04 February 2006

Core values

Strange convergence of events got me thinking. The MSI conference that I've been writing about has had a lot of high powered American politicians, who, as particularly American politicians seem wont to do, go on about "American values," "core values," "the values that make America great." Considering that we've had a keynote from the secretary of the army, a big lunch sponsored by the Department of Defense, such rhetoric gets pretty thick pretty quick.

Now, as it happens, yesterday in our regular journal club meeting, we were talking about the stem cell and cloning debacle in Korea with Woo-Suk Hwang. It was an interesting conversation -- a chance to talk about ethics rather than data, exactly.

These two things together got me thinking about what the core value of a scientist are. I thought of these three. Of course, there are other virtues that are probably widespread among scientists. But those three came particularly quickly and easily to my mind.

Reason. Honesty. Equality.

Reason could be "Rationality" if you wanted all three to rhyme. Science holds as a fundamental assumption that the universe is lawful and understandable. Reason, rationality, logic are the tools we have for going about understanding things.

Honesty. You don't fake data. You admit when you are wrong. This one is probably leapt lose to the top of my list because of the discussions we've been having about scientific fraud and misconduct and such.

Equality is there because I believe science is fundamentally an enterprise conducted by peers. Anyone can have a good idea and test it and subject it to scientific scrutiny. By this I don't mean that there is nobody who can justifiably gain respect as an authority on a subject, or a particularly distinguished scholar, but that is a respect gained among peers.

From time to time, people have suggested that scientists should have an equivalent to the Hippocratic oath that doctors take. While I don't believe that the Hippocratic oath in particular deters much morally suspect behaviour in doctors, and I'm not sure that such an institution as a researcher's oath could be created now, it is interesting to consider what it might contain.

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