Tag Archives: regulation

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).