Trust in…Whom?

Over the last few weeks in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Situating Science has presented two installments in the national lecture series “The Lives of Evidence.”  On February 28, Carl Elliot from the University of Minnesota gave a talk entitled “An Atypical Suicide: Psychiatric Research Abuse at the University of Minnesota.” In this talk, Dr. Elliot told the story of Dan Markingson, a young man who committed suicide while involved in a clinical trial of an anti-psychotic drug at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Elliot is pushing for a thorough investigation into this case as he alleges research misconduct in the university’s psychiatry department. With several pieces of evidence from Markingson’s records, Elliot alleges that, among other things, Dan Markingson was enrolled at a time when his refusal to do so might have resulted in physical confinement due to his psychological instability, and that his consent was procured just days after several assessments from different examiners determined that Markingson was unable to make his own medical decisions. Elliot is seeking to raise awareness of the issues specific to this case and research ethics more generally.

On March 5, Scott Findlay from the University of Ottawa gave a talk entitled “Governing in the Dark: Evidence, Accountability and the Future of Canadian Science.” Findlay stressed the essential role of government-supported science by arguing that government has both the infrastructure and responsibility to conduct science in the public interest. Science in the public interest, Findlay argued, should service public values—healthy minds, bodies, and environment, and it should provide an evidentiary basis upon which laws and policies should be built. Findlay cited several examples of the current Canadian government’s initiatives to claw back funding for scientific research, enact policies that ignore strong but conflicting evidence, and hamper and silence government scientists by prohibiting communication with the public and between the scientists themselves.  Findlay did not linger on the question as to why the government has moved so far in this direction, but he urged his audience to become active in this issue as a matter of guarding a keystone of democracy.

In regards to these talks, there are two points I want to make. The first one is about money and morality and the second one is about confusion and evidence.

Elliot’s talk made it very clear that he suspects money to be a primary driver of misconduct. In the Markingson story, the doctors running the trial and the university’s teaching hospital where the trial was being conducted both profited handsomely from Markingson’s participation in this study. Furthermore, it appears that policies and procedures were manipulated to secure Markingson’s participation and protect researchers from conflict of interest allegations. Findlay did not grant much attention as to the driver of the Canadian government’s anti-evidence stance, but it has been stated elsewhere that the government is motivated by the enticement of wealth from the extraction of natural resources, and evidence that interferes with this objective is systematically downplayed, distorted, and/or dismissed.

The impacts of such motivations are severe. Markingson’s suicide happened on campus and was particularly gruesome. The impeding of environmental science and action by the Canadian government has many researchers worried about the catastrophic effects of climate change and environmental degradation, not just on human populations, but on the sustainability of life in general. So what I cannot help but wonder is whether, or perhaps why, money seems to negate morality. What kind of evolutionary purpose is there in this? Or it is simply an ugly byproduct?

Part of the answer to my question may lie in a small but perceptible fault-line between these two presentations. On one hand, Elliot challenged his audience to challenge the evidence—the scientists and the science from which the evidence comes. On the other hand, Findlay challenged his audience to challenge the challenging of evidence. This is not to suggest that Findlay in any way endorsed a blind-faith acceptance of scientific evidence, but he did encourage at least a contingent acceptance. Contingent, that is, on the development of alternative or convincing contradictory evidence.

Confused yet? I am. I don’t trust government-endorsed science right now. I don’t trust corporate-endorsed science right now. And I’m not sure I trust the academy-endorsed science right now. And if I go to the heart of these talks, I should probably not trust people in general.  Apparently money negates morality. Or does it?

The whole Occam’s razor approach to these types of questions always leaves me skeptical. I find it hard to accept that the answer is so simple, and I have trouble believing that people are so susceptible to the seductions of money and power. Are people so easily transformed into cold-hearted immoral agents of ill-will at the prospect of gaining more money in their pockets? Am I? While individuals like that undoubtedly exist, I don’t believe that people in general are like that. Certainly there must be some who have resisted such enticements, and the fact that Elliot is appealing to our sense of justice to become outraged at this story suggests that there are many who would indeed resist. Likewise, in the case of the government’s anti-environmentalist pursuits surely there are some in this contingent that, given a scenario that they could believe and accept, would forgo profits for the sake of the sustaining and flourishing of life. So why does money negate morality for some and not others?

I don’t have a good answer. All I have at this point is a thought, but it’s corny. I am not a fan of the democratization of science in the sense that I do not like the idea of scientific discoveries being vetted in terms of acceptance or rejection by the general public. Let the scientists do what they do; however, I am a fan of personalizing science. I would like to see the personal side of scientists more, particularly when it comes to understanding the results of their research. Scott Findlay spoke of ways in which scientists could get more involved in public discourse of values and best practices without necessarily becoming partisan advocates and jeopardizing the objectivity in their work (to the extent that such objectivity exists, Findlay said, and I agree). I am more apt to trust someone I know or think I know and understand, even if I disagree with his or her ideals.

Sure, I do not trust the current Canadian government’s science, but I’m quite sure there are many people in the government who I would trust. The Harper government has been very astute at isolating itself from the media and carefully controlling its public image. It’s unsettling to see such a cultivated picture, and this does nothing to bolster trust–quite the opposite I’d say. I do not trust corporate science, but again, I’m quite sure there are many within such organizations that I would trust. You get the point. If we can shift our focus from the scientific machinery to the people, we may be able to wade through the confusion and find some trustworthy guidance. The funny part is that deciding where to invest our trust in science may end up being more of a gut-reaction rather than an evidence-based decision.

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