The reproducibility problem and the status of bioethics

There is a long overdue crisis of confidence in the biological and medical sciences. It would be nice – though perhaps rather ambitious – to think that it could transmute into a culture of humility.

A recent comment in Nature observes that: ‘An unpublished 2015 survey by the American Society for Cell Biology found that more than two-thirds of respondents had on at least one occasion been unable to reproduce published results. Biomedical researchers from drug companies have reported that one-quarter or fewer of high-profile papers are reproducible.’

Reproducibility of results is one of the girders underpinning conventional science. The Nature article acknowledges this: it is accompanied by a cartoon showing the crumbling edifice of ‘Robust Science.’

As the unwarranted confidence of scientists teeters and falls, what will – and what should – happen to bioethics?

 What will happen?

Bioethicists are used to following meekly and respectfully in the wake of science – to offering, at best, some tentative suggestions as to how scientific genius might best be channeled. There was really no need for Steven Pinker to urge bioethics to ‘[g]et out of the way’of science: bioethics was never really in the way – unfortunately. But that he could get away with saying it at all, and saying it so bluntly, indicates how passive bioethics has become.

There’s little reason to suppose that the reproducibility problem will, overnight, give ethicists backbones.

What should happen? 

Bioethicists should seize this opportunity to assert their primacy: to say that, when the papers seen as canonical have been shown to be wrong, or, at best, right only in one laboratory in one week, their own philosophical conclusions, immune (as they should be, and sometimes are) from fashion, experimental error, commercial interest, and grounded on essentially timeless conclusions about what constitutes human thriving, should top the bill in debates about the direction of science.

There was never any legitimate place for the premise: ‘If you can do it, you should do it’. The worthlessness of much supposedly unquestionable science should now make that premise wholly redundant.



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