The Public’s Role in Regulating Scientists

I have had this entry brewing in me for a while, but a comment in a recent post helped me sit down and actually write it down.

G.K. Chesterton has a real talent for summarizing in a single quip something that bugs me but which I could never express as felicitously as the “Apostle of Common Sense”.

Specifically, there is the assertion that layfolk ought to let scientists create their own restrictions on research, and to do otherwise would lead to a new Dark Age, our country’s falling behind other nations like the South Koreans, etc. I just had the pleasure of reading Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils – while biology has advanced quite a bit since ol’ Gilbert’s day, the basic bigotry and attitudes behind scientism and eugenics is the same. Perhaps we use fancier terms, but “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

From Chapter 4, “The Lunatic and the Law”:

“In short, unless pilots are permitted to ram ships on to the rocks and then say that Heaven is the only true harbour; unless judges are allowed to let murderers loose, and explain afterward that the murder did more good on the whole; unless soldiers are allowed to lose battles and then point out that the true glory is to be found in the valley of humiliation; unless cashiers are to rob a bank in order to give it an advertisement; or dentists to torture people to give them a contrast to their comforts [Jerry’s note: thank you, but no, dental visits are painful enough, and that’s even before I see the bill.]; unless we are prepared to let loose all these private fancies against the public and accepted meaning of life or safety or prosperity or pleasure–then it is as plain as Punch’s nose that no scientific man [Jerry’s addition: or any other class or profession] must be allowed to meddle with the public definition of madness. We call him in to tell us where it is or when it is. We could not do so, if we had not settled what is is.”

Now this of course is specifically about whether physicians could alone arbitrate what insanity is without any public feedback, but it does illustrate the general fallacy of handing over one’s judgment to a specific profession. At the turn of the 20th Century, Scientism was trendy, and folks were being tempted to hand over their judgment to the scientists who knew best. We are likewise seeing some pressure, not always from scientists, but from their very zealous lay defenders.

If you are very comfortable with delegating all issues of health, illness and well-being to physicians, then consider these other propositions:

  1. Oil exploration is a complicated technical process, and since we of the unwashed masses generally don’t have advanced degrees in chemical engineering or geology, we should let oil companies decide what our policies on exploration and resource extraction.
  2. Modern day retailing and marketing is complicated, so let us permit leaders in the field like Target and Wal-Mart guide us on federally regulating commerce and consumer protection.

But even if you are happy with letting the fox to decide what to do with the chicken coop, so to speak, there is the issue of defining what is a professional consensus. Let’s say that we let the biologists decide what to do with embryos. But who decides, precisely? Not all biomedical scientist agree on this issue (including a couple grad students who contribute to this blog…); do we need a majority, or a supermajority? And which scientific organizations should be consulted? (And if they say something you don’t agree with, or change their minds, will you assent to it? It’s fine and good when they’re on the same page as you, but it’s like any other vote, sometimes the votes don’t go your way).

The ugly fact is that you cannot let people run riot without public feedback and regulation. Walmart will play dirty if you don’t discipline them. Drillers and miners will destroy public treasures in order to get at profitable natural resources. Some researchers will defraud the public about cloning and other important research, like cancer or stem cells, if the stakes and pressures are sufficiently high to tempt them. A republic–heck any government that wants to last a fiscal year–needs forms of oversight and the means to enforce them.

A good article summing up this troubled priesthood we call the scientific community can be found at the SF Chronicle, that bastion of fundamentalist Luddite sentiment (HT: Amy Welborn).

3 thoughts on “The Public’s Role in Regulating Scientists

  1. Jerry Post author

    As a brief addendum, folks may wish to check out Subjected to Science, which is a book on the history of the developmetn of medical research regulations in the earlier half of the 20th and the late 19th centuries. The focus of controversy then involved vivisection and also the exploitation of orphans and other vulnerable human populations. Scientists resisted these standards, likewise claiming that this would overly inhibit research.

  2. John

    You couple a grossy flawed argument with poorly constructed strawmen.

    Firstly, we should certainly give psychiatrists more say in defining insanity thant he average person in the street. Elsewise we’ll be locking up people for being different than the norm and failing to treat people whom are severely ill but are ill quietly.

    And both of your analogies don’t work. Yes we oil issues are complex, but that doesn’t mean that the oil companies should make oil policy. They do not possess a monopoly on that special knowledge. We should seek out people with special knowledge who don’t have a vested economic interest in the matter.

    Likewise with the Walmart case.

    I’m reminded of a week ago the nytimes had a forum on their website asking readers what they expect will be found from the satelite that collected debris from an asteroid. It’s a ridiculous question to pose to the general public.

  3. Jerry Nora Post author


    The main thrust of this article had nothing to do with psychiatry. The misleading title (which was there by a misunderstanding) has been replaced, so hopefully things are clearer, though looking at my article again, psychiatry really never appeared in what I wrote except to give a brief bit of background on Chesterton.

    Chesterton just did a good job of illustrating an issue that I saw coming up time and again with embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), namely that ESCR was defended on the grounds that scientists thought it necessary, there was no debate over the fact that scientists invented terms like “preembryo” out of political necessity rather than any new scientific discovery, etc.

    While we may not agree on ESCR, you do seem to have a similar opinion with me on why we should not let an interest group run a “debate” without outside perspective. You write:

    “Yes we [know] oil issues are complex, but that doesn’t mean that the oil companies should make oil policy. They do not possess a monopoly on that special knowledge. We should seek out people with special knowledge who don’t have a vested economic interest in the matter.”

    Precisely my point! There is no monopoly of knowledge on biology either, so having a monopoly of opinion on embryonic research and bad-mouthing anyone who opposes it (not necessarily you, John, I’m speaking of more general trends in higher education and the media) is unhealthy for the country.

    Far from thinking any debate will unreasonably hobble science, I think it will help promote solid, honest research. As we have recently seen, letting the biomedical juggernaut run without meaningful conversation and oversight is incompatible with good science. (Exhibit A: the fraudulent stem cell and cloning research in Korea.)

    My use of Chesterton was to a), highlight a book that I found very interesting, and b), show that letting a group of vested interest define the terms of debate (as many in the media or academia seem content to do on important bioethical issues) leads to dangerous consequences.

    My mentioning of oil companies and Walmart was to show that Americans are not happy letting people in those two industries do our thinking for us (I don’t think my writing would lead one to serious think I was trying to defend that, but apologize if you had serious readon to think so, John).

    If, then, we are skeptical of those two industrial/commercial sectors why should we let the biomedical research groups think for us with regard to human life? Some feminists have been waking up to the issues raised by reproductive technologies, but I’ve been struck by how many people have just rallied behind the ESCR lobby without more critical input.

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