March 1, 2024

Science makes you virtuous

Hi there,

American psychologists have discovered that just thinking about science helps people to act more ethically. Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara have described the results of their social priming experiments in PLoS as the first study “to systematically and empirically test the relationship between science and morality”. (See BioEdge article below.) They conclude that “Thinking about science leads individuals to endorse more stringent moral norms and exhibit more morally normative behavior.” Better, in fact, than science’s main competitor, religion.

This is an issue of great interest, of course, in bioethics. How can we be sure that doctors will not defraud the government, abuse patients, traffic in babies (see below), or euthanase patients without their consent? Perhaps medical associations should buy all their members copies of the Feynman Lectures on Physics or some other classic of the scientific method.

But before going to all that expense, why don’t we apply a bit of common sense to this research? The researchers don’t seem to have a finely developed sense of irony. Wasn’t it only recently that one of the world’s experts in social priming – who did many experiments similar to this one — Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, was exposed as a massive fraud who had simply made up a substantial portion of his research results? “I see a train wreck looming,” wrote Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in an open email to psychologists who work in social priming: “your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research”.

Exposure to the scientific method didn’t make Mr (he was stripped of his doctorate) Stapel more ethical. Curiously, Mr Stapel is not mentioned in the PLoS article. Perhaps something more than scientific method is required to nudge people into acting morally. 

Michael Cook
Really? What about Diederik Stapel?
research fraud
social priming
social psychology