Ethics and the Responsibility of
- Session 11
ICSU's Standing Committee on
Scientific knowledge is typically organised in theories covering a wide variety of phenomena. In order to arrive at insights about generalised basic phenomena scientists employ processes of idealisation and abstraction, both in its conceptual basis and in the data. The typical complexity of singular phenomena necessitates simplifications. In many areas, e.g. environmental science, we deal with highly complex systems. This means that science often faces high system uncertainties coupled with high decision stakes (e.g. ecological factors). This provides for new challenges with regard to ethical issues. There are two main problems. The first relates to the methodological choices. Alternative approaches often yield different outcomes, and may reflect implicit conflicting values. The scientific adequacy should not be compromised by these implicit values. The second problem relates to the presentation. For a decision-maker the uncertainties are at least as valuable as the specific insights that are gained. It is therefore of vital importance that relevant uncertainties are communicated in a way which reflect their importance in the decision-making process. But scientists typically have little training in making visible those things they do not know, or that might turn out otherwise than predicted. To the extent that science fails to communicate relevant uncertainties it fails to provide trustworthy information.
Risk (in a non-technical sense) is a notion closely related to uncertainty. In performing risk studies one has to make methodological choices, sometimes related to alternative conceptions of the very notion of risk. It does e.g. make a difference if we treat industrial risks in the framework of the technical system itself (e.g. by designing "fault-trees"), or if we include human agency (based on "risk-perceptions") and perhaps the cultural background as well ("safety-cultures"). That these different conceptions reflect basic value choices often becomes apparent in their implications for legal questions of responsibility and liability.
Managing risks involves further problems. What is regarded as "acceptable risk" (in a world where 0-risk is impossible) is ultimately a question of values. The (unequal) distribution of risks within societies raises traditional ethical concerns of fairness and integrity. Similar considerations apply to the distribution of risks among different generations. They serve to justify a precautionary strategy in those areas that may be vital for the future generations. One such strategy in regard to new knowledge and technology may be to delay the practical uses thus providing time for more comprehensive assessments.
This is not the place to suggest specific remedies of the problems above. Yet one could at least point to some possible measures which may be worth further discussion. In particular: strengthening ethics in science education; establishing national bodies for ethics of science; or creating new fora for dialogue with the public.