scientific process. On one hand, if unethical data provides the basis for future experiments, it is only right that they should be properly documented in publication and cited. On the other hand, since publications determine the status and legacy a scientist has, the scientist who produced unethical work may benefit from (and is thus rewarded by) publication of such work.
This raises the question of whether journal editors should consider not only the scientific merit, but also ethical merit, of submitted work when making a decision regarding the publication of that work. In the end, the discussion regarding publication boils down to whether there is a difference between condoning and recognizing unethical work. I believe there is. Some may argue that denying publication of unethical data may not only make a statement against the research performed by unethical scientists, but also lessen the motivation for unethical research, since research is often publication-driven. At the same time, to say that a censorship of unethical data will eliminate unethical research is unrealistic, since curiosity remains the dominant motivation for many scientists. Taking these factors into account, I believe unethical data should be openly published to educate about the past and also to prevent a repetition of unethical research. The ball is then passed to the individual scientist to use such published works respectfully and responsibly. Scientific totalitarianism is not the answer to promoting ethical research.
After turning these ideas around in my head, I have come to a few conclusions. Data obviously is not as objective as most scientists would like to believe. Therefore, it is imperative that social consequences be taken into account when using data. After all, the definitive goal in science is not knowledge, but rather, knowledge for the betterment of humanity. Of course, determining what is better for humanity is often challenging. The first step may be as simple as staying informed. Unethically derived data is not inherently immoral, so if there is promising evidence that suggest they are relevant to helping mankind, they should be used with discretion and consideration for victims both past and present. However, usage without a respectful attitude or an appreciation for the arguments against such usage would be immoral. Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Ultimately, on whose shoulders we stand is up to us, the individual scientist. People are, after all, firstly moral agents, then scientists. Therefore, morality is not decided by a higher authority like the law or by editorial acceptance, but rather, by conscience. Does that mean we will always act ethically? Probably not. Can we still strive for this moral ideal? Most definitely.
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