Thursday, March 17, 2005

Discretion, Deception

Today we discussed an animal research case study where the protagonist aired some of her concerns to a (non-scientist) roommate. In our discussion, the question arose as to whether the roommate should actually be counted as an interested party in the situation. After all, she wasn't involved in the research. And, since she wasn't a scientist, she was in no position to assess whether the protocol was reasonable, whether the scientific question was an important one to answer, etc. So, you know ... butt out.

Indeed, one response I've heard to this case is that the protagonist might have an obligation not to discuss her research with outsiders, precisely because an outsider wouldn't really understand. And, not really understanding, an outsider might have a hissy fit about the poor bunnies and their suffering. And, in the throes of the hissy fit, the outsider might get PETA or ALF on the phone, and all of a sudden good science has been shot to hell by militant animal rights activists (or at least by negative public opinion).

But I worry a little about this response. I think there's a danger in only considering one's options in the context of the laboratory (or more precisely, in the context of one's advisor's laboratory). The danger that concerns me in keeping the deliberation inside this bubble is that one can lose sight of the interests that go beyond just getting publishable results. You might start to forget that the public has a stake in your research.

What's the public's stake? The public would like to benefit from the knowledge the research produced ... which means the public has an interest in the results being accurate. The public is likely involved (at least indirectly) in funding the research, and undoubtedly the public would like that funding to be used effectively ... which means a change in the protocol which might make the results difficult to interpret would be bad. The public (probably) has an interest in minimizing animal suffering ... which means if animal suffering is essential to solve this scientific problem, the public probably deserves an explanation of why the suffering is warranted in this case.

Anytime someone doesn't want to take the time to explain something to me, I get to wondering whether it's because she doesn't have a good explanation to offer.

When the tribe of science makes unilateral decisions about what those in society at large shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about (including how and why animals are used in research), scientists are either denying that the public has a stake, or denying that the public can act in its own interests to defend that stake. Or, I suppose, scientists could recognize that the public has a stake and is competent to defend its interests, but they might have decided that, since the goals of science and the goals of the public are at odds in some fundamental way, they're prepared to screw over the public. Which is probably a better move if you're not taking the public's money.

Getting outside the bubble might actually give you perspective and allow you to think through a decision from the point of view of other stake-holders. I think it's a good idea to explain the inside-the-bubble perspective to the outsider, and it probably doesn't hurt to be discreet about some of the specific details (like which building on campus houses the rabbits). But I think when discretion turns into secrecy, deception is a little to close, and a little too easy.


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