Are ethical concerns relevant to science?

Jeroen Seynhaeve / Word count [ 1099 ] View all [ 33 ] / Vertaal naar Nederlands


The question of when science is good science, is an important and multifaceted question.

It is an important question because of the authority science is given in most contemporary societies to generate answers to questions about the world and the human experience in it – answers that directly impact on human and social behaviour, and on public policy. It is a multifaceted question because good science relies not only on sound and conclusive methods, but also on sound and well-argued ethical considerations and implications. Science is not merely descriptive, it always takes place against the background of an ethical paradigm. Ethical concerns are therefore relevant to scientific questions, in that they critically expose the ethical paradigm within which scientific research is motivated and approved, designed, conducted, interpreted and applied.

It is against this background that I want to discuss in what follows the research of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (Herrnstein and Murray, 1996) and in particular the ethical concerns around implicating ethnicity in their research. From the question of what determines, and therefore predicts, personal outcomes such as financial success, job performance, and involvement in crime, the authors conclude firstly that said personal outcomes are largely determined by human intelligence, and secondly that human intelligence is largely determined by genetic inheritance (60-70%). They then go on to claim that “genes played a role in the fact that African-Americans score lower than whites (…) on intelligence tests” (Fukuyama, 2002).

Implicating ethnicity in scientific research is an evaluative decision, in that the researcher decides whether or not ethnicity is a factor worth investigating. But who wants to know how African- Americans score on an IQ test in relation to their ethnic counterparts? Why and what for? This is a question into the ethical considerations or motivations of scientific research, to which I return in my conclusion.

Scientific research is always performed in a social and ethical context, regardless of the claim to objectivity, academic freedom and free speech scientists insist on making (Msimang, 2020). A social and ethical context includes normative, preconceived ideas about people, and has a historical dimension. As to the latter, it is ethically imperative that all scientific research and assertions with regard to ethnicity are sensitive to the history of erroneous ethnic theories and practice. Wrong and harmful racist concepts are deeply ingrained in the societies that scientists are part of, and the scientific method – claiming to let facts objectively speak for themselves, free from preconceived ideas – requires scientists to critically question and expose these concepts. As to the former, what does it say about a scientific community that approves research into ethnic differences? It is clear that particular preconceived ideas about the importance of ethnic differences, and how these differences can be quantified, qualified and causally linked to other factors, underlie and justify these decisions.

Seeing that the methods of surveys and IQ tests generate scientifically and ethically contestable results, deriving ethnically based conclusions from these tests are equally contestable, and irresponsible. This is a question into the ethical implications of scientific research. The research discussed here was based on a large data set generated from a national survey of American youth. Surveys and IQ tests, no matter how extensive and objective, measure variables as if they are isolated, fixed points in a neutral, fixed social setting, and ignore the complex and flexible functions, interactions and meanings these variables play (and historically have played) vis-à-vis one another as well as within the totality of a complex social system (Cilliers, 1998). The social groups (including ethnic groups) we subscribe to or are ascribed to us, and the extent to which we identify with a group, or are accepted by a group, differ widely (Crocker, 1991). To publicly ascribe, under the banner of science, surveyed and tested results that have been measured in particular circumstances on behalf of particular members of a social group to all members of that group, is not only factually and logically false, but also ethically prejudiced and irresponsible, because given the extent to which science drives public policy and human and social behaviour, this may lead, and has often led, to unjust and unfair treatment of members of ethnic groups.

Does this mean that ethnicity can never be the subject of scientific research? No. It can be, but only if it is measured for what it is – a vaguely demarcated, social construct. Not doing so, blurs the categories people biologically and socially belong to, and masks the ethical prejudice on which scientific falsities may be based. To measure, for example, the rate of unemployment among African-Americans, may generate important factual information about unemployment rates within this social group, and about the causes for and consequences of these unemployment rates in this social group as opposed to other groups. This may in turn inspire public policy aiming to incentivise employment, expose discrimination and correct inequalities. It cannot, however, make any scientific claims in terms of universal characteristics of members of the group in relation to employment. It was exactly in “unsubstantiated claims” of this kind, claiming to have scientifically exposed essential characteristics of ethnic groups by means of correlating complex, contingent variables and variables of very different categories, where two South African academic publications recently went wrong (Msimang, forthcoming, and Msimang, 2020).

The apparent need for scientific research into racial and ethnic differences has generated, and will generate, flawed results, because these differences are derived from ethically skewed premises. The need seems to me to expose an irrelevant obsession with an ill-defined and insecure notion of cultural identity, and an ill-informed wish to establish this identity (and indeed superiority) on incontestable, biological facts. It is an attempt that is doomed from the start, motivated by ethical prejudice, entirely unnecessary, irresponsible and hurtful, given the fundamental and universal humanity (and indeed biological ancestry) all races and ethnicities share with one another.

Reference list
* Cilliers, F.P. (1998). Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems. London: Routledge, pp. 1-24
* Crocker, D.A. (1991). Insiders and Outsiders in International Development. In Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 5, pp. 149-171.
* Fukuyama F, (2002). Our Posthuman Future, Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp 25-32.
* Herrnstein, RJ, Murray, C. (1996). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York, Free Press; 1st Free Press pbk. ed edition.
* Msimang, P. (forthcoming). Lessons in our faults: Fault Lines on race and research ethics. South African Journal of Science 116 (9).
* Msimang, P. (2020). Academic freedom argument is red herring for racist, unethical, weak research. Available at: news24.com/news24/columnists/opinion-academic-freedom-argument-is- red-herring-for-racist-unethical-weak-research-20200613 [ Accessed 16 August 2020]