Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Great Expectations

Our Standards For Scientists and Physicians
Should we have higher expectations of scientists and physicians when it comes to admitting mistakes? What about ethics? At first blush, most of us would say, “Of course.” It’s about scientific objectivity. It’s about life and death. True. But there is a more complicated story here.

Some recent articles touch on the expectations the public has of researchers in the sciences. Sharon Begley of Newsweek (“On Second Thought…,” January 12, 2009) expressed some surprise that scientists are no more likely to change their minds than ordinary citizens when confronted with new facts. She writes that “based on a dispassionate evaluation of empirical evidence, they are expected to willingly, even eagerly, abandon cherished beliefs when new evidence undercuts them.”

Well, I’m disappointed more than shocked. The problem here is the word “dispassionate.” Who ever said scientists don’t have passion, or points of view or even biases? In other words, scientists might be highly educated and engage in laudable pursuits but they are human in every respect. And, being human, scientists can get locked into positions in the face of what others might term overwhelming evidence. As I wrote in Do the Facts Matter?, "If the facts don’t fit the person’s worldview or “frame,” as the cognitive linguist George Lakoff terms it, the facts bounce off like bullets shot at Superman’s chest.” It doesn’t matter who you’re debating, all the data get deflected while you get blue in the face. The bottom line is that insight alone does not change one’s mind. It’s the desire to change that propels us in a new direction.

Indeed, it’s passion that has led some researchers to involve their own children in their investigations. However, this passion – while responsible for pulling us forward and driving us to explore ever deeper – may cloud our judgment and create some unintended problems. In “Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad,” Pam Belluck of The New York Times (January 18, 2009) interviewed Robert M. Nelson, director of the Center for Research Integrity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who said, “The role of the parent is to protect the child. Once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parent-child relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.”

The story also mentions Karen Dobkins, a UCSD psychology professor, who used her infant twins in a cognitive research study, who said, “it was kind of painful, because one of my twin boys basically played the game really well, but my other son, we couldn’t even use his data.” She said that “made me worry that he had autism.” Her worries proved unfounded. Still, she said, “I took only the good data and copied it and put it in both of their baby books.” (Of course, now those kids will know the truth when they’re older because their mother spilled the beans to The New York Times!) And there’s Pawan Sinha, a neuroscience professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who admitted that his wife (also a researcher) was “quite opposed to this idea of experimentation” on their son. He went on to say that “it had to be done surreptitiously, whenever she would go out or when I would take him out…”

What does all of this communicate to the general public? In addition to the potential warping of the parent-child relationship, our scientists are fudging their baby books and lying to their wives. It’s small potatoes, right? Some semi-innocent lapses? Wrong. In my head, at least, the alarm bells are going off. Where does one draw the line? If scientists are less than honest in these dealings, wouldn’t the public begin to doubt their credibility on the bigger issues? Would they change their results in a lab book, in a publication, in testimony? And, the matter-of-fact way these scientists discuss and rationalize their exploits sends yet another damaging signal.

The fact is that higher standards do exist for scientists and researchers. They have an imperative to protect the safety and rights of human subjects. They are compelled to disclose conflicts of interest and monetary connections that might create bias or the appearance of bias. They must obtain the approval of Institutional Review Boards who set and maintain ethical standards for research locally but must also uphold State and Federal statutes.

Yet, when it comes to maintaining integrity, there should be no differences between scientists and the general public. Baseball player or biologist, novelist or neurosurgeon, we should all adhere to the same standards in truth and honesty.

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