Science is the best method we have to find the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. As opposed to other alternatives that seek to discover the truth about the universe and generate applications, science works, and that is a fact. This, however, creates a problem. Despite its achievements, it must always be remembered that one of the greatest limitations of science is that concepts like “good or bad”, “moral or immoral”, or “ethical or unethical” are alien to it because they depend upon value systems. Not only is science unable to answer some of the most pressing questions we have about the meaning of our existence and how to live our lives, but the scientific method does not have any inbuilt requirement to follow ethical or moral procedures when answering questions. Science is just merely a tool, no different from an ax, and an ax can be used to build or it can be used to kill.
And this leads us to scientists.
Due to the fact that scientists are the wielders of a tool (science) that actually works, they are sometimes sought out and recruited by unscrupulous people, organizations, corporations, and governments to carry out research that may be questionable in nature or downright unethical or immoral. This is because these entities know that given enough time and resources, scientists will produce results. And, despite their smarts and their academic degrees, scientists are as human as any person in the street. Most scientists are good, moral, and ethical people, or at least they try to be, but a few are not. It is important to understand this because performing research following the scientific method may make you a more rational and thinking person, but it does not necessarily make you a good, moral, or ethical person. I have previously detailed how many scientists seeking to advance their careers or simply gain a measure of stability, game the system in ways that are mostly benign, but some scientists engage in practices that are outright fraudulent such as forging data. However, nowhere are the consequences of the ethical lapses of scientists more serious than in fields of science involving human experimentation.
Horrific human experimentation was carried out by scientists of the Nazi regime in Germany during World War II. From exposure to disease and chemical gases to forced sterilization and limb transplantations, these experiments were detailed during the Nuremberg Trials, and they have become the epitome of evil. However, these experiments pale in comparison with the atrocities carried out by Japan’s Imperial Army and specifically by an infamous branch called Unit 731, mostly on Chinese nationals during the war. Tens of thousands of civilians were exposed to chemical and infectious agents and many subjected to other tests and sometimes dissected alive in some of the most gruesome experiments ever carried out in the annals of infamy. Examples of other nations that engaged in ghastly human experimentation include the Soviet Union, which carried out experiments where they applied several poisons to the inmates in the Russian Gulag prisons, and North Korea where human experimentation in concentration camps is still ongoing according to defectors.
What led scientists to participate in the heinous experiments outlined above? It can be argued that these countries were or are dictatorships, and scientists were either brainwashed or coerced into these activities. However, this ignores that despicable cases of human experimentation have also occurred in or been sponsored by democracies such as the United States.
A case in point is the infamous Tuskegee study which began in 1932 and lasted for more than 40 years. In this study, carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service in cooperation with the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), nearly 400 black men in Alabama that had syphilis were told they were being treated for “bad blood” and were never informed of the true purpose of the study which was to observe the consequences of untreated syphilis. Even when penicillin became available to treat syphilis in the 1940s the participants in the study were still not treated. The men were followed for many years and the results were documented and published. As late as 1969 when the ethics of the study was being questioned, the Center for Disease Control with the support from local chapters of the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association still argued for continuing the study. The study finally ended in 1972, but by then many of the men had died from syphilis or complications associated with it, many of their wives had been infected, and more than a dozen children had been born with congenital syphilis.
While the Tuskegee study can in part be blamed on racism, that explanation falls short when considering the cold war human radiation experiments conducted by the US government. These experiments ranged from exposing individuals to radioactive substances without providing appropriate information or even obtaining consent, to releasing radioactive gases into the environment to study their dispersal over areas that had significant human populations. Another series of unethical experiments were conducted by the CIA under the code names like “MKUltra”, “Artichoke”, or “Midnight Climax” beginning in the 1950s and continuing well into the 1990s. In these experiments conducted in venues ranging from universities to prisons American citizens were exposed to mind-altering drugs like LSD without their consent to study how individuals could be controlled. These experiments demonstrate that when confronted with a threat (in this case the development of nuclear weapons or the potential for mind control capabilities by the Soviet Union), the US government tended to relax or ignore ethical standards and many scientists were willing to go along.
However, in some situations the driver behind unethical experiments has just been the desire to answer meaningful scientific questions. Such was the case of the famous “Monster Study” performed in 1939 as part of the Stuttering Research Program at the University of Iowa. In this study, scientists set out to test the theory that stuttering was an acquired behavior as opposed to being of genetic origin. For this they performed an experiment with children at an Iowa orphanage without telling the children that they were going to be involved in a study and misleading the caretakers of the orphanage about the purpose of the study. The researchers divided the children into groups that either received positive reinforcement, which involved commending them for speaking well, or negative reinforcement, which involved criticizing them for any imperfections in their speech. Some of the children that received the negative reinforcement developed speech problems that they retained for the rest of their lives.
A more contemporary example of an ethical lapse in experimentation with humans is the creation of babies whose DNA was genetically modified employing the CRISPR technique by the Chinese scientist He Jiankui in 2018. In this case the motivation of the scientist seems to have been to be the first to have done it. The children created with the genetic modifications seem to be healthy at the moment, but their long-term health prospects are unknown. This experiment was universally condemned by the scientific community of both China and the world.
The above examples and many others of scientists committing or becoming involved in unethical or immoral acts justify the need of regulations, especially in fields that involve experimentation with human subjects. In the United States and other countries legislation is now in place that regulates scientific experimentation and on top of this there are citizen “watchdog” organizations that independently monitor various aspects of the scientific enterprise. All this is necessary because of the limitations of science.
The photograph of the Nazi doctors' trial in Nuremberg taken by US army photographers is currently in the Holocaust Memorial Museum and is in the public domain. The photograph of participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is from the National Archives and is in the public domain.