Saturday, January 31, 2015

Of Mice and (Scientific) Men

A friend of mine shared some thoughtful comments in response to my last blog, where I tried to advance the case that when scientists behave immorally while doing science, their immoral behaviour can't be "in the name of science". This charge is incoherent and therefore misleading. The commenter was unconvinced. I’m grateful for those comments because they show that I didn’t do a good enough job of clarifying my argument. I’ll try to do that today.

Contrary to those comments, I don’t think that a problem for my case arose out of a focus on Mengele specifically and not on more ambiguous cases of immorality in science. The problem, I think, lies in the ambiguity of the phrase “in the name of”, so I’m going to try to make my case again without using it at all.

In my introductory paragraph, I framed the question at hand, and that question was not whether scientists can behave immorally while doing science. I fully conceded that. The question was whether science can cause scientists to behave immorally while doing science. Remember that this question arose in response to a tu quoque that not infrequently pops up whenever faith-based religion is criticized for causing immoral behaviour. That tu quoque entails the claim that science causes immoral behaviour, too. Moreover, the question of causality is the important one if we are interested in curbing that immoral behavior by criticizing or condemning the underlying cause. Accordingly, I’m going to try to make the case that it is incoherent to claim that science causes scientists to behave immorally while doing science. (On the other hand, the coherence and truth of the claim that faith-based religions can - and regularly do - cause people to behave immorally during their practice is not even contested.)

Consider a cancer researcher who is experimenting on and therefore killing mice. Such a program is indisputably a "legitimate" scientific enterprise even though the researcher knows full well that mice will be harmed by the process*.

What determines whether a researcher thinks that killing mice is acceptable is how that researcher values the lives of mice versus the lives of the people her research efforts hope to ultimately help. Science has nothing to do with that consideration. Science doesn’t inform the researcher that she should value human life, or a cure for cancer, or the lives of mice, or how to weigh the whole shebang. She brings her values into a moral consideration upon which science is silent. It’s a moral consideration because morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures, and it is precisely the well-being of mice and men that is in question. If a researcher is prepared to sacrifice the lives of mice, then the scientific method advises on ways to obtain reliable, true information from the experiments. That is all.

If the lives of mice are not well valued, we should not be surprised that the lives of mice will be lost whether they are the victims of scientific experimentation or of mouse traps behind the furniture. If we find it morally abhorrent that mice are dying, criticizing science won’t save their lives, but addressing why the well-being of mice is undervalued by mouse-killers may.

Perhaps scientific projects like this one are morally abhorrent and the low value we place on the lives of mice is an example of speciesism run amok. All that my argument requires is that you recognize that the scientific method has nothing to say on that matter.

Now imagine a society that values the lives of mice on par with those of humans, and that a mouse researcher is identified, captured, and tried for "crimes against conscious creatures". In her defence, she claims that her work was done "in the name of science". I hope that it's now obvious that this is a lame excuse to try to deflect blame and place it squarely on something greater than herself and something that is otherwise held in high esteem: the scientific method. The problem is that it doesn't make sense. She failed to properly value the lives of mice, and the scientific method played no role in that consideration.

Perhaps she's a psychopath who lacks the empathy required to value mouse life. Perhaps she hates mice because they spread a disease that claimed the lives of her parents when she was an impressionable child. Or perhaps she was raised in a religious tradition that included an ancient scripture saying, "For I am the Lord, your God, and I am holy. You shall regard every mouse after its kind an abomination and do with them as you wish." Whatever her reasons, they can't have anything to do with the scientific method.

I rest my case.

So why is the notion that the Nazi researchers acted "in the name of science" seemingly widespread and appealing despite being incoherent and misleading? Because it's a deepity.

A deepity is a phrase that balances precariously between two interpretations. On one reading, the phrase is true, but trivially so. On the second reading, the phrase would be profound if it were true, but that second interpretation is actually false. Somehow, the truth of the first reading seems to rub off on the second one, making it seem profound and true. Deepities are common and beguiling, but fallacious.

It's trivially true that the Nazi researchers did some things that were motivated by science and could, in that sense, have been done "in the name of science". But those things are standard scientific moves like choosing objective outcome measures, repeating experiments to understand the influence of normal biologic variability on outcomes, etc. But when people hear that the Nazis acted "in the name of science", the second interpretation that takes hold of the imagination is that the heinous evils they committed during their experiments were motivated by science. That would be profound if it were true, but alas, it is false. Somehow, the truth of the first interpretation rubs off on the second one, making it seem profound and true. As I've shown, though, that second reading is incoherent and misleading.

A Hitler Youth Book Burning
Unlike science, people do get their values and morals from religion and religious apologists tell us that they damn well should. It should be no surprise then, that the Nazi devaluation of Jewish life had its roots in centuries strong Christian influences. Nazism was its own crazy religion following its own charismatic prophet ("dear leader") and which spread through the systematic cultivation of fear and the suppression of free speech, skepticism, and reason. If we want to prevent the next Holocaust, one thing we can do is maintain a critical stance on the many faces of dogma and the methods people employ for its dissemination, protection, and exaltation.

Once again, I'd like to thank my thoughtful commenter for the opportunity to clarify my thoughts. I hope that this does indeed clear things up.

*Notice that the legitimacy of mouse based scientific research actually refers to the moral legitimacy of experimenting on mice. The scientific legitimacy is assumed.


  1. Science is the search for stable truths. It's not a creed, or a doctrine, or a set of ideals. It's a process of attaining reliable knowledge and communicating it with others. It's impossible for either evil or good to be done 'in the name of science' — because science is not concerned with evil or good, but what is true.