Just Thinking about Science Triggers Moral Behavior

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Public opinion towards science has made headlines over the past several years for a variety of reasons — mostly negative. High profile cases of academic dishonesty and disputes over funding have left many questioning the integrity and societal value of basic science, while accusations of politically motivated research fly from left and right. There is little doubt that science is value-laden. Allegiances to theories and ideologies can skew the kinds of hypotheses tested and the methods used to test them. These, however, are errors in the application of the method, not the method itself. In other words, it’s possible that public opinion towards science more generally might be relatively unaffected by the misdeeds and biases of individual scientists.  In fact, given the undeniable benefits scientific progress yielded, associations with the process of scientific inquiry may be quite positive.


Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara set out to test this possibility. They hypothesized that there is a deep-seated perception of science as a moral pursuit — its emphasis on truth-seeking, impartiality and rationality privileges collective well-being above all else. Their new study, published in the journal PLOSOne, argues that the association between science and morality is so ingrained that merely thinking about it can trigger more moral behavior.

The researchers conducted four separate studies to test this. The first sought to establish a simple correlation between the degree to which individuals believed in science and their likelihood of enforcing moral norms when presented with a hypothetical violation. Participants read a vignette of a date-rape and were asked to rate the “wrongness” of the offense before answering a questionnaire measuring their belief in science. Indeed, those reporting greater belief in science condemned the act more harshly.

Written By: Piercarlo Valdesolo
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

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  1. “Participants read a vignette of a date-rape and were asked to rate the “wrongness” of the offense before answering a questionnaire measuring their belief in science.”

    Sadly, I think many of we epistemophiles might score ourselves zero for a “belief in science”.

    In other news…..It might be timely to repeat this test with a questionnaire measuring a person’s confidence in the utility of a skeptical world view.

    • In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

      I liked your comment, but I have to wonder, did you mean skeptical of the existence of “date rape”?

      If not, I apologise profusely for the insinuation and double-like your comment

      • In reply to #3 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #2 by phil rimmer:

        I liked your comment, but I have to wonder, did you mean skeptical of the existence of “date rape”?

        Oops! No!!! My bad. I was making an oblique reference to a recent accusation of same within the “skeptical community”. If it is still “oblique” it might be best for it to remain that way….

  2. A very good tip off to this is how woo merchants and other species of liars spare expense nor effort to rent or buy scientists and/or wrap themselves in a sciency sounding cloak in order to lend legitimacy to their specious claims. Whether it’s the tobacco industry, the Templeton Foundation, the Discovery Institute, the petroleum industry and their wholly owned climate change denying politicians, Deepak “quantum” Chopra or even just individuals quote mining A. Einstein for some of his less fortunate deistic/theistic sounding references to cling to. They all know damn well what and who the final gatekeepers of keepin’ it real are in the perception of the general public (beyond the bible belt).

  3. Scientific methodology is about matching perceptions to reality as accurately as possible. Those who fail will have their work refuted sooner or later, while those who dishonestly misrepresent their results will be exposed.
    There is a moral code involved, which “Liars for Jebus”, or conspiracy theorists, are not likely to understand!

    @OP – Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara set out to test this possibility. They hypothesized that there is a deep-seated perception of science as a moral pursuit

    — its emphasis on truth-seeking, impartiality and rationality privileges collective well-being above all else.

    I am not so sure that this can be applied to social norms of particular cultures.

  4. I find this bizarre, to be honest, and I’m not sure I agree with the interpretation of the finding. Scientific methodology is amoral, when you get down to it. Nothing about the law of parsimony or knowledge of statistical analysis makes one a nicer person. A psychopath is just as capable of running an experiment as anyone else, surely?

    • In reply to #12 by Zeuglodon:

      I find this bizarre, to be honest, and I’m not sure I agree with the interpretation of the finding. Scientific methodology is amoral, when you get down to it.

      I think honesty and integrity are moral virtues, what is amoral about science?

      Nothing about the law of parsimony or knowledge of statistical analysis makes one a nicer person.

      It’s really quite dangerous to confuse niceness with morality. I find it safer to distrust those who are nice to me for no apparent reason.

      A psychopath is just as capable of running an experiment as anyone else, surely?

      But would you trust his results?

  5. I think honesty and integrity are moral virtues, what is amoral about science?

    I mean that science is a method for obtaining useful information with the least complication (e.g. from prejudice, sloppy methodology, etc.). It isn’t a guideline for ethical behaviour – that’s what secular humanism is for – and people use the information to serve various ends, including nefarious ones. I’m not disputing that someone who cares about doing science must have some respect towards truth, rationality, and fairness, but that doesn’t mean science itself promotes committing towards those values, much less promotes general moral behaviour. Science isn’t designed to tell you what to do with scientific knowledge.

    It’s really quite dangerous to confuse niceness with morality. I find it safer to distrust those who are nice to me for no apparent reason.

    I meant “nice” in the sense of being moral or good.

    But would you trust his results?

    The answer is the same for non-psychopaths: not if I had reason to believe they were distorting the results, say due to personal interest. Psychopaths can lie, and do it more easily than others, but that doesn’t mean they always lie. Let’s not fall into the genetic fallacy here. By the same token, many non-psychopaths can still fall into error or produce unscientific results, and that’s my point. Both psychopaths and non-psychopaths can perform science and then distort it due to personal interest, but it’s the interests that are pertinent, not the ethical behaviour of the participants. Case in point is the Manhattan Project: scientists worked hard to produce a WMD, and many of them lived with the regret after the fact because they disputed its morality. That had nothing to do with the science of nuclear physics and everything to do with what they did with it.

    • In reply to #14 by Zeuglodon:

      I mean that science is a method for obtaining useful information with the least complication (e.g. from prejudice, sloppy methodology, etc.). It isn’t a guideline for ethical behaviour – that’s what secular humanism is for – and people use the information to serve various ends, including nefarious ones. I’m not disputing that someone who cares about doing science must have some respect towards truth, rationality, and fairness, but that doesn’t mean science itself promotes committing towards those values, much less promotes general moral behaviour. Science isn’t designed to tell you what to do with scientific knowledge.

      I fail to see the distinction between a method and a behaviour. I agree that the findings of science can be co-opted for unethical purposes, but this has nothing to do with the method and is purely technological.

      I meant “nice” in the sense of being moral or good.

      That is a very vague sense in which to use the term. Con-artists are extremely nice.

      The answer is the same for non-psychopaths: not if I had reason to believe they were distorting the results, say due to personal interest. Psychopaths can lie, and do it more easily than others, but that doesn’t mean they always lie. Let’s not fall into the genetic fallacy here.

      Psychopaths are incapable of empathy, not to be confused with sociopaths like me who can sometimes turn it off when necessary, I do not trust them.

      By the same token, many non-psychopaths can still fall into error or produce unscientific results, and that’s my point. Both psychopaths and non-psychopaths can perform science and then distort it due to personal interest, but it’s the interests that are pertinent, not the ethical behaviour of the participants.

      They will all be exposed by the method.

      Case in point is the Manhattan Project: scientists worked hard to produce a WMD, and many of them lived with the regret after the fact because they disputed its morality. That had nothing to do with the science of nuclear physics.

      It worked though, didn’t it?

      • In reply to #15 by Peter Grant:

        I fail to see the distinction between a method and a behaviour. I agree that the findings of science can be co-opted for unethical purposes, but this has nothing to do with the method and is purely technological.

        Not the best distinction, admittedly. I mean that science is a tool for obtaining information. It’s amoral because it isn’t concerned with human welfare; its techniques and principles are strictly concerned with obtaining facts and getting it done correctly. As I once said elsewhere, the entomologist who studies desert termites is doing science, but it’s straining it to say he’s on par with an ethicist who campaigns for social justice or goes abroad to help the disadvantaged. The mere fact, say, that humans experience distress when subjected to certain sounds doesn’t by itself tell you not to torture someone in this way, as shown by the fact that a sadist could use the information in precisely such a way.

        That is a very vague sense in which to use the term. Con-artists are extremely nice.

        Con-artists feign niceness. They don’t genuinely like you – they’re tricking you for your money.

        Psychopaths are incapable of empathy, not to be confused with sociopaths like me who can sometimes turn it off when necessary, I do not trust them.

        It’s not necessary for science to involve empathy. In theory, psychopaths could make great scientific advances if they were allowed to experiment unethically on animals and especially on people. There are even psychological experiments – widely referenced – that wouldn’t be allowed today despite their obvious insights. They are restrained by independent institutions and bioethics committees that restrict scientific experiments based on its potential to cause distress and harm.

        They will all be exposed by the method.

        Eventually, yes. I concede that.

        However, I think we’re both in danger of confusing violations of science with ethical violations. Yes, falsifying evidence is wrong, but you could argue that this is because of the effect that lies have on other people, not on the lie itself. There are situations in which not telling the truth can be argued to be more ethical than the alternative – for instance, if it makes one vulnerable to enemies, is emotionally painful to face, or endangers the lives of others.

        Moreover, this doesn’t work in reverse. Following the principles of science doesn’t make you an ethical person. That’s what I’m really getting at. That’s why a psychopath can perform science and still hurt others: because science isn’t an ethical code, but a tool for gaining knowledge.

        It worked though, didn’t it?

        You’re missing the point. The ethics of building nukes is separate from being able to build one successfully. As the saying goes, science can tell you how to build a bomb, but it can’t tell you not to use it. You need an ethical position for that.

        • In reply to #16 by Zeuglodon:

          Not the best distinction, admittedly. I mean that science is a tool for obtaining information. It’s amoral because it isn’t concerned with human welfare; its techniques and principles are strictly concerned with obtaining facts and getting it done correctly.

          If you want facts about human welfare, science is the best tool for obtaining them.

          Con-artists feign niceness. They don’t genuinely like you – they’re tricking you for your money.

          The same could be said about prostitutes, but even this oldest of professions is more honest.

          However, I think we’re both in danger of confusing violations of science with ethical violations.

          They undermine the basis of my ethical system.

          Yes, falsifying evidence is wrong, but you could argue that this is because of the effect that lies have on other people, not on the lie itself.

          No act is essentially wrong in and of itself, the rightness or wrongness of any behaviour depends how it affects people.

          Following the principles of science doesn’t make you an ethical person.

          But people do have to behave ethically in order to follow scientific principles.

        • In reply to #16 by Zeuglodon:

          That is a very vague sense in which to use the term. Con-artists are extremely nice.

          Con-artists feign niceness. They don’t genuinely like you – they’re tricking you for your money.

          The best con-artists really do like you, as much as they like anyone. However, their emotions of affection are not deeply connected to their actions and they can behave inconsistently more easily. Alliances become purely a matter of mutual advantage, and the con-artist descends into the brutal world of economic thought.

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