Updated: Feb 23
Disparity as a ‘Moral Disease’, the cure must come from Science:
Presentation Theo D Holtzhausen
26/6/2020 (@Global online conference, Social Sciences as cultural heritage and Precarity)
I believe that social science, and in fact all of science, is facing serious challenges in the coming years.
I share in the ambitions of everyone present here today to rescue the role of the social sciences to deal with enormous social changes affecting us all. Inevitably this is a complex matter involving many disciplines and diverse aspects in a complex setting, and it must be an interdisciplinary effort.
I may perhaps differ in seeing it as essentially a moral issue and fail to see how we can proceed unless we address this faltering ethos as a primary concern. I don’t think any of us can think of precarity, manipulation of knowledge or where we witness officials turning a blind eye on the growing marginalisation of impoverished communities, as anything but moral neglect. If we continue to propose, that ‘engagement should be about opening up policy, exposing it to criticism, challenging its assumptions (including those about knowledge and expertise) and forcing governments to make difficult decisions out in the open’, I also cannot see how we can make any ground when not operating under a reliable and universally applicable ethic. It will be impossible to communicate through an escalating hierarchy of channels with differing moral standards the true benefits of science to a society already suspicious of policymakers and their motives. The more complex these advisory structures become, simultaneously the more composite the avenues open for manipulation and expression of personal biases. This affecting the reliability and value of this science eventually relayed to society. I suggest that the principle cause of the growing disparity and marginalisation of communities are due to a reigning non-progressive morality that has infiltrated all avenues society, business, politics,our economy and even science. There exists an insufficient ethic, failing to keep up with demands of the rapid advances we have seen in science and society. I also propose that evolution presented us with a pragmatic model from which can be established a more progressive and universal ethic. I believe this is where we should primarily focus our attention and look for a remedy if we truly want to succeed. We cannot single out any discipline to carry the blame or responsibility to fix this deficiency on its own. Perhaps breaking tradition then, I believe the only way to solve this problem is to integrate morality, society and science in a pragmatic and progressive ethic, applicable across all disciplines. Such an integration in order for it to be successful, must involve interdisciplinary collaboration with support and evidence of such a universal ethic coming from science itself. We should ask ourselves three very important questions before we continue: Firstly, what is the chance of success to communicate a ‘trustworthy’ science to a society already suspicions of its political hierarchies and their decision makers, with this society seeing a disregarding science as subject to the same manipulation and control? Also, what is the use of any science to society if it cannot co-evolve morality with the interconnected needs of a just society where resources and advances in science and technology are justly shared? How do we communicate a science already suspect of biases in a faltering ethos to a society quick to find escape in false beliefs and financial lures? Science classically is renowned for its phobia of moral and ethical issues, considering them as concerns residing well outside its own realms and its own dealing with the physical world and reality. Try and explain to a professional colleague, be it a vet, dentist, doctor or biochemist there is morality in the citric acid cycle and mostly they reach for their smart phones. Subsequently, science is only concerned with ‘evidence-based’ research in the physical world. In recent decades, with science more profit driven than historically ever witnessed before, it is slowly becoming disconnected, not only from other disciplines and culture but also society and its more pragmatic and diverse needs craving for fairness and equality. We should contemplate briefly before we continue, if it is not perhaps better for science and some disciplines to remain isolated from morality and other disciplines, such as the arts and law, and to perform its duties independently set on ‘fact’? I will in this short paper briefly explain why we absolutely cannot afford to do so and it that it is unrealistic to continue to do so.
Superficially it might seem a frivolous matter for science to consider involving itself with an equivocal matter such as morality, especially since the incidence of misconduct or fraud in an evidence-based discipline should be low. When we turn to statistics on fraudulent activity in the sciences findings are vague if not confusing with the incidences reported as low as 0.1% and upon deeper analysis studies claiming it to be as high as 27%. Data fraud in clinical trials suggest such equivocality is mainly due to the ethos in research facilities responsible for under-reporting fraud by as much as 70%, this figure based on a study by Stephen L George and Marc Buyse in Nov 2015. The true incidence therefore is difficult to estimate accurately based on any publication for various reasons. Only a few are mentioned here. In a profit driven system, and with no clear ethic, any attempt to direct estimation via a survey of investigators, those who commit fraud are not likely to be forthcoming about having done so, the higher the expected rewards (such as in pharma) or status to be gained the higher the incentive to manipulate outcomes and commit fraud and avoid it from being reported. This is a well-known phenomenon to those who study unethical, illegal or any socially unacceptable behaviour, since respondents have incentives to be evasive, (mainly status or financial incentives in the professions). There is also a ‘survival of the fit’ culture at play that I will explain further below. Closer to my own discipline it is reported that under-reporting of fraud is more severe in medical research or fields where incentives can be considerably high. Here we also have to single out the negative consequences such reports can have on pharmaceutical companies, other sponsors or indirectly governments associated with such misconduct. There is lucrative incentive for these sponsors to divulge as little as possible about misleading information or misconduct detected in the trials they fund. Lured by such high rewards they are more inclined to find escape in any uncertainty or weaknesses of a science that can, and inevitably must be falsifiable and exceedingly so in the life sciences based on our recent understanding of evolution, I will address this as the ‘shaky foundations of science’. In short, the science we attempt to reliably communicate can be seen as unreliable. In addition there are significant new definitional problems on the use of ethics in medical science. This has recently been much complicated by rapid advances on the genetic front. Survival has taken more universal terms in recent years with science now predicting significant environmental threats, and fraud and corruption now with an impact able to cut much deeper into society that may soon genetically modify the genome of various species (plant and animal). The increasingly shaky foundations of science: We should next consider the evidence coming from the natural and physical sciences that there may not be any concrete theories or set rules on fixed matter based on any genetic evolution-based life. Science is not only falsifiable but so too is the physical world it studies busy evolving and changing while we are observing it. It now appears any workable system of evolution must be able to co-evolve perceptions, understanding and morality to reliably confront a changing world, and universe as it unfolds for us. For any model of evolution (the pillars of most of science) to be functional, it requires both a progressive cognition and principled interactions, in what can be seen as a narration of moral rules constantly adjusting to universal demands. Such a model must also be able to persistently progress its principles to interact and adapt to an evolving world of escalating complexity and changing surroundings. Thanks to new advances in technology and better understanding, it has become evident that for a flexible gene to adapt and advance as part of a complex network, principled interconnections and progressive means to perceive and communicate on various levels are vital to make such an interactive system work. Such interactions happening on biochemical, cellular, extracellular, endo- and exosomatic levels. Concrete matter and theories, the substance of the physical and natural sciences, and where evolution also found reason to insulate itself from moral issues, now appear more elusive and morally dependant than previously thought. Simultaneously as this demand for pliancy in our understanding is increasing so also the vulnerability of science. I claim both science and morality must be progressive, interconnected and all-regarding to advance an epistemology of any use to society. A new model must come from science: In a science on a less steady platform than previously believed, we are forced to be more attentive to how an interconnected and perceptive evolution co-evolve morality and cognition in consonance and what are the rules. We function in three essential spheres of perception of this world to do so, these are unavoidable physical realities (evidence-based, where science operates), logical deductions in uncertainty, and the metaphysical (unknown)— we cannot evolve if isolated and operating in any single sphere alone. Using evolution as a model here, it works on the same principles interacting in unison as a perceptive mechanism to interact with changing environments, as a progressive interactive system. Be it a strand of RNA, gene, organism, social structure or ethic without this basic construct it cannot evolve. Both the physical and natural sciences are now witness to our physical sphere (evidence-based sphere) being progressive, pliant and vitally interconnected and dependant on the other two spheres. With moral interaction between these three spheres vital to make any sense of evolution. Application: False belief systems and power structures in control of our destiny, function essentially in the uncertain and metaphysical spheres of our existence, take advantage of the equivocality in these spheres to sway outcomes for personal benefit— we have enough evidence of this. Science in turn attempts to insulate itself in the physical sphere, not as secure as we thought. Fraudulent activity supported by such structures can gain an unfair advantage in the manipulability of both the uncertain and metaphysical spheres and subsequently use this to exploit an already weakened evidence-based (physical sphere). I suggest in order to eliminate this vulnerability of science, and if we wish to effectively address precarity and disparity in a functional moral and just society, we need a universal ethic. Only when we can reliably interconnect all three spheres of reasoning to interact progressively and openly will we succeed to create and relay a reliable science. Such an ethic is now presented to us through better understanding of our evolutionary roots. Subsequently I suggest any solution on communicating science effectively will need to incorporate such a socially acceptable and pragmatic morality supported by both science and a global society. Armed with a new model of how life emerged we now have such a platform. With a more morally acceptable contemporary version of evolution we also diminish the emphasis placed on survival and reproduction set in a disregarding evolution. The classical mechanical and egocentric natural selection theory has overplayed the role of reproduction and survival and established this view as the general drive of evolution. Such an impression coming from science, making the world appear an especially harsh, brutal and disregarding place where only the fit survives, and financial power can be used to manipulate outcomes. I suggest remedying this misunderstanding should be one of sciences first concerns, to not only rescue the moral standing and value of science but the value of science to society. We can achieve this by marrying science with a progressive morality and evidence coming from science itself. Communicating any information, however useful and evidence-backed such advice may appear to be, the ethic and morality of the source must have universal acceptance for it to be reliably applied and distributed. Other fields and misconceptions must also be bluntly singled out for delaying this marriage between science and morality and causing the ongoing disparity and panic we witness today. Undeniably, politics, a blinkered economic system and false belief systems must be highlighted having significant power to affect outcomes. It is naïve to think these forces can be ignored or changed overnight but I suggest using a model with unanimous support coming from science and our educational facilities these obstacles can be overcome without insulting core their core beliefs and values. It is an overlooked issue that these controlling figures seek support for their actions in the traditional view of Darwinism where they can justify their directives of profitability in a disparate world of shortages. Alternatively find their escape hiding behind metaphysical belief systems. We are all familiar with how this survival of the fit attitude has become especially dangerous in business and ‘elite’ education— business is war, survival at all costs, including human lives. It is furthermore acknowledged by both lay persons and scientists in various fields of research and practice how the corporate and private funding of research have gained control to affect the directives and outcomes of research. Powerful individuals, personal biases, set beliefs and motives, regardless of their standing on morality, now have sufficient power to sway outcomes in research down a hierarchy of advisory bodies. We can see the futility of our task in delivering and communicating a useful science to benefit all levels of society, unless we remedy this faltering ethos. Our first duty then should be to create a reputable moral platform to better communicate new advances in science. Approaching this by demonstrating evolution as an interdependent all-regarding concern set in a progressive morality should be seen as vital and not idealistic. The second duty must be to bring disciplines together to circulate ideas and perceptions between all three spheres and prevent non progressive attachments to singular spheres— in a multidisciplinary effort under a universal ethic. Unless we address the current disconnections, I believe not only will the social sciences be in trouble, but all the benefits of science to society slowly become misdirected and misapplied to serve a so called ‘fit elite’ more and more turning their backs on growing disparity and poverty. A blinkered science will endeavour to even further insulate itself in the physical sphere seeing morality as a metaphysical aversion —we are witness to this today. With more resources and knowledge available than historically ever experienced and set in a rapidly advancing technology, science should benefit us all equally. With disturbing mismatching supply and demand issues set in a complex and insecure socioeconomic system attempting to profit from volatile markets, science can no longer find comfort in its disconnected physical sphere. Based on experiences in my own profession I found there is growing emphasis on the development of novel pharmaceutical agents, new technology and profitability, all hiding behind evidence-based research and heavily sponsored publications and corporations. These expensive and overvalued drugs and technologies are essentially aimed at the higher echelons of society who can afford it or are covered by lavish insurances. Others in turn find comfortable outlets in public healthcare systems. Side effects can be played down in a complex hierarchy set in politics and personal biases. Subsequently it becomes easy to ignore, shift blame and fail to address the growing list of ailments where evidence suggest poverty, unhealthy environments and poor lifestyle choices are the primary causes. In healthcare the poor and uninformed and their ailments are slowly being marginalised with most research aimed at cohorts promising higher returns on drugs targeting the ageing rich in wealthy communities. In conclusion: Ironically our concerns have now become evident as essentially a faltering moral matter in a marginalised unstable science, and any remedy ignoring this disjunction I believe will continuously fail. If we truly wish to reduce the growing disparity, precarity and brutality of a segregated world, never before had this need for morality, science and society to coevolve been so much needed to rescue the reliability and value of science to society. I suggested in brief here and explained in more detail in Spheres of Perception how such a model is already evident in both the natural and physical sciences but has not been sufficiently explored or communicated. So far science has made no effort at all to expose or research all the potential benefits of an evidence-based and progressive morality coming from within its own realms. If only one impression left here, it should be that the pillars of science have evidence of a progressive and universal ethic, and we should not fail in our urgent duty to communicate and enrol these benefits in all spheres of perception in our fight against disparity, brutality and marginalisation of people, and to protect rights to equality and respect of our cultural heritage. Thank you for your time.