From the Editor: 85.3 Controversies & Ethics in Science

As a kid, science always fascinated me for holding the explanations to the seemingly inexplicable, for providing the “why” behind life and the natural world. And while science certainly does continue to offer this same appeal, I have come to find that some answers are often much more convoluted than direct, with numerous contentious theories, competing interpretations, and widespread uncertainties, all nestled within each other like Russian dolls. Our established dogma in any given field seems to be a moving target with new data able to decisively shift the current system.

Inevitably, closer inspection of any subject will reveal the cracks, but it can be staggering to hear about the intense scientific debates, from the technicalities of the most efficient assays to the heated dispute over the impact of climate change. Controversy permeates through all scientific disciplines — and with the aid of modern media, it frequently becomes infused with ethical concerns. Compounding this contention, these issues thus do not solely grapple with the scientific sphere but also with the perception of this work in ‘tomorrow’s rear-view mirror’ and the fundamental principles of such endeavors.

While it is easy to become caught up in the inherently loaded and innately interesting arguments, what is important to recognize is what scientists do agree on: the fact that the topic at hand is worth their investment and dedication to pursue, that they feel so compelled to search for the truth and support their claims. Perhaps a unique feature of scientific controversy is that it does not necessarily prevent progress but rather can create it, spurring research and galvanizing new discoveries. In fact, some may even use controversy as a measure of the health of a scientific field.

With this in mind, we delve into our theme of controversy and ethics in science, viewing science in itself as a growing process and a work in progress. For example, Yale Geology and Geophysics doctoral student Ross Mitchell has recently proposed in Nature a new high resolution model of supercontinent formation, called orthoversion, as just one theory of the many paths of investigation forged by Alfred Wegener’s initial — and extremely controversial — 1912 idea of continental drift. The concepts of disease have also been contentious and consequently evolving and expanding: upon proposed changes to the official definition of autism in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Yale Child Study Center Director Fred Volkmar and his team are now actively working to demonstrate the oversimplification in the new definition. And among the flurry of bioethical debates, Wendell Wallach, a leading researcher at Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, explores the ethical, technical, and legal difficulties of creating machines that are capable of moral decision-making, which is especially relevant as Yale Associate Professor of Computer Science Brian Scassellati is now leading a federally funded, $10 million multi-university initiate to build a breed of “socially assertive” robots for assisting young children.

Despite the nature of these contentious arguments, they have produced tremendous leaps in scientific knowledge and are far from solely unproductive squabbling. We hope that this issue of the Yale Scientific will provide a glimpse of the controversy and ethics in current science, along with a certain perspective to appreciate the relentless search for advancement and truth that will ultimately benefit the entire scientific community.

William Zhang