Surprised by Unethical Behavior?

Despite unethical actions by Wall Street, teachers, and businesses, we are somehow surprised that academics, especially in the sciences, engage in falsification or manipulation of data. Why is it that we are so surprised when scientists behave unethically?

I offer two suggestions:

1. Perhaps there’s a social prioritization of science. STEM initiatives are popular– so much so that those disciplines appear separate from the rest of academia. I see this as a result of positivism, wherein science holds the only valid knowledge. So, in a culture dominated by positivism, and positivist politicians, the thought of corrupted scientists is abhorrent, and subsequently hidden from public view. This, of course, further distinguishes scientists from bankers and businesses.

2. In part stemming from this prioritization is a renewed faith in Robert Merton’s normative behaviors of scientific research, which he outlined in 1942. These norms offer ideal principles that ought to guide scientific research. Science ought to be communal, the knowledge open to all. It ought to be universal, obtainable regardless of nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, etc. Scientists ought to act with disinterestedness, pursuing scientific knowledge for its own sake and not for power, wealth, or status. The research ought to be original, contributing something new to the community of scholars. And scientists ought to be skeptics, questioning and testing arguments and theories. Belief that these norms are real, true of scientific research, makes any unethical behavior surprising. Understanding that they are professional ideals (perhaps applicable to all academic pursuits). Scientists are people, prone to the same unethical choices as bankers.

This is not to say that non-scientific disciplines are always ethical. Science Studies, an interdisciplinary approach to culture and science, finds some of its origins in the Sokal Affair as part of the Science Wars. Wikipedia has some decent summaries of the Affair and ensuing Wars.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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