Science Culture + the Recent Past

Research is a human endeavour and as such is subject to all the wonders and horrors of any human endeavour…’,

– writes Bob Lamberts and Will Grant of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. [1]

Sometimes over-looked factors in considering scientific reliability are questions such as, who are the people in this Phd jury? Who designed these experiments? What cultural ideologies were these scientists raised in? What life experiences have they been exposed to? What institution, private business or therapy organization is funding this research?

Again imagine a pot of stew. Science culture is a bit like the flavor of the stew. Science culture includes those foundational ingredients that science emerged from, combined with the social biases, values and interests of academic institutions, funding sources, the preferences and experience of scientists themselves, and more. With the addition of new ingredients, new experimental evidence, new scientists themselves, and so forth – the flavor of the stew changes. Ethics within science change and looking into science history reveals a bit more about how science ethics have looked in the past.

The following examples aim to give you a small peek into science ethics and values of the past century. These are examples which have led to devastating results on specific populations. While there are many ways that science has helped people, I bring up these examples in the hope that their shocking-ness elucidates that ethics in the recent past are different than today. Also, all stages of science’s past, present and future have particular biases, ethics, and values.

No Más Bebés is one documentary among a large pile of similar documentation about forced sterilization policies. This particular film focuses on East Los Angeles hospitals in the early 1970s, which were targeting Latina populations in the US. [2] Japan’s forced sterilization to prevent ‘inferior descendants’ was practiced up until 1996. [3] There are just two glimpses into the countless ways wherein eugenics, a branch of research established by British scientist Francis Galton in 1869, has been used to target marginalized groups of people. [4][5]

Science ethics of the 1960s guided what was acceptable in the science research of Dr Heller and Dr Paulsen, specifically dealing with imprisoned people in the United States. Dr Heller and Paulsen ‘received $1.6 million in funding from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to perform radiation studies on the male reproductive system.’ The incarcerated people involved in this experiment did, in fact, sign consent forms. Yet, ‘[The] consent forms… did not mention an increased risk of testicular cancer, radiation poisoning or other long-term effects. In a 1976 deposition, Dr. Heller admitted he “didn’t warn [the participants] of all the dangers because I didn’t want to frighten them.”’ [6] This is just one case from the enormous pile of equally appalling situations involving imprisoned people. [7]

The abundance of similar, documented histories make it clear that the ethics and values displayed above were not just a small group of rogue scientists. Rather, these and related situations point to more general, widespread cultural norms. [8] Such history helps illuminate that the practice of science is never completely objective, it is never done in a cultural vacuum. Social norms affect the creation of experiments, how the evidence is interpreted, how medical practitioners practice and more.

The shape and flavor of the cultural norms in science matter.

One compelling reason for learning about mistakes of science’s past is that such education can help raise awareness; it can help lay people and scientists alike become more aware of dangerous present-day norms emerging and operating within science-culture.

source notes

1. Will J Grant Researcher / Lecturer, Rod Lamberts Deputy Director. The 10 stuff-ups we all make when interpreting research. The Conversation. Published October 20, 2021. Accessed April 29, 2020.

2. No más bebés. PBS. Published July 15, 2021. Accessed April 29, 2020.

3. Lies E. Japanese to compensate victims of forced sterilization. Reuters. Published April 24, 2019. Accessed February 29, 2020.

4. Nature news. Accessed March 29, 2020.

5. The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Oregon State Board of Eugenics | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Accessed June 29, 2020.

6. Loaded on March 15 2008 by GDpublished in PLNM.     . Cheaper than Chimpanzees: Expanding the Use of Prisoners in Medical Experiments | Prison Legal News. Accessed March 29, 2020.

7. Research ethics timeline – David B. Resnik, J.D., Ph.d., bioethicist, NIEHS/NIH. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Accessed May 29, 2020.

8. Rothman L. Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO: Her history. Time. Published March 7, 2019. Accessed April 29, 2020.

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