If, some well known and extremely well respected scientist of the modern world makes a seemingly unmistakable correlation between x (eating 33 bananas a day for instance) and y (ease in anxiety). The world starts to take on this correlation and seemingly huge success; the rate of people who claim to have y has fallen dramatically, etc etc etc. The consensus of this argument is that society is benefited by this falsehood

But it was all false, not due to malice or scheming by the scientist, but by a very remarkable chance in the logical fallacy of correlation and causation.

Someone discovers this, ethically should they not bring forward these answers, or do they owe it to the scientific community to ensure all theories proposed must be proven incorrect if possible for the best possible progress for science.

edit I went into some irrelevant detail about religion and historical preference to this argument and I derailed myself. My actual question is simple, after reading the above, and there is no scientific basis for the benefits x provides y apart from widespread and perceived reality of the scientific theory being true causing mass placebo effect in a large amount of the population; Is it unethical disprove this, or is it owed to the public to 'show them the light' in a manner of speaking.

  • It's a little unclear what your're asking. Are you asking, in generality, whether we should give priority of society over the individual? Or are you asking whether we should go back to collective ignorance? If it's the latter, you might want to explain why you think everyone was happier when we had slavery, very high infant mortality, prevalence of cholera, typhus etc etc. – Alex Aug 14 '18 at 15:30
  • Well, the thing is that if y really drops after not doing x, there is some causal chain in which x and y are connected. Whether it just happenned that not-x also implies z which really reduces y, or that even not-y implies not-x. And you can't really prove that this is false fact really led to drops in y, without investingating this connection between x and y further. – rus9384 Aug 14 '18 at 16:01
  • "but people were happy with this existence." Nonsense. At least I have not seen proves. People had too much work to really think about it: they were unhappy but due to other non-religious causes. – rus9384 Aug 14 '18 at 16:05
  • I will edit my question to be more clear and concise, and lay out my reasoning better for the arguments made within it – Cacoon Aug 14 '18 at 19:00
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    So the concern is that falsifying theories would "put the righteousness and virtue of the individual down"? First, the idea that individuals were "happier" during hunger, disease and poverty stricken middle ages is too much of a stretch to illustrate this concern. Second, "seeking happiness for oneself" is not what "righteousness and virtue" mean to most people, "seeking the truth" for its own sake is often counted as part of the latter. Indeed, it is directly endorsed by most religions. So it is unclear who "we want" refers to and what "can we?" is asking about. Who are the "we"? – Conifold Aug 14 '18 at 20:03

I think the answer has to be indeterminate, as must many questions debating ethics without specifying a code of ethics to use. There's going to be a mix of positive and negatives, and its always up to the individual to decide which is which.

I often argue that science is an exceedingly violent arena for ideas. Science sells a sort of king-of-the-hill approach, where less than perfect ideas are sacked, providing fuel to propel more perfect ideas to the top of the hill. We see this in the version of the scientific method which is taught in schools. When you have hypothesis, you don't directly test it. Instead, you identify a null hypothesis and prove that that null hypothesis is wrong. You then suggest your alternate hypothesis, which fits the data, is a better one. Typically the null hypothesis is a currently accepted theory, so disproving it kills off that theory, and your theory propels itself forward over the dead body of the last theory.

Science often makes ontological claims which are at odds with its empirical underpinnings. Rarely will you hear a scientist carefully state, "the models of motion which most accurately align with empirical evidence suggest that there is a force called gravity that pulls things down. Instead you will hear "what goes up must come down," which is an ontological claim that makes the assumption that what has occurred in the past will occur in the future.

How do they get away with this? Well, most often they're right. We've built our technological society around the assumption that the science is most often right. To defend this claim, we turn to the king of the hill model that science proscribes. We take solace in the knowledge that the currently accepted theory is not just any theory. It's a survivor that is being constantly challenged from all angles, and so it is at least as good as the combined scientific community can possibly provide.

Why do I say all this? Because science has a code of ethics to support this. In the scientific community, you are supposed to publish your responses, even if you don't like the outcome. You are supposed to publish, even if it might harm a handful of people. This is essential in the medical community, where an experimental procedure might save 1 or 2 lives, but not knowing that the procedure is flawed may kill thousands once the procedure is approved.

So at the very least, if one is doing a utilitarian analysis, one must be able to weigh the deterioration of the ethics of science against the ethics of hurting people (such as those eating too many bananas for their own good).

These are the ethical decisions to be made with science. If you go to other disciplines, the rules of ethics may be different. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), for example, has a very different code of ethics which supports the way they approach healing. I do not practice myself, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but with them, the health and wellbeing of their patient is their foremost concern. Having the "true" answer is more of a convenience to them, making it easier to care for the health and wellbeing of their patient. If a placebo effect makes their patient better (in a holistic sense), then that is an acceptable approach to them. As a result, you see that the things built on TCM have a very different flavor than the things which are built on Western science, which is very dependent on knowledge. (If you look at what goes into a surgery with general anesthesia, you appreciate just how absurdly dependent on our knowledge we are!)

  • Great answer, I especially like it as someone who enjoys science and indeed how ruthless it came be at times to chase the truth, great analysis and insight – Cacoon Aug 15 '18 at 19:25

I'll try to cover the specific example and then generalise a bit.

To paraphrase, the widespread eating of bananas led to a similarly widespread reduction in anxiety. This was actually due to a placebo effect rather than anything inherent in the consumption. The question is: should this fact be made public?

The answer here is fairly straightforward. Yes. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there's the obvious one that this was, presumably, the result of a peer reviewed study and this would add the the wider corpus of knowledge. The second reason is that it would restrict bad science building on the assumption that there is a casual link. And thirdly, it could open the way to a, potentially, more valuable line of research into mass placebo effects.

That's not to say that care shouldn't be taken in disseminating this information to limit the negative effect of the information, but I see no compelling reason, as stated, to withhold the research.

Now to the generalisation. It does not follow that there are no valid reasons to withhold research publication. Equally, there are valid reasons to not perform research in the first place. Scientific ethics, and especially medical ethics, has been one of the areas where I believe that philosophy has had a material, and positive, effect on society. They may decide in complex cases (yours could be one) that publication should be delayed until research on the effect of publication is performed.

But in general, I would argue that it is better to publish unless there are clear reasons not to.

  • I would tend to agree and I do like your approach in treating carefully as to understand mass placebo and the effect of revealing the very nature of the theory as incorrect, ensuring both scientific strength and prosperity (if we continue down this road of false answers leading to some sort of virtue progress in an individual) the ramifications of this would likely start to take down the very pillars of our scientific western society – Cacoon Aug 15 '18 at 19:30

This example seems to nicely illustrate the difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. The former says that we should simply take the actions with the best consequences, so in your example (at least if we add a bunch of assumptions, perhaps unlikely to hold in practice, that guarantee that withholding the follow-up research doesn't turn out to have other bad effects) it seems act utilitarianism would support withholding the research. The latter says that we should follow rules that in general lead to the best consequences, even if in individual instances this may lead to suboptimal consequences. So, for rule utilitarianism, always publishing accurate research results (thereby preserving the credibility of research etc.) might be such a rule, in which case the follow-up research should be published.

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    I like that, and suppose that is what a lot of ethics come down to; atleast in the scientific spectrum – Cacoon Aug 15 '18 at 19:31

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