Thomas Sutcliffe: Scientists have their own moral compass

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday was a slightly better day for medical science than the previous seven had been. Scientists announced that they had discovered the part of the genetic code which is implicated in eczema and asthma. What may follow - after much more research and, yes, human trials - would be a treatment which offers a cure, rather than symptomatic relief.

And since this disease makes life wretched for millions of people this is potentially a huge addition to human happiness. After a week in which medical research looked like a villain, here was something to set in the other half of the scales.

This is how we tend to judge the ethics of scientific activity: by its real-world results. A very bad outcome, like the critical condition of the six men who took part in the Parexel trial, reinforces the sense - detectable in some of the media coverage last week - that science is cold, ruthless in its operations and clinically detached from human consequences. A good result tips the balance back a little, so that instead of a white-coated Mengele we can think of the scientific researcher as a potential saviour. But in either case the assumption is that scientific ways of approaching the world are morally empty. The enterprise itself is neither good nor bad - it depends on what you do with it.

Curiously, this is an error that even devout scientists are prey to. Lewis Wolpert's new book about belief, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, concludes with a clarion call to atheists like himself. "We must have the intellectual courage to live with ... unanswered questions rather than invent answers that have no basis other than in mystical beliefs," he writes. Then he adds this: "But we must also accept that science can tell us nothing about ethics or morality."

That seems to me an extraordinary thing for a scientist to write - a remark that simply ignores how inextricably entangled ethics and the scientific method are. Because without ethics, science wouldn't work. And there are many areas of morality that it can tell us about. Honesty for one thing, and humility for another, and the value of selfless human interaction for yet another. Was it religion that persuaded Tim Berners-Lee not to patent and profit from his pioneering work on the world wide web, or was it the essentially scientific morality that new knowledge should be freely shared?

Science can even offer its conversion moments. Richard Dawkins tells the story of a distinguished scientist who found himself in the audience for a lecture that essentially destroyed a theory he'd spent a substantial chunk of his career attempting to prove. He walked up to the lecturer and said, "My dear fellow ... I wish to thank you ... I have been wrong these 15 years."

That is a parable of courage and knowing submission to evidence which seems to me far more exemplary than any tale of angelic hosts and blinding lights. To be bullied by God into changing your mind is one thing - to do it because the truth matters more than your own pride is quite another.

Of course, just as some Catholic priests fiddle with children, some scientists fiddle with their experimental results. That isn't evidence that science lacks morality, only that people often do, and some will always fall short of high moral expectations. The morality of modern science doesn't have to be borrowed from religion or imported from philosophy; it is indivisible from its successful practice, and the fact that things occasionally go wrong shouldn't blur that fact.

Tolerance and sagging waistbands

When France was pressing through its prohibition on Islamic dress in schools, I found myself at odds with liberal friends. They applauded this defence of secular space. I felt there was something odd about an egalitarianism which operated through enforced homogeneity. Tolerance means tolerance of difference, or it means nothing at all.

But the case of Shabina Begum, awaiting a Law Lords ruling on her right to be even more devoutly swathed than her Muslim fellow pupils, tests my argument. Why should her insistence on wearing what makes her feel comfortable be taken more seriously than that of any other pupil, but for our assumption that spiritual foibles have a higher status than other kinds?

My son believes it is his inalienable right to display six inches of underwear above a dangling waistband, but his school prohibits "sagging". If Shabina Begum wins, I fear I will have to conceal the news from him. Otherwise he'll be in the headmaster's office citing Begum v. Denbigh High School.

* "Clearly it's uncharted waters" says Piers Morgan, commenting on his appointment as editorial director for a planned children's newspaper, "but I wouldn't be wasting my time on something I didn't think would work." Not entirely uncharted Piers. In 1988 my colleague Simon Carr sailed exactly those waters with The Indy, a pioneering compact broadsheet aimed at children. It launched with a print run of 50,000, sold 26,000 initially and then dropped to around 12,000, before finally going under.

Simon's summary of the chart he compiled so painfully? "Full of rocks, full of sharks." The problem is that there are already lots of newspapers and celebrity magazines aimed at readers with a mental age of 12 and under. They just don't make the fatal mistake of boasting about it.

"There's a complete gap in the market for this, always has been" Morgan says confidently.

I fear he's right, but not in the way he hopes. Where he thinks there's a market, there's just a gap.