It’s a reasonable claim that our generation is an often skeptical generation. We’re commonly skeptical of the motives, intentions, and integrity of people and institutions; especially ‘big’ institutions. Big business, big firms, big advertising, big agriculture, big media, big government. I think there’s probably some good and some bad in this. I think approaching things with a healthy skepticism is beneficial, as far as simply acknowledging the selfishness and brokenness of people generally. At the same time, an overly cynical view leaves hope in the gutter and fails to see that good can be accomplished both by individuals and institutions.
Politicians, lawyers, business people – these seem to be easy targets. It’s not uncommon to find scandal, frivolity, and exploitive behavior in these groups, and like they say, one bad apple can spoil the bunch – so even if the vast majority of these people are honest and fair, the perception of fraud will stubbornly remain in the mind of the people. It is of course not the case that all politicians, lawyers, and business people are greedy or corrupt, but we have seen enough instances of failure to be skeptical of these types. And it seems that with so many instances, the skepticism has an appropriate role to play. Other times perhaps, maybe we need to hold out a little more hope. Either way, it is not my intention here to parse out the positives and negatives of skepticism in a comprehensive sense.
My present concern is that we seem confused and spotty in who we are skeptical of. We seem to not be equal opportunity skeptics, if you will, and my purpose would be to question whether or not we’ve been wise in who we have exempted from our skepticism.
As we’ve doled out our skepticism, it seems to me that the science-oriented realm in particular has not received its fair share. When I say science-oriented, I mainly have in mind the fields of medicine, biomedical engineering, and scientific research generally.
I’ll admit it up front: I’m anti-science.
I want to posit that people too often view the scientific field as one that’s above reproach. We seem to have an idea that the people in these fields of medicine and bio-medical engineering are so smart, well-educated, and specialized that we really have no ground on which to skeptically stand. And beyond that, we need these people. We so badly need them to keep us healthy, diagnose us, and find new cures. They seem in a sense to be miracle-workers, and they have miracles that we want. We feel that we have to trust them to provide the best answers to life’s pains and questions.
I’d like to provide an example of how I see as a misplaced trust working itself out. When I was recently involved with the Virginia legislature, there were laws proposed on everything you can imagine, and then some. The proposed laws touched every facet of our society, from banking, to education, to finance, to business, to law practice, to elections, to the environmental, to the agricultural, to transportation, to criminal justice, and yes, even to medicine and scientific research. What is telling in this example is not how many many laws were proposed for so many fields, but it is the reactions that the laws got from other lawmakers and observers. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the proposed measures, everyone basically concurs that an elected legislature has standing to make laws and regulate banking, education, finance, business, law practice, elections, the environmental, the agricultural, transportation, criminal justice, etc. But the reactions to the laws that sought to regulate medical practice and/or scientific research elicited a wholly different type of reaction. It is generally one of disbelief and disdain. The reactions reveal a thinking that says general society cannot speak into the medical and scientific fields because these people are professionals, experts to be trusted. Lawmakers would stand up and make grandiose proclamations, such as “Who are we to tell doctors what or what not to do?” or “What arrogance that we think we as a legislature can regulate purely scientific research!” or “How many of us are doctors? We can’t get into this field!” This is interesting; mainly because none of those questions were asked or seemed to apply when legislation was considered that related to the myriad of other fields. And in the regulation of the other fields, most of the people voting had not been a professional in those fields. There was a singularly unique exemption from scrutiny for the medical and scientific fields. Most attempts to regulate or monitor were met with charges of “arrogance” or “anti-science.” It seems as though the medical and scientific fields were exempted from regulation because they are so often exempted from skepticism.
Don’t misunderstand here if I’ve been unclear. I’m not making a case for the maximum regulations in every field, and certainly not in the scientific or medical field. I’m simply pointing out one instance I’ve experienced where one type of field is mostly exempted from regulation because of the notion that we should have inherent trust in those working in that field.
This would lead us to ask why we’ve exempted science and medicine from our skepticism. One possible reason why is that unlike most other fields, medicine seems to be a very private thing. Doctor/patient relationships are a confidential thing, and people understandably often want privacy when it comes to medical conditions and consultations. Scientific research is also something that’s rarely out in the open – it’s more often something that the general public is not wholly tuned into. Because of these factors, the public corruption and mal-intent we often see in more public fields is missing when is comes to the medical and scientific field. If the public doesn’t see instances of failed integrity, then it follows that we wouldn’t be very skeptical. It’s also wisely been pointed out to me that in the medical field, there is a decent amount of accountability, from associations that self-regulate to the legal field which seems to always be watching the medical field. Those practicing in the medical field have often chosen this work as a profession of service, which is something that should be taken into consideration.
In addition to the privacy factor, our thinking is also influenced by the negative and shameful examples that we’ve seen in the past. There are copious examples of scientists and doctors wrongly persecuted or shamed because of their research and innovation. From Galileo to Isaac Newton, we’ve seen the Church and other societal institutions excoriate those in the scientific realm, and often wrongly so. This history teaches us to feel uneasy when people question the motivations or findings of scientists, and rightly so.
But I feel that it’s important to remember that those in the field of medicine or scientific research are no more angelic than the business person or the politician. If we believe that all people have the potential to act on ill motive and become corrupt, than we need to remember to consider people in all fields through this lens. Science is not a purely objective pursuit. Everyone has desires and motivations, and it’s near impossible for anyone to separate those from their work. The assumptions one begins with and the questions asked along the way matter, and they can bias methods and outcomes. Science is deeply inter-connected with business and academia, which can pressure for certain outcomes. Science and medicine are not stand-alone, impervious silos. Money and recognition exist as temptations.
Painful as it is, it’s necessary to recall that the medical field has been involved in some horrific things in the past. Most modern wars, notably WWII, involve stories of doctors experimenting on humans or using their skills in nightmarish ways. In The Nazi Doctors, Robert Jay Lifton establishes that the “medicalization” of the Nazi policies were a vital step in insulating them from criticism. It seems then to be a running theme through history, that people are slow to be skeptical of science and medicine.
I’m of course not going after doctors or scientists wholesale, in fact I have many friends and family members in the field. I just want to point out that nothing about their work would make them less capable of misconduct or perversion than the cheating banker or seedy lawyer.
Because medical professionals deal very directly with human lives, often at fragile times, it’s only sensible that this would be a field to be closely watched and monitored by the laws and ethics of a society. Not for the sake of being big brother or intimidation, but because the work is so important and deals so directly with valuable human life. As science and technology continue to press on, we’ll continue to face the age old question: Does simply our capability to do something mean that we ought to do something? Because many say yes, even if they say it quietly, we must be exceedingly careful. To insist that we must do things just because we are able is to misunderstand the idea of progress. Progress is wrongly understood if we consider it as doing whatever our knowledge and technology allow; true progress is progressing or moving toward ways of life that promote human flourishing, in all aspects.
It’s important that we recognize the legitimacy of non-scientists and non-doctors speaking into the scientific and medical field. Historians, ethicists, writers, etc. should all be considered valid voices when speaking to the serious issues that arise within the scientific/medical field. (I don’t mean the factual issues, but the ethical issues) It’s healthy for informed non-specialists to speak into the field and raise questions often lost in the detailed considerations of specialized bioethics. 1
The scientific potential is rapidly expanding and will become increasingly ethically complicated, particularly in the areas of human reproductive techniques, genetic testing, and cloning. These scientific actors will be dealing with the very genetic makeup of human beings – they will have the potential to literally alter who people are. In this lies extraordinary, almost unfathomable power. This does not mean we should cease to discover new things, but it does mean that we ought to be meticulously careful when we consider how to apply what we learn. It is just too dangerous to consider those involved in this field as above reproach. We have to responsibly and thoughtfully put our oar in, with public discourse and legal regulation.
Finally, along with the need for appropriate skepticism and caution, I suspect that a final primary reason we have such a hard time being skeptical of the scientific field is because we have become a people that associate not only our knowledge with scientific discovery and theory, but even our philosophy and theology. Isn’t there an analogy to be made between how society treats those who question the direction in which some science is taking us or who say that ‘we shouldn’t do something medical just because we can’ and how the medieval church treated some of those who stepped up to oppose certain theological stands? We fear the questioning of the scientific field because they are supposed to have all the answers, right? If they are wrong, where are we to turn? They are the trustworthy experts, above reproach, who give us the tenants of the new faith: naturalistic scientific materialism. We have placed so much faith and hope in the ability of scientific research to answer our many big questions that we fear the questioning of it, because it could tear down what we’ve built up. It’s an interesting case of faith getting in the way of progress.