Scientific rigour, respect and responsibility and autism

I nominate this for the annual “Teaching Granny to Suck Eggs award.”

Rigour, respect and responsibility: A universal ethical code for scientists

Rigour, honesty and integrity

    Act with skill and care in all scientific work. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development
    in others.
    Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest.
    Be alert to the ways in which research derives from and affects the work of other people, and
    respect the rights and reputations of others.

Respect for life, the law and the public good

Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.
Minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural
environment.

Responsible communication: listening and informing

Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of
others.
Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about scientific matters. Present and
review scientific evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately.

This piece of guff is published by the British Government. Scientists are supposed to sign up to this in order to restore public confidence in science. Chief scientific advisor to the government, Sir David King has been promoting the code in a series of articles in the Guardian. To be honest, if I was a scientist my first reaction would be to feel insulted by such patronising nonsense. My second reaction would be profound disappointment.

This is our government’s response to growing public mistrust in science. There is a common perception that scientists have sold themselves to the big corporations and to government. So the government response is to ask to scientists to promise not to do all the things that they are wrongly accused of. It is akin to the no win situation where a man is asked, “When did you stop beating your wife.” Scientists are assumed to have a case to answer.  The onus is on them to reassure the public by signing up to a code which can be summed up as, “I promise to be good from now on.”

It would be a lot better to actively defend science and point to the undoubted benefits it has brought. My favourite website at the moment is Sense About Science. This is not a government department. It is a charitable trust.

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.

If the government really wants to raise scientific awareness and understanding it could do worse than reprint this year’s annual lecture from Sense About Science, a spirited defense of science by Professor Richard Tallis, and post a copy to every household in the country.

Meanwhile, the people who really ought to sign up to the government’s ethical pledge are the same quacks and alternative practitioners who are cashing in on the public mistrust of real science and selling them pseudo-science. As Professor Tallis puts it, the problem is

why scientific expertise and science itself is regarded with suspicion; and why nonsense about science and nonsense passing itself off as science seems to be having such an easy time of it.

So let us apply the government’s ethical code not to science, but to those who are selling alternatives to science like ARI/DAN! the Autism Treatment Trust and the rest of the alternative autism treatment industry. How would they cope with this?

Scientists and institutions are encouraged to reflect on and debate how these guidelines may relate to
their own work. For example, acting with rigour, honesty and integrity may include: not committing
plagiarism or condoning acts of plagiarism by others; ensuring that work is peer reviewed before it is
disseminated; reviewing the work of others fairly; ensuring that primary data that may be needed to
allow others to audit, repeat or build on work, are secured and stored. Similarly, in communicating
responsibly, scientists need to make clear the assumptions, qualifications or caveats underpinning their
arguments.

For some intelligent, exciting writing about science and autism please visit these blogs:

http://autismdiva.blogspot.com/2007/03/down-time-or-what-red-queen-needs.html

http://photoninthedarkness.blogspot.com/2007/03/tale-of-two-studies.html

http://photoninthedarkness.blogspot.com/2007/03/tale-of-two-studies-part-second.html

http://www.autismstreet.org/weblog/?p=108

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9 thoughts on “Scientific rigour, respect and responsibility and autism

  1. An excellent post [as always] but it really won’t do at all. I’ve used that ‘title’ phrase on more than one occasion and it simply doesn’t translate over here! For future reference, neither does ‘chalk and cheese.’
    Best wishes

  2. Mike, this was a very good article.

    I completely agree, science has no need to hang it’s head. The discoveries have been life extending and enriching. The quacks have brought ridicule to the medical and scientific communities. Newspaper reporters are debating the causes of autism; next the paparazzi will be selling cures on the street corners. The attempted MMR trial in the UK had to be very embarrassing as well as costly but that was a failure on the part of the government to control the purse strings with some snake oil salesmen.

    There are real men and women of science, they work diligently and deserve our support.
    At a time when Polio was killing and crippling children, Dr. Jonas Salk went about the business of finding a way to prevent it, not cure it. He worked for eight years and finally found a vaccine to prevent it. Interestingly, he refused to patent his vaccine; he gave it to any drug company that wanted it so that more people could be spared from Polio. He is dead now, but others are taking his place. They have equal fervor and equipment that Dr. Salk could not even imagine.

    I wonder what he thinks of people refusing his vaccine knowing that every human body has all of the components necessary for a severe case of Polio; without any outside infection.

  3. Thank you for linking to the Diva Blog. Autism Diva wishes she had more time to write more about good science.

  4. Nice piece Mike. Its a shame that it has come to this. Maybe though, this ‘ethical code’ will make people think ‘hey, isn’t this what’s already in place’? and start to dig for themselves.

  5. No field is without a few who would be dishonest. And science is no different. But they are few, and scientists (thru peer review, repeating other’s experiments, etc.) actively seek out those who would pervert their findings for the sake of profit.

    The bulk of scientific findings are totally valid. And it would be refreshing if those things that are quackery were subjected to the same type of peer review and critical analysis as mainstream science is.

    What’s lacking in society is scientific knowledge, and the ability to read a scientific paper critically. Both of these lead to garbage science being accepted as equivalent to valid findings.

  6. McEwan,
    I agree. Integrity and autism research? Chalk and cheese indeed!

    Another Voice
    Thank you. But surely you apreciate that Jonas Salk was even more heinous than those who sold themselves to big pharma. He gave himself to Big Pharma. That is not the American way!

    Diva
    it is always a pleasure to link to your blog.

    Kev
    I hope you are right. I think this is another government “spin” exercise that will weaken science.

    Club 166
    What’s lacking in society is scientific knowledge, and the ability to read a scientific paper critically. Both of these lead to garbage science being accepted as equivalent to valid findings.

    I agree. Science journalists deserve a lot of blame for this – reporting pilot studies as “breakthroughs” and failing to educate the public.
    Orac and Ben Goldacre both have excellent blogs that attempt to correct the imbalance

  7. There are many wonderful researchers working in the field of autism, whose work is constantly devalued by the money merchants ruining it. It is sad but true that the rising incidences of autism will push the appeal up for the big companies to make a buck.

  8. ‘Ensure that your work is lawful and justified.’

    I doubt many of our over-worked underfunded scitentist have really boned up on the implications of the Discrimination Act on their work including people who write such guff …

    AL
    (p.s. you might find http://autismlaw.blogspot.com/ interesting …)

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