The Danger of Practicing Science Without Morality

Where do you draw the line between good science and bad ideas?

Photo: Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash

When I started pursuing a career in science writing as a freshman in college, I believed science was always authoritative. At the time, I did not understand that science is always changing. Studies can be retracted, theories can be replaced, and knowledge builds on knowledge. I took scientists’ conclusions like the fundamentalism I grew up with takes the word of the Bible: literal, unchanging, written in stone.

Science, for a short while, replaced religion in my life, holding all the correct answers as scientists passed interpretations to the public like priests. But as I studied science in school and reviewed nonfiction books about it for my blog, I started to notice faults. The solid foundation upon which I was building my adult life began to reveal its fractures.

It was then I realized that the very same flaws that led me to leave organized religion — patriarchal authority, injustice, power imbalances, and prejudiced interpretations of evidence — affected science as well. Only this time, I wasn’t interested in leaving. I stayed with the intention of learning what constitutes good science, how science has been misused by men and abused by religion from history to today, and how it can be improved for the benefit of everyone.

Science is always changing because it is “shaped by the time and the place it is carried out in,” writes Angela Saini in her book Superior: The Return of Race Science. “And ultimately it is at the mercy of the personal political beliefs of those carrying it out.” The Nazi scientists who enabled and conducted atrocities she continues, “may have even produced good science, if goodness is measured in data and not human life.”

I took scientists’ conclusions the same way the fundamentalism I grew up with takes the word of the Bible: literal, unchanging, written in stone.

Science, after all, is just a tool, and tools function for their user’s purpose — however right or wrong that purpose may be. Carl Sagan once said that science is less a body of knowledge and more “a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.”

Speaking of human fallibility, I enjoy a Twitter account called @evopsychgoogle that shares studies with questionable objectives and conclusions. The anonymous person behind the account uses it to mock these studies, but the fact that the research is real and published in professional scientific journals is unsettling.

My first thought when I read these studies was how did they even secure funding for this bullshit? My second thought: Peer review should have prevented this.

Recently, the account incited the internet’s righteous anger toward a study evaluating the attractiveness of women suffering from endometriosis. Its conclusion? Women with the most severe endometriosis “had a leaner silhouette, larger breasts, and an earlier coitarche [first sexual intercourse].” Although @evopsychgoogle may have made the study viral enough that media outlets started writing about it in 2019, it was OB-GYN Dr. Jen Gunter who wrote a scathing takedown of the study when it first appeared in September 2012.

Published in Fertility and Sterility, a journal by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the objective of “Attractiveness of women with rectovaginal endometriosis: a case-control study” was to measure physical attractiveness in women with endometriosis versus women without. “I fail to understand how a small group of Italian doctors rating attractiveness of women with different stages of endometriosis contributes anything to medical science,” Gunter wrote at the time. “Objectifying women has no place in medicine. It is even more horrifying that such a publication comes from a department on OB/GYN.”

It would be fair to say the endometriosis study contributes nothing to the health and well-being of women with endometriosis. Therefore, it’s not only unnecessary, but its objective is also demeaning. Therein lies the problem: Not all science directly contributes to making lives better, but where do we draw the line between science that isn’t necessarily helpful and science that should not be done at all?

This is the conundrum scientists in the 21st century find themselves in. With extraordinary technology and extensive resources at their fingertips, it seems there is no hypothesis not worth pursuing. In this Wild West of research, I believe we must consider drawing the line between good science and bad ideas in order to prevent infringing on human rights and dignity. Science without morality becomes a weapon for inflicting wrongs.

Accounts like @evopsychogoogle may be calling out terrible studies to mock and draw attention to them, but the fact that there is so much material to be shared is disturbing. It’s a problem the science community needs to address and journal publishers need to start taking seriously.

Consider the selection of study headlines below. The topic of race and IQ is a popular and controversial one. In a desperate attempt to explain socioeconomic inequality, some scientists have suggested a possible answer is simply that despite the fact that race has no biological basis, maybe races have differences in cognitive abilities. It’s an empty age-old argument that’s also been applied to the sexes to justify the gender gap in STEM: What if white men are actually just smarter than everyone else? In a word: superior.

One of the definitions of the word “moral” is “holding or manifesting high principles for proper conduct.” Wouldn’t we want all science to fall under this category? Shouldn’t scientists aspire to be moral?

The way I think about it is this: Science is not apolitical. It is affected by the prejudices of those who practice it. Science is something people do, and people are prone to mistakes — and the science that seeks to prove the superiority or inferiority of certain groups of people is full of the mistakes and prejudices of those who practice it. These prejudices become especially harmful when science is used as a tool to justify them.

Science should not be a weapon for those with problematic ideologies to inflict their beliefs on others. It should not be used to carelessly condemn one group of people as less than another group. It should not be used to cause pain or bring harm to innocent lives or to measure the worth of some people over others. And it should never be manipulated to support the politics of those who practice it.

Science without consideration for morality is a slippery slope.

We must do our best to hold science to a higher standard than ourselves. That is why I believe it is necessary for science to be moral — because a moral compass will help us find the line between good science and bad ideas. “The moral challenge posed for us by modern science is that our scientific tools simply give us raw power,” Yuval Levin writes in the journal The New Atlantis, “and it is up to us to determine the right ways to use that power and to proscribe the wrong ways.”

We must “judge modern science not only by its material products but also, and more so, by its intentions and its influence upon the way humanity has come to think,” he continues.

Then let us judge science today by its intentions. We have to be willing to ask ourselves hard questions: Is this hypothesis racist? Sexist? If so, will pursuing it truly enlighten us or provide valuable knowledge? We have already witnessed how prejudices led to the weak case for a “biological basis” for the supposed inferiority of certain groups — shoddy science conducted by European males in the 18th century to pamper their egos.

Can a hypothesis based on a prejudice ever make for good science? Even if the research can be properly conducted, does that make it worth pursuing? Science without consideration for morality is a slippery slope. We need to consider where this slope might lead society.

I don’t have answers to these difficult questions about science and ethics, but I do think we need to be willing to ask them. If we are not constantly checking in with ourselves, we might discover we have become complicit with immoral intentions.

Author’s note: This article is part of my new series, “Illuminations,” in which I aim to shed light on problematic issues in science and consider potential solutions.

Nonfiction writer wrangling words and horses in the Pacific Northwest | she/they

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store