The novelist Sinclair Lewis is little read nowadays, even though he was the first American to win a Nobel Prize for literature. From what I can recall, he was hardly a great stylist, but he did have a knack of being at one and the same time a snooty critic of and naïve enthusiast for the Zeitgeist. In one of his novels, Arrowsmith, an old German professor gives a paean to scientists as the only true seekers after truth:
“The normal man, he does not care much what he does except that he should eat and sleep and make love. But the scientist is intensely religious--he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths, because they are an insult to his faith. He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws… He is the only real revolutionary, the authentic scientist, because he alone knows how liddle he knows.”
Much of that respect lingers on. Thundering “The Science Has Spoken” is a common way of cutting off debate on public policy issues like evolution in schools, climate change and stem cell research. However, unknown to Sinclair Lewis’s epigones, many thoughtful scientists are worried about the progress of science. Even though the scientific method is universally accepted as one of mankind’s greatest achievements, it has been bruised by the all-too-human failings of scientists themselves: greed, aggression, fraud, and so on.
This week we report on alarm bells being rung in the scientific establishment. The implications for bioethical debates are pretty obvious. We should bow to science but we need not kowtow when research seems to support unethical behaviour.
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