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How's this for a moral principle to guide scientists?


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Initial post: Jul 25, 2012 11:01:08 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
In The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, working physicist Brian Greene said:

"...something akin to a physicists' Hippocratic Oath impels researchers to maintain a deep and healthy skepticism of the apparent truths of human experience and, with the same skeptical attitude, diligently follow the math and see where it leads."

A right-brain version of this might be found in the joke
"How many Zen Buddhist monks does it take to change a light bulb?"
Answer:
"Two. One to change the bulb. And one to not change the bulb."

A true understanding of scientific method requires us to be willing to abandon ideas we may have spent decades championing, while at the same time realizing that most scientific advancement builds on top of past discoveries, rarely just replacing them.

Thus Newtonian mechanics still work and always will, despite the existence of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics--all three are almost certainly perfectly compatible, though we haven't proven just how just yet.

Many laymen simply don't understand this. They don't get how most science builds on previous science; how aggressively closed-minded good scientists are towards new ideas that don't seem well-founded, especially if they're just revisiting settled issues, while simultaneously approaching new ideas that are both new and scientifically supportable with wide-eyed innocence AND simultaneous cheerful skepticism.

Thus climate scientists will eagerly explore new theories of climate change that comport with existing understandings, skeptically investigate ones that challenge existing understandings but which appear to have solid math and observational underpinnings, while summarily dismissing magical thinking--particularly when that magical thinking is advanced by people who stand to gain materially or psychologically from such advancement.

Thus when scientists funded by tobacco companies offered non-peer-reviewed "research" "proving" that cigarettes were safe, the scientific community treated them with the contempt they richly deserved--the community wasn't "open minded" about their self-serving claptrap at all.

Science is a mosh pit and a civilized debating society at the same time.
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Posted on Jul 25, 2012 2:34:18 PM PDT
?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2012 3:09:07 PM PDT
Ehkzu says:
A Higgs boson tries to enter a Catholic church. The priest stops it, saying "We don't want your kind here."

The Higgs says "You should. Without us you couldn't have Mass."

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2012 4:41:57 PM PDT
tom kriske says:
what, precisely, is the moral principle? if it's to seek the truth, through observation, experimentation and corroboration - sounds great, sign me up! oops, i actually signed up 30 years ago.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2012 5:44:19 PM PDT
Ehkzu says:
That's abut the size of it--with a big dose of the humility that so many lack when it comes to our attitude towards knowledge.

That is, we must constantly remind ourselves that hope--and fear, and anger etc.--clouds observation. People with scientific understanding are constantly on guard about this, knowing how the human mind contains heuristics that skew our worldview for reasons that are evolutionarily valid but nonetheless false to reality.

What we're up against are people who are totally credulous about things they want to believe and totally incredulous about things they don't want to believe. It's childish and self-indulgent, but many stay like this all their lives. Scientists and their allies have more spine, IMO.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2012 9:15:20 PM PDT
Re OP: I like this -- but it is lacking a key ingredient: statement of an actual moral principle. Now if your thesis is that it is morally sound to investigate situations which might shed light on something, while eschewing propositions that have been proven wrong or cannot be tested, then I am on board -- enthusiastically.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 12:31:34 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2012 12:32:50 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
How's this:

Pragmatism applies scientific knowledge and tools to human problems/opportunities/issues. It proposes our moral choices should reflect reality, not necessarily abstract principles, which are frequently misapplied when they ignore context.

Thus you shouldn't kill your children. Fine. But if it's the 18th century and you're crossing the Atlantic on an emigrant ship and your darling son comes down with a contagious disease that will kill everyone on board before you can reach any port, the kid has to go over the side. That's the only actually moral choice--especially since in the situation the kid is doomed anyway. If you have no other children and no spouse, a moral option would be to jump over the side with the child and die together.

Applying science to agonizing moral choices like this helps us overcome the brain heuristics that lead us to misinterpret reality. People make decisions with their hearts that often have terrible consequences. Scientific thought helps us do the right thing even when our instincts tell us to do otherwise.

Science also helps those of us who are free of religious beliefs to build a moral framework for our lives, taking as the starting point the fact that human nature does not allow happy putzes to exist. A modicum of altruism makes us happiest, so even if personal happiness is one's only goal, that cannot be achieved without being embedded in society constructively. See The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 4:33:59 AM PDT
Re Ehkzu, above: A step in the right direction. But the situation isn't simple. I suggest:
Sandel, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 5:18:00 AM PDT
REJN says:
Ehkzu said:
"Thus you shouldn't kill your children. Fine. But if it's the 18th century and you're crossing the Atlantic on an emigrant ship and your darling son comes down with a contagious disease that will kill everyone on board before you can reach any port, the kid has to go over the side. That's the only actually moral choice--especially since in the situation the kid is doomed anyway. If you have no other children and no spouse, a moral option would be to jump over the side with the child and die together."
******
Ehk, you should be a salesman. If this doesn't sway people to the pragmatic/scientific view, I don't know what will.
How about putting your son on the downwind side of the boat and hoping he lives?

Posted on Jul 26, 2012 9:01:27 AM PDT
Brian Curtis says:
Moral principles are trickier than they appear. They depend on what underlying priorities are at work, how they rank against competing priorities, and what type of culture you live in (individualist vs. group-oriented, for example).

It's never as simple as "whatever does the least harm."

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 9:06:45 AM PDT
As Richard Feynman said: "the most important thing is not to fool yourself".

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 9:22:29 AM PDT
M. Helsdon says:
"Thus you shouldn't kill your children. Fine. But if it's the 18th century and you're crossing the Atlantic on an emigrant ship and your darling son comes down with a contagious disease that will kill everyone on board before you can reach any port, the kid has to go over the side. That's the only actually moral choice--especially since in the situation the kid is doomed anyway. If you have no other children and no spouse, a moral option would be to jump over the side with the child and die together."

Flawed example. Your child "comes down with a contagious disease" within an isolated population "on an emigrant ship", which indicates, unless they are the only carrier, they caught it from someone else aboard, and your child is just the first among many about to go down with the disease. Killing your child is thus immoral and ineffective; you might best isolate him and everyone he's had close contact with and warn everyone else aboard to watch out for symptoms and set up the means of reducing interpersonal contact.

Long before the 18th century, people were already putting moral strategies in place to deal with such events. An example would be the plague village of Eyam, where, on the onset of the plague the people turned to their local rectors who implemented policies to reduce the spread of the contagion within the village and to quarantine the entire village. Contact actually seemed to have little effect on outcome; the local gravedigger who had contact with numerous bodies, survived.

Your moral choice will result in the ship carrying the disease to its intended destination.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 9:22:50 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
re: the solution isn't simple

You bet. I'm arguing against the folk who think the solution is always simple, who fill Amazon's science forum with their certainties, who are swayed in politics by bumper sticker solutions to complex problems.

I'd posit that there is always a most right (or least awful) thing to do in any situation, but no moral text can tell you what that exact thing is, because context counts so much.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 9:28:23 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2012 10:03:41 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
re: making the kid walk the plank

No doubt you're joshing but I can't read expressions in messages here. So I'll play the straight man and say this sort of moral conundrum isn't designed to be dissected in hopes of finding a solution that sidesteps the moral issue, but to provide some kind of sample situation to let us explore moral conundrums where every single potential choice you could make is horrible.

So as long as we agree that such situations exist and aren't all that uncommon, we should agree to take this kind of problem at face value and focus on the moral angle instead of the problem-solving one where we vie to see who can provide the most McGuyerish trick to get us out of the jam.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 9:41:19 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
re: tricky moral principles

Absolutely. I hope I didn't seem to be saying Science Solves All Toot Sweet.

What is does do is let us first examine our "priority stack" for congruence with reality, and second, given that priority stack, to try to effect it most logically.

For example, say you believe it's important to prevent teenage pregnancy. Is that important? Well, you can examine the proposition scientifically.When is a female physiologically prepared for childbirth? Under what conditions? What is the age window for maximum reproductive/childrearing success? Stuff like that, to ensure that our moral propositions are cleansed of magical thinking.

Then, assuming we agree that teenage pregnancy should be averted, we can examine whether abstinence-only education works or whether conventional sex ed works better or worse, both from statistical studies and by closer examination of both paths' particularites. In this case scientific research has shown that abstinence-only education does delay the onset of sexual activity more than regular sex ed does--but by the time both cohorts are 18, the abstinence-only cohort has had more babies.

You can decide whether it's more important to delay sexual activity or to reduce teen pregnancies. Science can tell you what most helps you achieve whichever you personally prioritize.

I should add that if someone has a pure antecedent ethic, science can't help with moral decisions--only if the consequences of your moral decisions matter to you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 9:55:36 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2012 10:04:14 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
re: fooling yourself

Ah, Feynman. Sorely missed. He deserved more longevity than he got.

To his bon mot I'd add that the Sufis say, I've heard, that there's only one sin when all is said and done: heedlessness.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 10:02:51 AM PDT
Ehkzu says:
re: wrong conundrum

As I said before I didn't submit it as a real-world issue, really. Just to highlight the fact that sometimes we face moral decisions in which all alternatives violate our fundamental moral principles. I'm not really trying to optimize 18th century sea travel issues.

As for your example, you can't say that contact didn't affect outcome unless everyone had exactly the same level of resistance to the disease. Perhaps the gravedigger's immune system was more robust than that of many other villagers.

But the Plague offers a good example of where a scientific approach would have improved moral outcomes, because as I recall, around Europe many? most? decided that the Black Death was being transmitted by cats, since everyone knew that cats were the familiars of witches, so they killed all the cats.

Which eliminated 90%+ of the only thing that was keeping the rat population under control, whose fleas were the vectors of the disease.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 10:39:57 AM PDT
M. Helsdon says:
"Just to highlight the fact that sometimes we face moral decisions in which all alternatives violate our fundamental moral principles."

It was a flawed and unrealistic example.

"But the Plague offers a good example of where a scientific approach would have improved moral outcomes, because as I recall, around Europe many? most? decided that the Black Death was being transmitted by cats, since everyone knew that cats were the familiars of witches, so they killed all the cats."

Which is complicated by the fact that cats (and dogs) could carry the fleas which were a major vector. People simply weren't aware of basic sanitation and the nature of disease transmission.

The problem is that until there's a suitable model for scientific research, and a body to support it, superstition was/is the primary means of transmitting memes intended to ensure survival, a mixture of observation and insanity.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 11:31:44 AM PDT
Good motto.

Posted on Jul 26, 2012 2:29:03 PM PDT
Scott Woods says:
I am an engineer (and have a scientific predilection) and have looked for a moral principle to guide me beyond the scientific basis of looking for (the) truth & realizing that lying never advances that - what I have come up with is "do not harm others & harm is only justifiable in self defense". There are obvious questions of definition such as what is harm (I use forcing or getting some one to do something they wouldn't do if they had all the facts) but in application I also expect it to not only apply to me but to apply to everyone else as well...

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 26, 2012 3:06:00 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2012 3:07:06 PM PDT
Ehkzu says:
Scott, I was raised Episcopalian but as soon as my brains gelled in my teens I became an atheist and assumed, like that Doestoevsky hero, that without God "all things are possible." So I acted on that. Then I discovered that human nature is not all that pliable. All things are not possible. We're hardwired to a remarkable extent. People frustrate that hard wiring every day--but in my experience they pay a steep price for doing so, as I did.

So now I'm not just seeking to avoid harming others, but to give off some light, to quote Blake. Everything we do spreads ripples. For example, on a commuter train I once had an opportunity to get off before the conductor could reach my seat and collect my fare. So I sought him out and paid the fare when I could have avoided it easily. The conductor was impressed, and so was another passenger who observed the transaction. I will never see either person again, so doing the right thing did nothing for me directly. But I could see how doing it spread, to a tiny degree, a little more light in the world. And that was worth more to me than the fare I would have saved.

My ex-wife would assure you that I couldn't work off my karma in this life even if I turned into Mother Teresa at this point. But on a moment by moment basis I get more pleasure from trying to be a halfway decent person than by being a putz.

But there's a wrinkle to this. I'm not you, I'm me. Each of us has particular ways we can contribute, and those ways are what will give you the most pleasure. Mine is to push people--bit of a Loki I fear. Others is to bring comfort. Some should join the Peace Corps. Others should start a corporation with the motto "Don't be evil." There's no one path, because humans differ so much.

Science comes in to help make sure we aren't deluding ourselves anywhere along the way, as Arpad pointed out in his Feynman quote. Even when you decide to be helpful in some way, it's sooo easy to imagine you're helping when you actually aren't. Or to be helpful but in a way that's not as authentic as another way.

Deciding to not harm others is the right start, but you still have to figure out what will uniquely express your particular ability to contribute.

Heck, just writing clean code that hardly needs documentation can be a wonderful gift to humanity!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 27, 2012 3:05:24 AM PDT
TN says:
But money often gets in the way on the road to truth.
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Discussion in:  Science forum
Participants:  10
Total posts:  22
Initial post:  Jul 25, 2012
Latest post:  Jul 27, 2012

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