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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Can Science Ethically Make Use Of Data Which Was Gathered By Unethical Means?

This essay was the runner up in the undergraduate category of the 6th Annual Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student Toby Lowther

In this paper, I discuss the question of whether science can ethically make use of data which has been gathered by unethical means in seeking scientific and medical advances to alleviate future suffering. This is an ever-controversial issue of practical ethics, and although the American Medical Assosciation provides firm guidelines on the matter (AMA, 1995), the ethical question remains complex. I will begin by laying out the core issue: the conflict between the desire to censure unethical practices used in gathering such data and the desire to use all data available to bring about the greatest good for society. I will present arguments either side, leading to an ethical stalemate, before presenting how issues of practical consideration for scientific methodology resolve the conflict. I conclude that science cannot make use of data gathered by unethical means, because such data cannot ethically be replicated, and reproducibility is necessary for the validity of the scientific method. I leave open the question of whether it is ethical for the findings of such unethical experiments to guide future, ethical research. Continue reading

Asking the right questions: big data and civil rights

Alastair Croll has written a thought-provoking article, Big data is our generation’s civil rights issue, and we don’t know it. His basic argument is that the new economics of collecting and analyzing data has led to a change in how it is used. Once it was expensive to collect, so only data needed to answer particular questions was collected. Today it is cheap to collect, so it can be collected first and then analyzed – “we collect first and ask questions later”. This means that the questions asked can be very different from the questions the data seem to be about, and in many cases they can be problematic. Race, sexual orientation, health or political views – important for civil rights – can be inferred from apparently innocuous information provided for other purposes – names, soundtracks, word usage, purchases, and search queries.

The problem as he notes is that in order to handle this new situation is that we need to tie link what the data is with how it can be used. And this cannot be done just technologically, but requires societal norms and regulations. What kinds of ethics do we need to safeguard civil rights in a world of big data?

Croll states:

…governments need to balance reliance on data with checks and balances about how this reliance erodes privacy and creates civil and moral issues we haven’t thought through. It’s something that most of the electorate isn’t thinking about, and yet it affects every purchase they make.
This should be fun.

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