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Taking science back from the scientists

'Bioethics' by Chris JohnstonThe aim of a University education, in the view of John Henry, Cardinal Newman in the mid-19th century, is not primarily to fit students for this or that particular profession, but to develop their minds, to be able to exercise judgment, engage fruitfully in debate and conversation, to interpret what is happening in society and to bring insights to bear on these events.

My working life has been in biological sciences and I've always been grateful for my good fortune in seeing the complexity, beauty and coordination of the processes in the living cells of the body. In my case it invigorated a belief that there must be a higher influence that is ultimately responsible for this — and such a belief remains entirely consistent with evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin.

Another view often expressed is that science understands this complexity more and more, and this process of revelation really means that science can explain everything. Currently that is a confrontational topic between religion and science, but there is really no basis for such confrontation. It is made popular by a number of most strident publicists, who despite the fact that they believe there is no God, spend an inordinate time and effort in discussing him.

Scientific research poses ethical questions that need to be considered when embarking upon experiments. For example, the question of experimentation on human embryos for the purpose of making embryonic stem cells. For the most part, such ethical questions require little more than sound logic and common sense in resolving them, but in an increasingly secular society it has become the fashion to blame religion for any constraints put upon the advances that could be made in science.

I believed it was not right to manufacture human embryos for research, but I decided to use scientific arguments against this. In fact that made the task easier. It was truly astonishing to see how regularly very bad science was presented publicly by scientists who wanted to do such work.

The result was that a great deal of bad science won much positive publicity. What is needed to combat that is more people in the community who are capable of thinking things through and reaching their own conclusions.

By no means should one simply accept as truth the science presented through the lay press. Work to develop your own coordinated views. A fundamental question that applies across the board to ethical questions in science is: in a world where we are capable of doing everything, should we do everything we can do? I think not.

In this area of embryonic stem cell research, eventually a wonderful outcome was achieved in the last three to five years, led by the work of a young Japanese scientist, who is actually an orthopaedic surgeon. What Shinya Yamanaka did was genuinely revolutionary. Through trial and error he arrived at a simple set of genes to add to normal body cells to make them behave like embryonic stem cells — that is, they were capable of being changed to any cell in the body. In doing so he overcame the ethical problems associated with the use of ES cells, and so has changed the climate around such work irreversibly.

He had embarked upon this work because he felt that it was not right to use embryos for research, and set about seeking an alternative in a positive way.

There are very many areas of our future development that will be influenced by scientific advances. Science will produce new industries and jobs, and will enable us to tackle seemingly intractable social and environmental problems. With these will certainly come ethical questions, for which educated people need to be prepared.

The community needs to be much more capable of questioning and understanding science — and with questioning comes understanding. It's up to the community to press for this with its questioning, and educated people in professions such as teaching and nursing are people that we will be relying on to lead the way.

Generally speaking, the amount of knowledge we acquire is sufficient: what is more important is to make our own synthesis of that knowledge. Don't leave science to the scientists. Don't have them tell you what is good for you. Make them accountable, be constructive critics and analysts by collecting the necessary facts, identifying errors in logic, and looking for the truth.

T. J. MartinMedical scientist Professor T. J. Martin AO FRS was awarded an honorary doctorate by The Australian Catholic University. The above is an extract from his address to graduates at the Ballarat campus.

Topic tags: T. J. Martin, bioethics, stem cell research, embryos, Shinya Yamanaka



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Existing comments

More scientists should speak out and write as Prof Martin has. For example:it was only when reputable scientists questioned the limitations on the data about the causes of climate change that debate about it emerged in the public domain. Until that happened there had been a tendency to silence and even denigrate those who took a view that varied from that which had become the view voiced by the many .Analysis of the science in a number of fields that have ethical dimensions is essential and if there is a proper basis for criticism or questioning, then that should be discussed publicly .

Barry O'Keefe | 20 July 2010  

How true. Ultimately science is about observation and looking at correlations between observed facts. Why things are as they are we never know. As an engineer I continually reminded my students of this fact. To do the right thing, to come to the right ethical conclusion , ultimately requires a lot of soul searching. As Socrates, I think it was, and Nicholas of Cusa reminds us, it is ultimately about learned ignorance.

Rich | 20 July 2010  

Great article from Professor T. J. Martin. I hope many would take his view about good and bad science.

Religion and good science should never be confrontaional. Professor Martin's introduction about Cardinal Newman's thoughts on education is excellent fodder for educationalists today.

Trent | 20 July 2010  

Scientific research poses ethical questions
set about seeking an alternative in a positive way
In doing so he overcame the ethical problems...(end quote)
Scientists, who are STUBBORN to listen, and LAZY to think far enough, would never succeed a new breakthrough...:)))

AZURE | 20 July 2010  

Three cheers for Professor Martin for his efforts to publicise the work of Yamanaka. I find it alarming that people are still using obsolete technology (embryonic stem cells) as an ethical argument to 'play God' with embryos. I beg to differ with Prof Martin about the work of Darwin, however, because my understanding of the science suggests that the theory of Darwinian evolution is flawed and inadequate.

Justin Beckett | 20 July 2010  

An interesting point of view though I'm puzzled by the claime that "the amount of knowledge we asquire is sufficient".
It is the nature of scientific research that systems are taken apart and there is a focus on narrow elements. The speaker refers to sysnthesis of new knowledge that amounts to taking a "bit" that needs to be integrated back into the whole. An example would have been good to have.
Here I take the liberty of referring to food research where we are regaled by the media with the latest wonder food or ingredient while food-related disability is over-whelming us through over-weight, obesity and Type2 diabetes. The industry behind food supply is so gigantic that vested interests smother us with information without integration in the eager rush to find a market. The synthesis proposed by Prof Martin is sometimes very hard to achieve when one is beset by information-overload.

Mike | 20 July 2010  

Good article. Thank you. I beg to disagree with Justin Beckett's comment on Darwin. Darwin's work was a hypothesis and so cannot be expected to be complete. I am aware of at least one series of observations that have tested and proved his hypothesis - the ongoing meticulous work since 1973 of the Grants on Daphne Major in the Galapagos - well recorded in their scientific papers but also documented in the Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. As always there is more to be done.

Ann Long | 20 July 2010  

Interesting article. I certainly agree with Professor Martin on many of the points, particularly the need for people to make science accountable, and to do that by analysing findings critically.

However, while the "Yamanaka solution" is a great example of where a common ground can be found between scientific advancement and faith, I'm sure there are other situations where it's not possible to argue for a religious ethical viewpoint on a purely scientific basis. If no Yamanaka solution was available, what scientific arguments could you use to stop scientists from experimenting on embryos?

At some point there needs to be an acknowledgement of guiding principles such as the right to life. These could be justified with arguments based on faith, or secular humanism. Talking only about the science just cedes the argument to the scientists - and these debates are about more than science.

Joseph Vine | 20 July 2010  

Modern day atheists reject "Religion" as a relic of a past age that has been replaced by science and technology. In themselves they are ethically neutral. It needs human wisdom and political will to use them for the benefit of humanity rather than its destruction. We must be wary of superficial "fundamentalist" solutions to all the problems of the modern world.

John Ozanne | 20 July 2010  

John Ozoane - I'm interested in what 'human wisdom' will be used to determine how science and technology will be used 'for the benefit of humanity' in an atheist world.

You seem to argue that religion is 'superficial', but these terms themselves are a much more superficial set of standards. If a scientific experiment results in the death of one human being, but gives life to many, that would be 'for the benefit of humanity'. Yet for most of us, it would be abhorrent. I would use religious principles which give sanctity to human life to argue against the experiment. But what principles would an atheist use?

Joseph Vine | 21 July 2010  

Just because we can make a nuclear bomb does not mean we should.

Wonderful to hear a dispassionate viewpoint in this area. Thanks.

A J McMullen | 22 July 2010  

I sincerely hope this wasn't Professor Martin's chosen title as it undermines what is otherwise a thoughtful piece. The title either implies that it is ok to be unscientific in the practice of science or that scientists, that homogenous group, are so clinically detached that they forget to consider ethics.

The difficulty of course lies in the different ethical precepts different scientists have. I applaud scientists who, faced with an ethical dilemma, are able to find an alternative way to move forward without compromising their ethics. I doubt however that this is not the case for most scientists. They may simply have a framework different from mine. It is wrong to assume they have not considered the ethics of their work simply because they come to a different conclusion to oneself.

Brendan | 22 July 2010  

I love Henri Poincaré's summary of science,viz. Science has nothing to say about truth. It tells us 'what can be done'.

Hence, since it results from human acts it necessarily falls under the moral law.This has much meaning to those of us who delight in pointing out the irrational aspects of the scientific enterprise, of which there are many.
One exampl;e is the act of faith in Darwinian theory to the exclusion of what actually happens in biological development. Also, Darwin did not arise out of a blank page of history. He was just shuffling an already cut deck from the super pessimist Schopenhauer and the reverend pessimist Malthus. Even they had forerunners. Let's get science off our backs!

Alex Reichel, Oyster Bay | 22 July 2010  

Well-meaning but disingenuous and confused.
how did he decide that it's wrong to experiment on embryos - not via common-sense but via revelation it appears. and non-scientists are in no position to question science [else why do scientists need years of trinign and experience] - but they can and shouldchallenge scientists, particularly those who try to draw practical or ethical conclusions from what science finds.

Martin's piece is case in point. i am in no position to discuss Yamanaka's scientific work, but I can point out that he has permitted Martin to sidestep an ethical question, not to answer it.

edwin coleman | 23 July 2010  

well-meaning but disingenuous and confused.

how did he decide that it's wrong to experiment on embryos - not via commonsense but via revelation it appears. and non-scientists are in no position to question science [else why do scientists need years of trinign and experience] - but they can and shouldchallenge scientists, particularly those who try to draw practical or ethical conclusions from what science finds. Martin's piece is case in point. i am in no position to discuss Yamanaka's scientific work, but i can point out that he has permitted Martin to sidestep an ethical question, not to answer it.

edwin coleman | 23 July 2010  

why you like to do things on your own

mothupi | 24 August 2010  

why you like to do things according to your mind?

mothupi | 24 August 2010