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Report on Boston SftP-Sponsored Panel: Discussion on Research Ethics
by David Chidakel
The Secular Priesthood and its Ivory Tower Junkies
On May 13, at Countway Library in Boston, a packed audience heard three panelists with various scientific backgrounds describe an ominous trend that seems to be turning scientific research into a “secular priesthood” lending its image as scientific “truth seekers” to those who would “cash in” on it.
The meeting, a Science for the People event, drew teachers, students, and a great variety of scientific and technical workers who were responding primarily to a veritable poster blitz in strategic areas of Boston.
According to Noam Chomsky, one of the panelists, this “priesthood” is allowing its credentials to be used to “sell” unpopular public policies ranging from war to racial inequality. Chomsky, the author of American Power and the New Mandarin, sounded weary as he took up the latest twists in the use of IQ data to “explain” existing inequalities between blacks and whites and between women and men. Calling the whole discussion “malicious” he said that engaging in the debate at all adds credence to the racist assumptions it is based on.
But while pseudo-genetics has had public over-exposure, other areas of scientific interest have been suppressed. For example, there has been a virtual blackout of information in “respectable” sociology on the role of corporations in setting U.S.foreign policy. This has been so consistent that an alien anthropologist would conclude that we were acting under a strong taboo not to talk about what is really happening in our society, Chomsky observed.
Rita Arditti who has written and spoken on the ideology of birth control, described the role of a scientific elite of conservative white men who have set research priorities so that 85% of the birth-control experimentation takes place on women. Arditti, a molecular biologist and one of the owners of the feminist “New Words Bookstore” warned that research on women becomes perpetuated as “everybody thinks that that is the natural thing to do because that is what is being done”. But there is nothing natural about this bias, it turns out. On the contrary, there are several “natural” arguments for doing most birth control research with male subjects, i.e. 1. their simpler reproductive systems promise less danger of side effects and 2. their longer fertility period (virtually from puberty to death) and their ability to impregnate multiple partners, create a heightened social urgency for male contraception. But to conclude from this that males should be experimented on instead of women would be just a reversal of the present ridiculous situation, according to Arditti. The point is to make good contraception available to both sexes.
She elaborated on the role of elitist male scientists: “Since people in the women’s movement have been pointing out these discrepancies in the numbers of contraceptives available for males and females, some scientists have taken it upon themselves to develop the scientific rationalization for female contraception”. She went on to criticize misleading rationalizations which give support to doctors who refuse to see women as people but as “bodies and wombs and breasts”.
The final panelist was Steve Chorover, an MIT neuropsychologist. He pointed to the alarming growth of research on violence and aggression. “It’s not a very flattering image, but a very large number of people I know who are currently working on violence seem to be behaving a little bit like junkies,” he said. “That is to say, they have, for a period of time, been kept nice and high over several years with high-quality support to do research on such things as the visual system, the auditory system, the hypothalamus and so on. These connections as everybody knows, are drying up. It’s harder to get a fix from NIH (National Institute of Health) for the kind of work that one is used to doing. Of course, a great deal rides on keeping one’s lab going, and when the connection dries up one is faced quite literally, with a pair of alternatives: one can go cold turkey and decide that the habit of doing high-level research wherever there is support is a habit to break, or one can get a fix wherever it is available” such as at the justice department or at the Center for the Study of Crime and Delinquency.
“Social Contempt Theory” is the name Chorover has given to the resulting “science” that treats violence between individuals as worthy of study but violence by a government or military leader against an entire nation as outside the area of serious inquiry.
The forum seemed to serve its purpose: it raised clearly the issues that hide behind a science that likes to describe itself as value-free and neutral.