Research Ethics

Can we trust research in science and medicine?

By Brian D. Earp  (@briandavidearp)

Readers of the Practical Ethics Blog might be interested in this series of short videos in which I discuss some of the major ongoing problems with research ethics and publication integrity in science and medicine. How much of the published literature is trustworthy? Why is peer review such a poor quality control mechanism? How can we judge whether someone is really an expert in a scientific area? What happens when empirical research get polarized? Most of these are short – just a few minutes. Links below:

Why most published research probably is false

The politicization of science and the problem of expertise

Science’s publication bias problem – why negative results are important

Getting beyond accusations of being either “pro-science” or “anti-science”

Are we all scientific experts now? When to be skeptical about scientific claims, and when to defer to experts

Predatory open access publishers and why peer review is broken

The future of scientific peer review

Sloppy science going on at the CDC and WHO

Dogmas in science – how do they form?

Please note: this post will be cross-published with the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog.

The Moral of the Case of Charlie Gard: Give Dying Patients Experimental Treatment … Early

The tragic case of Charlie Gard has captured the imagination of social media, the Pope and President Trump. All of Charlie’s legal options appear to have been exhausted so, despite the tsunami of opinion, it looks like treatment will be withdrawn, barring some act of God or other authority.

I argued back in April  and then in May that it would be reasonable to give Charlie a trial of experimental treatment for a fixed period, say 6 months. The treatment was not going to make him worse and there was a non-zero possibility of some improvement. At the end of 6 months, his progress could have been reviewed and a decision then made to withdraw treatment if no significant progress had been made. I argued that we can’t be certain that his life is not worth living and we can’t be certain treatment will lead to zero improvement. I argued that the costs – 6 months of sedation and analgesia, with limited amounts of suffering associated with medical procedures, was arguably worth taking. That course was not taken.

Worst of All Possible Worlds

Charlie was born in September 2016. He was admitted to hospital in October. By January 2017, his mother had identified an experimental treatment (nucleoside replacement therapy) available in the US.

By April 2017, the Gards had crowd-sourced £1.2million to take Charlie to the US for experimental therapy. However, a judge ruled life is not in his best interests. He must die. Numerous appeals were lodged, and lost, all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights. Now the Pope and President Trump have weighed in.

It is now over 6 months since Connie Yates , Charlie’s mother, identified and petitioned for an experimental treatment. During the whole of that time, Charlie has been ventilated in intensive care, receiving no therapy offering any prospect of improvement. If treatment had been started back in January, immediately, we would now have evidence presentable to the family, courts, media and doctors of whether it was yielding any improvement, or not.

Unless the treatment itself would have serious side-effects, or was expensive, there is no downside to it being provided, especially when Charlie is being kept alive anyway. Since the parents had raised funds to provide it themselves, there is no justice or resource allocation issue.

Not providing the experimental treatment at the outset is the very worst situation for everyone:

  1. Charlie has been kept alive since January, suffering the alleged harms of intensive care, without receiving an intervention that might lead to an improvement.
  2. His parents have had to watch their child being kept alive, without receiving the treatment they hope will have some effect.
  3. Doctors have had to keep alive a child for 6 months whom they believe is suffering and should die with dignity.
  4. Courts and the family have been denied real time real life information about whether the intervention does have any effect. They have been forced to make non-evidence based decisions.

The reasonable course of action, given the time taken by the court process, would have been to immediately start nucleoside replacement therapy at the parents’ cost (if justice precludes stricken NHS funds being used for it), while petitions to court were made to withdraw active treatment. That would have meant we would have more information about what 6 months of therapy might be able to achieve, and Charlie would have been given his fair go. It would be a better position to be in for all concerned.

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In praise of ambivalence—“young” feminism, gender identity, and free speech

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine.


Alice Dreger, the historian of science, sex researcher, activist, and author of a much-discussed book of last year, has recently called attention to the loss of ambivalence as an acceptable attitude in contemporary politics and beyond. “Once upon a time,” she writes, “we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, ‘I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.’ Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.”

I’m going to suggest that this development leads to another kind of loss: the loss of our ability to work together, or better, learn from each other, despite intense disagreement over certain issues. Whether it’s because our opponent hails from a different political party, or voted differently on a key referendum, or thinks about economics or gun control or immigration or social values—or whatever—in a way we struggle to comprehend, our collective habit of shouting at each other with fingers stuffed in our ears has reached a breaking point.

It’s time to bring ambivalence back. Continue reading

The unbearable asymmetry of bullshit

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

* Note: this article was first published online at Quillette magazine. The official version is forthcoming in the HealthWatch Newsletter; see


Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

Scientists are people too

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

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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?

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Why are unethical neonatal trials still taking place in developing countries?

By Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics

Earlier this year, the Lancet published a trial (the ‘ACT’ trial) involving 100,000 babies at risk of being born prematurely in developing countries. Half of the mothers in the ACT trial did not receive a simple cheap medicine that has been previously shown in multiple trials and meta-analysis to reduce the risk of death for premature babies. From the ACT trial results, it appears that 89 additional babies died as a result of their mothers taking part in the trial.

Surely this is an egregious example of unethical research? It appears to be in breach of the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki standards. Why did ethics committees allow the research? Why did a major journal like the Lancet publish it? Why aren’t bioethicists and activist and advocacy groups like Public Citizen jumping up and down in outrage?

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Pinker Bioethics: What Should We Learn?

Julian Savulescu 
Twitter @juliansavulescu

Steven Pinker has recently written an op-ed questioning the contribution of bioethics to the safe and efficient regulation of research. This has been widely misinterpreted and criticised, though Alice Dreger has written a recent accurate blog in support of Pinker. Pinker provocatively said that bioethics should get out of the way of research. This has been interpreted to mean that we should give up ethics review of research. Nobody, not me, and not Steven Pinker, thinks we should abandon ethical review of research. He actually says, ” Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.” Pinker is objecting to the unnecessary, unproductive obstruction that much bioethics represents to good research and regulation.

I largely agree with him and have said as much myself over the years. I recently wrote a piece for the anniversary issue of the JME arguing as much. I applaud him for trying to generate some self-reflection in the field.

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Guest Post: The Moral Imperative for Bioethics

By Daniel K. Sokol
Daniel Sokol, PhD, is a bioethicist and lawyer at 12 King’s Bench Walk, London. He has sat on several ethics committees, including the UK’s Ministry of Defence’s Research Ethics Committee.

In a recent Opinion piece in the Boston Globe, Professor Steven Pinker made the surprising suggestion that the primary moral goal of today’s bioethics should be to “get out of the way”. “A truly ethical bioethics”, he argued, “should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria or threats of prosecution”.

This bold assertion no doubt echoes the thoughts of many scientists whose research requires the approval of an ethics review committee before springing to life. As a PhD student many years ago, I experienced first hand the frustrations of the tedious review process. I spent hours drafting the protocol, revisions and responding to the Committee’s questions, time I would have preferred to spend conducting research. While a popular sentiment, getting out of the way is not the goal of bioethics.

The goal of bioethics is to allow potentially beneficial research while ensuring that the risk of harm to participants and others is proportionate, reduced to the lowest practicable level, and within morally acceptable limits. The risk of harm can never be eliminated, but it can usually be reduced with minimal effort or cost. It may be as simple as testing a new piece of equipment one more time in a laboratory before attaching it to a human for testing.

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A Code of Conduct for Peer Reviewers in the Humanities and Social Sciences

1. The fact that you disagree with the author’s conclusion is not a reason for advising against publication. Quite the contrary, in fact. You have been selected as a peer reviewer because of your eminence, which means (let’s face it), your conservatism. Accordingly if you think the conclusion is wrong, it is far more likely to generate interest and debate than if you agree with it.

2. A very long review will simply indicate to the editors that you’ve got too much time on your hands. And if you have, that probably indicates that you’re not publishing enough yourself. Accordingly excessive length indicates that you’re not appropriately qualified. Continue reading

The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science

Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu

Human genetic modification has officially progressed from science fiction to science.  In a world first, scientists have used the gene editing technique CRISPR to modify human embryos. While the study itself marks an important milestone, the reason it is truly extraordinary is the scientific community’s reaction to it. In refusing to publish this study on ethical grounds, the world’s two leading science journals Nature and Science, appear to be demonstrating a lack of clear and consistent thinking on ethical issues. Continue reading


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