Scientists: How do ethics and culture shape your work?

Recoding Innovation is a National Science Foundation-funded documentary that's basically about the anthropology of science and engineering.

If you're a scientist or an engineer, you can participate. How does your culture, values, and beliefs make your work happen? The idea here is that ethics aren't something that hold science back. Instead, applying ethics helps scientists and engineers be innovative. It's a cool idea, and I'm looking forward to watching the finished documentary. The video above includes a short example of the kind of stories the editors are looking for.

Submit your story by January 1.

Video Link


    1. Yeah, luckily Stanley Milgram’s didn’t let ethics didn’t hold his science back:
      and Western culture benefited from a epic Shatner TV movie for it.

    2. The problem is that “ethics” is an almost meaningless word that everybody uses to mean different things. Yes, scientists should have ethics in the sense that they shouldn’t make up data nor conduct research on people without their consent, but avoiding work on things like stem cells because some religious fanatics are against it? This sort of thing gets called “ethics” too, and it *is* harmful to science.

  1. “The idea here is that ethics aren’t something that hold science back.”

    Tell that to my Hitler/Gorilla hybrid.  Oh wait, you can’t.  Damn hippies.

    Seriously though, this reads like an attempt to fight an anti-ethics movement — and seriously, where is that happening? — or perhaps a backlash to the earlier pro-ethics movements of… well, forever.

    There are always calls for scientists and engineers to be more ethical, mostly based on the assumption that if technical workers just refused to build the evil pollution factories and murder chambers, the business men who pay them to do evil will eventually give up. Remarkably few movements call for ethics in business, because no one expects that to ever really happen.

    The trouble is that most personal views of tech ethics — captured perfectly in Google’s motto, “Don’t be evil” — are very black and white, wile reality is not.  When one camp is crying “stop despoiling nature” and the other is screaming “do something about overcrowding,”  how do you apply “don’t be evil”?  You don’t.  Engineering is about negotiating compromises between harsh realities.  You don’t get something perfect, but you will probably get something that works.  Compromises require an understanding of nuance and trade-offs, and ethics as applied to such compromises do as well.  If anything, this project may also serve as a good demonstration to the _public_ how scientists and engineers are _already_ pretty darned ethical, and that if you want to accomplish anything in terms of policy, you have to elevate the dialogue beyond the notion of the amoral engineer.

    Also, since this topic has been broached, I’d like to recommend Samuel Florman’s “The Existential Pleasure of Engineering,” which covers the topic pretty well.

  2. I think this is a great idea. To those complaining about the limits of personal ethics, well, I don’t think promoting ethics is the main point of this exercise.  I think it  is mostly anthropological…

    We want to show how the cultures, values, and beliefs of scientists and engineers play a positive role in innovation—that our ethics (personal and professional) aren’t just a constraint on what we do.

    This will humanize scientists and engineers, and show we live in the same world as everyone else, that we are sometimes more and sometimes less motivated by our hopes for humanity, and sometimes more and sometimes less constrained by ethics and our corresponding fears. Ideally, it will even show people disagree (I’m sure we all hate when scientists are portrayed as a monolithic political or religious group.)

    As an aside, this is somewhat related to one of theories I used to read on why it is so hard to get any more than about 10% women into the physics majors. For whatever reason, women, when surveyed,  tended to express more ‘pro-social’ motivations for their scientific work than the men, which might explain why biology, medicine, and chemistry didn’t have such a challenge recruiting women students. Meanwhile, the physics department at the time was structured as a ‘pure research for pure knowledge sake’, never suggesting any human benefit or cost to its efforts. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. In the real world, people do what they do for a reason, and I think a lot of people, whether it works out for them not, aspire to do things that ‘make a difference’ (ethics!).

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