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« Secret Menus | Main | Paradox of Choice »

Ethics of the Truth

By Chris | November 17, 2009

A video circulating around the internet is disturbing.  An aspiring NFL cheerleader had a negative reaction to a season flu shot.  It activated dystonia disorder.  If you haven’t seen the video you should look it up on YouTube. Note: Video previously embedded was removed from YouTube.

YouTube comments express skepticism, compassion, but most of all — fear.    I can’t help but wonder how many of the 1.2 million people who watched the video were persuaded to skip this year’s flu shot.  How many mothers vowed not to give their daughter the shot that might render her immobile? About 30,000 people die of the flu each year.  Vaccines save countless lives.  And, yet facts and figures are no match against an image of a beautiful young women unable to control her muscles.It made me wonder what responsibility researchers have for the interpretation and application of their findings.  If I discover that the swine flu vaccine is slightly more dangerous than previously thought, should I broadcast that information to a public who will apply it irrationally?  Suppose as an economist I document theoretical cases in which trade makes a nation worse off.   Am I responsible for politicians who utilize my researcher to advance harmful protectionism?  If I discover that different races have different innate abilities, am I responsible for the actions of bigots who use my findings to justify evil.

These are tough questions, and I know I’m not the first one to ask them.  Researchers must consider the consequences of their findings, and yet, they cannot be held responsible for the actions of others.  It’s impossible to know the bad or good that may come from one’s research.  The best you can do is anticipate and caution against misapplications of your work.

Part of what got me thinking about this topic was the whole hoopla about Levitt and Dubner’s global cooling chapter in their new book.   I don’t want to comment on the merits of the chapter itself.  However, I was intrigued by one of the biggest concerns of critics.  They argue, by lending credence to the idea that geoengineering could reverse global warming, Levitt and Dubner empower skeptics of global warming in their political goals.  Are the SuperFreaks responsible for the impact of their chapter on public opinion and policy?  What if they lead policymakers to conclusions that Levitt and Dubner never intended?  In one chapter, the authors discuss how walking drunk is less safe than driving drunk.  Are they responsible when an alcoholic takes this as advice, gets in a car, and kills a pedestrian?

Ultimately, scientists are accountable for the truth of their findings.  But, that doesn’t mean they can ignore the practical implications of their arguments.  The less certain you are, the more you must qualify your findings.  The more irrational your audience, the more you must caution your readers.  You may not be responsible for the irrationality of the masses, but you you’re a fool to ignore it.  Levitt and Dubner may have had the best of intentions when writing their book.  They may make some unique contributions to the discussion on global warming and driving under the influence.  So, they probably shouldn’t be burned on the stake for ignoring how others may interpret their findings.  But, I can’t help but feel they deserve to take a little heat.

Topics: Psychology, Behavioral Economics, Political Science, Economics, Blogosphere |

2 Responses to “Ethics of the Truth”

  1. David Friedman Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I haven’t read the chapter, so can’t comment on it. But I have posted material on my blog which could be criticized in the same way–pointing out that public statements by JPL/NASA about current data on arctic sea ice extent are false, as demonstrated by comparing what they say with the data provided by the NSIDC, which is one of their sources.

    One problem with your argument is that it makes it hard to correct errors. Once a view is accepted, at least in the academic community, people who find evidence against it downplay it, or suppress it, or can’t get it published. Other people, observing very little evidence against it, conclude that it is true, so they should ignore and suppress any evidence they find against it. The result is that everyone is making decisions on a badly biased information set. The results can be unfortunate–for example, many millions of people for many years substituting margarine for butter because they were told that, as a matter of scientific fact, it was healthier. Eventually the evidence that transfats–which ordinary margarine contained–were much worse than saturated fats got accepted.

    There are even worse cases. George Orwell discusses the issue in one of his essays, in the context of left wing intellectuals suppressing the evidence of just how bad Stalin’s Russia was, for fear of “playing into the hands” of the conservatives.

  2. Chris Says:
    November 21st, 2009 at 12:12 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, but I think you may misinterpret my point. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to challenge the consensus on an issue, just that researchers should consider how people may use and abuse their arguments for harmful ends. For example, it doesn’t bother me that Levitt and Dubner challenge conventional wisdom on global warming. It just seems that they do so in a cavalier way without any regard to impact of their musings.

    I guess I’m arguing that researchers must 1) hold themselves to a higher level of certainty when the research has very serious implications. And, 2) clearly explain the appropriate application of the research. It’s possible to ere too much on the side of caution and precedent. But, I think human nature is inclined to unwarranted skepticism and fear. There is a reason a consensus exists. The burden or proof should lie on the contrarian.

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