Taught by Bruce Glymour and Amy Lara

Nick's REU Homepage


Week 1

The main focus of the ethics courses in the REU is to study ethical questions in the practice of science. For instance, we will discuss questions about authorship, data presentation, peer review, communication with the public, and so forth. During this class we discussed data presentation, moral permissibility vs. professional permissibility, consequentialism vs. deontology, moral realism, and moral relativism vs. moral objectivity.

Data Presentation

Basically, the question is when and how is it permissible for you to alter data when presenting it in a publication. Obviously, this (like every single ethical question) is somewhat sticky. Certainly, some data manipulation must take place before it can be presented to the public. One can't simply print out one's entire data set, completely unaltered since being gathered, and present it in a publication. Furthermore, some corrections or alterations that are justified are usually required before the data can be published. Fortunately, there are some guiding rules that can be consulted. Data cannot be produced through falsification, where 'falsification' means changing measured values, removing data, or interpolating unmeasured values without noting that such actions are being performed. Furthermore, data cannot be fabricated, where 'fabricated' means completely inventing data points. In any case, the manipulation of data can be very difficult to manage ethically and all care should be taken to do so. If the author is in doubt about the ethicality of some manipulation of data, the author should note the manipulation so the audience is aware.

Moral Permissibility vs. Professional Permissibility

We must simply note the difference between these types of permissibility. The following are several cases that do not have the same permissibility when considered morally and professionally.

Invention of the Atomic Bomb: Professionally Permissible, but possibly Morally Impermissible

Peer Reviewing a Paper by One's Spouse: Professionally Impermissible, but Morally Permissible

Consequentialism vs. Deontology

A great deal could and has been written about this distinction. Roughly though, consequentialism is the position that an action is morally good or bad based on the consequences of that action. Deontology is the position that an action is morally good or bad in virtue of some goodness or badness inherent to that action. Consequentialism and Deontology pertain to the source of the moral value of an action.

Moral Realism and Moral Relativism vs. Moral Objectivity

There are three other distinct positions on the nature of moral values. Moral realism holds that for every action that has moral value, that moral value is real, in some sense. Moral Relativism holds that every action can have different moral values depending upon various factors, society being of prime concern. Moral Objectivity holds that for every action that has moral value, that action has one and only one moral value.


Week 2

Ethical Theory

True Ethical Theory: A theory that systematizes moral facts and correctly predicts the ethical value of actions and states of affairs

Structure of Ethical Theories

A: 1st Order Precept: Determines what actions or states of affairs have moral value and disvalue

        An Example Utilitarianism 1st Order Precept: Human happiness has value and human pain has disvalue

        An Example Deontic 1st Order Precept: obedience to God's will has value and disobedience has disvalue

B: General Rules: Injunctions about kinds of actions, with exceptions

        Example: Killing is wrong, except when...

C: Prioritization of Rules: An ordering of the rules that determines which rules should be followed in a given situation

        Example: 1. If someone intends harm upon you, act to prevent the harm in the way that prevents as much harm to other as possible. 2. Don't kill people. In a case when only deadly force will save your life, rule one supersedes rule 2.

D: Specific Evaluations: The results of applying the theory to a specific action or state of affairs

Theories of Moral Value

Moral Realism: Moral facts are real, either basic or complex, and great attention is paid to the supposed origin of the moral facts.

Nihilism: No moral facts are real

Moral Relativist: There are many worlds of moral facts and these worlds are usually connected to societal boundaries

Moral Objectivism: Moral facts are objective, i.e. something independent of human perception

Moral Universalism: There is only one world of moral facts

Tests of Moral Theories

Logical Consistency: The theory must not logically contradict itself. For example, the theory cannot predict that killing Hitler is both wrong and right.

Reflective Equilibrium: Occurs when there is no conflict between one's intuitions about a singular moral fact and the results of an ethical theory.


Week 3

This week we introduced three issues: publication, advocacy, and communications with the public. Most of class was spent discussing ( and arguing) about various difficult scenarios related to publication.


There are to questions of primary importance when considering publication: whose name goes on the paper and who is responsible for the content of the paper. Certainly, only people who have significantly contributed to the content of the paper should be given credit with authorship. However, determining exactly where this 'significant contribution' lies is very difficult. In some situations, authors may feel pressured to add others to the author list because the other person secured funding for the project or in order to curry favor with the other person. In the most extreme versions of these cases, it is obvious that such actions are inappropriate. However, there are other situations that are harder. For instance, should a graduate student include their advisor as an author if the advisor merely suggested the problem? Should undergraduates be included on the paper even if they did not contribute creatively to the paper? Is someone who created a new instrument used in the experiment worthy of authorship, or are they merely a technician? Furthermore, if some section of the paper is called into question, who is responsible for errors or possible misconduct that may be revealed in the questioning process? I believe that the first author is ultimately responsible for the entire content of the paper, but that other authors should not be held responsible for sections to which they did not contribute.


Week 4

This week we focused mainly on advocacy issues. By advocacy, I mean arguing for some change in public policy. Thus, there are questions about how much advocacy should be allowed, where the advocacy should take place, and whether the author should advocate as a scientist or as a citizen. Furthermore, there is the question of whether or not scientists should be allowed to or are obligated to popularize science.

A Few Possible Advocacy Positions

1. No advocacy is allowed under any circumstances

2. Advocate only as a citizen

3. Advocate anywhere, but pronounce facts as a scientist and values as a citizen

4. No advocacy restrictions

My Paper on Advocacy and Popularizing of Science

What type of advocacy, if any, is permissible for scientists? Under the broad umbrella of advocacy positions, we find many questions. Should a scientist popularize science? Should a scientist include public policy advocacy in scientific research? How should a scientist communicate with the public? Surely, there are more questions, but these are the general questions I will consider within this short paper: advocacy in scientific writing, advocacy in communications with the public, and popularizing science.

            I take it as a basic premise that the job of a scientist is to investigate some phenomena and report upon their findings in as objective fashion as possible. Thus, a scientist’s scientific writing should be limited to those phenomena they investigated. For instance, a paper purely reporting changes in climate should not advocate public policy changes having to do with pollution. If a paper is written investigating the links between climate change and pollution, then recommendations may be made (depending upon the data and the objective confidence in the conclusions drawn from the data) as to changes in pollution standards. Recommendations about how implement the changes politically and economically fall within the realm of economics and political science publications.

            In relations with the public, I think the problem of advocacy is much more difficult. Scientists, or those labeled scientists by the media, possess an increased power to sway the beliefs of non-scientists. This is due to several factors. First, the general public does not understand the content of a scientific finding as well as a scientist. Second, the general public does not understand the scientific process and scientific community’s confidence in a given scientific finding as well as a scientist. As scientists, we naturally seek the truth, and thus we fear the release of “bad science” into the public domain. I will briefly examine four possible advocacy positions with regards to the public.

1.1      Never advocate

1.2   Only advocate when the public asks for it

2.     No advocacy restrictions

3.     Only advocate when you are right

(All of these options assume that you are advocating as a scientist. As a non-scientist you are unrestricted because you do not possess the added power of the title ‘scientist,’ which is the heart of the issue.)

Obviously, the third option would be the best, but it is impractical. Error is possible.  Furthermore, the institution of some governing body with regards to public communications is a violation of freedom of speech, the maintenance of which is necessary to the survival of science.

Option 1.1, I believe, violates the basic function of a scientist that I laid out above. The scientific community relies upon all scientists to accurately and honestly report all findings of interest. It may be considered that the scientific community could survive in a bubble, so to speak, wherein the scientists did provide all findings, but only to each other. However, this exiles the scientific community and prevents it from aiding the public. I assume that science as a whole exists to benefit all of humanity. Thus, option 1.1 cannot be maintained.

Option 1.2 is a modified version of 1.1, but it is also untenable. In actuality, 1.2 becomes 2 since the public is constantly requesting information from science. In general, 1.1 and 1.2 fail because they assume that there is some boundary between science and the public, when in reality the line is very poorly defined.

From examining the other options, I believe choice 2 is the best. It carries with it the risk of bad science being presented to the public, but it allows for good science to respond. Furthermore, it does not necessitate any restrictions that would be difficult to manage and possibly do more harm than good.

I believe the question of whether scientists should popularize science to be trivial in light of my position on the function of scientists. The problem of popularizing bad science devolves into the previous argument. Furthermore, by popularizing science the scientist increases the public’s knowledge about science and lessens the knowledge gap between the public and the scientific community. Since increasing the public’s understanding of science is desired, I believe that it is the obligation of scientists to popular science. Doing so will advance science by creating more scientists and increasing support for science. Furthermore, doing so will lessen the knowledge gap.

In conclusion, scientists should only advocate in scientific writing when the advocacy results from a phenomena directly on topic with the focus of the paper. Scientists should not be restricted in any way when advocating in public. Finally, scientists should be obligated to popularize science.


Week 5

This week we discussed communications with the public and two guiding principles in personal relationships.

Communications with the Public

Sometimes scientist have to talk with the media. In these discussions, it is very important to realize that speaking with the media differs greatly from speaking with other scientists. The media wants 'sound bits' that quickly and efficiently 'inform' the public. Thus, great care should be taken. I will refrain from writing out all the advice given on this topic, but I recommend "Uncertain Ground: The Boundary Between Science and the Media" by Dr. JoAnn Burkholder from North Carolina State University.

Descriptive Statements vs. Normative Statements and Removing Ambiguity

A descriptive statement is one that simply communicates objective facts, or as close to objective facts as possible. An example might be, "The chance of this nuclear plant failing is 0.0001%." A normative statement is one that communicates a subjective opinion about the rightness or wrongness of an action or state of affairs. An example might be, "We should build nuclear plants." In communicating with the media, scientists should seek to avoid ambiguity. An ambiguous combination of the previous examples might be, "Nuclear power is safe." 

Personal Relationships

We discussed two guiding principles when considering personal relationships.

The Principle of Utility: The right action maximizes human happiness

The Categorical Imperative (Kant): Always act so that you treat rational beings as ends in themselves, never only as means. (Alternate Formulation) Only act in a way that you would allow universally. (Alternate Formulation) Only treat people in ways to which they could consent.


Week 6

In this class, we applied the Categorical Imperative to several difficult situations that could be encountered in the sciences.

Problem 1

When a 3rd year grad student, your advisor has not provided you with a problem for a thesis and appears to be uninterested in doing so.

Response: The CI dictates that the advisor should work to find you a problem. The student cannot consent to being deceived, and failing to give a problem without explanation would be deception. However, the advisor doesn't have to find a problem no matter what, since he did not consent to doing so.

Problem 2

When a 2nd year grad student, you fail the qualifying exam for a third time.

Response: The school should not make an accommodation for you, except for some extreme circumstance. By entering the program the student consents to being evaluated and test, for their own best interest. The grad school consents to producing qualified students, so it cannot be forced to produce unqualified students.

Problem 3

When an undergraduate, as a minority you are requested to attend an admissions event aimed at minority students. Attending will take time from class work with which you are having problems.

Response: In this case, you are being treated as an ends to a means, and thus the request is wrong.

Problem 4

You are entering graduate school from a small liberal arts college. You are worried about your performance in the standard first year graduate classes.

Response: Since you have been accepted, both the school and you are committed to the course of action that provides you with the ability to obtain a PhD. Thus, you should honestly consider the classes in question and your abilities and do what will help you the most in obtaining a PhD.


Week 7

This week we had a really great discussion about teaching vs. research and the role of gen ed classes in a university. However, I didn't take notes, so instead I will focus on the brief discussion we had about rights and moral value.

Rights vs. Moral Right and Wrong

We defined a right as: Person A has a right to do X implies that other people have a duty towards A regarding X.

Thus, it can be morally wrong to exercise a right. For instance, it is wrong to eat a Jimmie Johns sub in front of a starving homeless person. I'm not sure that I agree with this point. It seems to me that it is more distasteful or uncouth of you to eat in front of a starving homeless person. I'm not sure that it is morally wrong. Perhaps moral right and wrong need to be disentangled from the taboo or socially distasteful.


Final Note

I really enjoyed this ethic class. I am slightly biased since I am a philosophy physics double major, but I found it very interesting and applicable. I hope that the class is continued in the future because it gives the stiff physicists the chance to loosen up and think freely.


Last Modified: 7-28-07