Science and Politics

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Flint water crisis was the behavior of the scientists involved — from the people in the DEQ who failed to question, let alone test, the feasibility of switching water sources, to those who falsely reassured citizens that the brown water coming from their faucets was safe to drink, to lab techs falsifying results, to the EPA administrator who wrote a memo stating that maybe Flint “wasn’t the community to go out on a limb for …” even as thousands of children were being poisoned with lead. Not testing, not applying the standards of scientific methods and reporting the results, or even worse yet, not acting on results when lives are at risk is so much at variance with what we have come to expect (and rely on) from scientists. However, the problem of scientists ignoring their ethical and moral duties is more endemic than the Flint situation.

Science has always faced pressure from politics even from the time of Socrates, and ultimately it was the willingness of scientists to stand by their methods and results that advanced the greater good. I wondered if we have so corrupted science with capitalism and politics that we can no longer rely on it. Certainly, the debate over climate change is an example of economic and political concerns as one example of rejecting scientific research and consensus. However, I think that science is fine. It’s the lack of moral/ethical development by some of the current generation of scientists that is the problem.

The scientific method, involving testing hypotheses and the replicating results remains the most reliable source of knowledge we have. When the same results are reproduced by different scientists then the facts are established. What meaning or interpretation we put on those facts is a different issue, but facts used to be facts that mattered. How is it that so many people trained in science and working as scientists can find justification to ignore facts and their ethical and moral obligations as the result? What produced a person with a PhD who questioned the political implications of revealing life threatening results in Flint? Science can weed out research from people with political agendas, but can it survive without scientists who lack an ethical or moral framework? Science has the ultimate goal of enhancing our collective lives by generating knowledge and translating that knowledge into action. Galileo pursued the truth regardless of the results and what it meant to his employability or his political/religious beliefs, and was willing to defend his findings. History is full of scientists that were willing to risk their lives to conduct their research, wherever it led.

In this emerging time when emotional beliefs “Trump” facts, we need scientists who have the moral courage to insist on the importance of objective and reliable facts as necessary for the collective good.

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