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
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
Responsible communication: listening and informing
Seek to discuss the issues that science raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of
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
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