Applying Ethics to Scientific Investigations

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will learn about ethics in science. We will look at why ethics is important and consider a few examples of how scientists need to act ethically in their experiments.

The Unethical Case of Andrew Wakefield

Have you heard about the anti-vaccination movement? Or how vaccines are supposedly causing children to develop autism? This entire movement started with a man named Andrew Wakefield. He published a few research papers indicating that a link existed between vaccines and autism. This started a scare that spread through various nations. Scientists tried repeating his studies but found that they couldn't; the results were never even close to what Andrew Wakefield had published. They then learned that Andrew Wakefield had been paid to do his research by lawyers who were looking to sue vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield had never revealed this source of income. Furthermore, shortly before publishing this research he had released a proposed vaccination that was supposed to be 'safer' than typical vaccinations. Not only was Wakefield paid by someone looking for anti-vaccination results, he also wanted the public to become scared of typical vaccinations so that his 'safer' vaccinations could be more successful.

Despite continued research that discredits Andrew Wakefield's claims, this scare continues almost two decades later. This demonstrates how much damage an unethical scientific investigation can cause, even years after the fact.

Ethics and Test Subjects

Ethics in science is important. The issues involved range from the proper treatment of test subjects (animals and humans) to who you allow to influence an investigation. If a scientist fails to perform an investigation ethically, at the very least they can be hard pressed to ever be taken seriously in the scientific world again. In some cases unethical behavior can be punished by the law.

Scientists often use tests subjects in their investigations. These test subjects may be animal or human. According to the laws of ethics, scientists are required to ethically treat these test subjects. Humans must understand any risks associated with a test. Before a test can be performed on humans, the scientist must show that no extreme side effects are expected. Sometimes something unexpected may pop up during the test, but the scientist must show (based on previous testing) that nothing is expected. Tests to be performed on children are particularly scrutinized before they are allowed to be performed.

Tests performed on animals must not cause any unnecessary harm to the animals. Likewise, any tests done must have a specific purpose. An ethics board reviews all tests involving animals (prior to the test being performed) to determine if the expected results are worth the harm done to animals.

Ethics and Test Methodologies

The way a test is performed can change the results of an experiment. Scientists must keep meticulous records of how the test was performed. This allows other scientists to repeat the experiment to ensure that the same results can be found, thereby ensuring that the original results weren't just a fluke.

Scientists also need to make sure that the way they analyze data is ethical and not biased toward a particular outcome. Data analysis can be skewed based on how a researcher wants the data to appear. Therefore, scientists need to be careful to not analyze data in such a way that will skew that data.

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