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Guide Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England

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How can the history of research ethics be expanded beyond the standard narrative of codification—a story that does not reach back beyond World War II—without becoming so broad as to lose all distinctiveness? They tried to redefine the scientific self in their respective fields of inquiry by advocating particular catalogs of virtues or character traits. These ideals of selfhood, their contested nature notwithstanding, translated into practice in so far as they influenced hiring and selection policies and found their way into educational systems. The project of reclaiming the scientific self as an important subject of study in the history of research ethics is not an antiquarian pursuit, but related to an ethical question faced by scientists today: How are their scientific selves being shaped by funding schemes, research evaluation protocols, and academic hiring policies?

The history of research ethics has often been reduced to the history of its codification. It has been reduced, more specifically, to codification in scientific codes of conduct such as the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki Textbooks on research ethics testify to the enduring power of this view when they trace the history of their field back to codification issued in response to medical experiments in Nazi Germany e. As long as research ethics is regarded as a realm of reflection different from scientific work itself—that is, different from data collection, hypothesis testing, statistical modelling, and the like—such an historical account is not implausible.

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First, historians of medical ethics are expanding their subject matter to a variety of ethical discourses. This is partly because, in the second place, historians of medical ethics are widening their range of source material. In a time when codes of conduct were still rare, ethical reflection on scientific conduct took place primarily in other genres, such as textbooks and professorial addresses on the scientific vocation Baker ; Jonsen : vi, xi.

From this it follows, thirdly, that research ethics is much older than the term itself.

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Arguably, physicians in Renaissance Europe were already engaged in medical ethics when they reflected on the marks of a responsible doctor Jonsen : 43—56; Schleiner Perhaps the most important implication of this rewriting of the history of medical ethics is that research ethics is no longer regarded as distinct from science or medicine as such, but seen as permeating every aspect of the medical-scientific enterprise.

This revisionism, however, also has a potential danger. If research ethics is becoming all-pervading, simply because all scientific activity is value-laden Laudan , then research ethics runs a risk of becoming indistinguishable from science itself. So how can the history of research ethics be expanded beyond codification the standard narrative without losing all distinctiveness the risk implied in the revisionist approach?

This proposal has three advantages. First, by focusing on the scientific self and its defining qualities, it joins recent historians of medical ethics in challenging artificial distinctions between the history of science and the history of research ethics.

Secondly, it expands the horizon beyond medicine so as to include other fields, from chemistry and philology to psychology and geography. Finally, and arguably most importantly, it allows for long-term histories, sensitive to variety in ethical idioms, while keeping a focus on the qualities believed to be conducive to responsible scientific conduct.

The proposal thus allows for a wide scope, but also offers a focus. All three authors tried to redefine the scientific self in their respective fields of inquiry by advocating particular catalogs of virtues or character traits. This article subsequently shows that these ideals of selfhood, their contested nature notwithstanding, translated into practice in so far as they influenced hiring and selection policies and found their way into educational systems. By way of conclusion, it is argued that the project of reclaiming the scientific self as an important subject of study in the history of research ethics is not an antiquarian pursuit, but related to an ethical question faced by scientists today: How are our selves being shaped by funding schemes, research evaluation protocols, and academic hiring policies?

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More specifically, with clever rhetorical ploys, Darwin stylized himself as an author actually embodying these virtues Levine In the context of nineteenth-century England, this appeal to virtues conventionally associated with Isaac Newton, the undisputed hero of Victorian science Higgitt ; Fara ; Yeo , served two purposes at once.

Unsurprisingly, this strategy worked only to an extent: it did not prevent critics from observing that Darwin had a proclivity for going where angels feared to tread.

Hull : , The virtue of open-mindedness in particular was central to a conception of scientific selfhood that privileged critical reasoning over dependence from peers, deference to senior colleagues, and respect for public sensitivities. Even the most illustrious of early modern historians appeared no longer suitable as a model that modern historians could follow. Like Darwin, therefore, Ranke proposed an alternative conception of selfhood, which he largely described in terms of virtues. In highlighting these virtues, Ranke distanced himself not only from Renaissance historians, but also from older contemporaries such as G.

This criticism had little effect, though, as accuracy and precision were important qualities for a new type of historian that the mid-nineteenth century saw emerge: a source collector who spent long days in archival depositories, exploring the documentary record of the national past Paul At a most general level, he criticized a Cartesian-inspired type of philosophizing that he perceived as prioritizing generalization over patient collection of data. This shows that the scientific self cannot be seen apart from its institutional contexts, on the one hand, and from the kind of research pursued in those contexts, on the other.

The scientific self is being shaped by its environment, just as research questions and methods make their demands on it. That is why all three authors located part of their revolutions within the self. At least to some extent, they sought to change science by changing the scientist—that is, by molding his not yet her dispositions or character traits.

But how could this be done? How could virtues be acquired and vices be unlearned, especially if this challenged established views on the nature of a good scientist? Ranke, Darwin, and Durkheim all dwelt at length on the efforts this required, meanwhile offering psychological explanations as to why their intended revolutions were long overdue and unlikely to win many hearts.

Ranke, finally, added that historians have reasons for altering historical truth: they care about the dramatic qualities of their narratives and seek to please their readers Ranke : 72, To justify their fights against these psychological obstacles, all three authors positioned themselves in long-term narratives of slow but steady scientific progress.

To what extent does such disciplining of scientific selves qualify as belonging to the realm of research ethics? From the perspective of the standard narrative summarized above, quarrels between competing scientific schools on the marks of a good scientist seem to be of only marginal relevance. For Ranke, Darwin, and Durkheim, cautiousness, criticism, and objectivity were virtues demarcating the difference between appropriate and inappropriate scientific conduct. Virtues were thus no supererogatory qualities, but preconditions for proper scientific work. In their eyes, skepticism towards established authority, detachment from political engagement, and indifference to monetary profit were markers of devotion to responsible scientific research.

Even if few critics doubted the need for impartiality or criticism as such, scientists frequently found themselves disagreeing over the relative importance of these virtues Paul Consequently, moral economies were not universally shared: they existed in the plural Daston : 3 , as did the models that scientists invoked as embodiments of their ethics Paul Such diversity of opinion about the marks of a scientific self does not distract, however, from their ethical significance. The severity of the ethical issues at stake is apparent from the consequences that those involved were sometimes prepared to draw.


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When Huxley charged Richard Owen with not living up to Darwinian standards, he not only criticized his senior colleague in print, but also tried to block his election to the Royal Society Council on the ground that this would be a moral mistake White : For students, finally, ideals of virtue had tangible implications to the extent that they translated into pedagogical regimes. Part of academic socialization in nineteenth-century fashion consisted of ethical formation focused on the cultivation of character traits believed to be conducive to the practice of responsible science.

Such cultivation of virtues not only took place in seminars and laboratories Eskildsen ; Jardine ; Olesko , but also ranked high among the aims of academic mentoring Manteufel and, perhaps less obvious, team sports of the sort fervently played by students at Oxbridge colleges Warwick : — Although these practices obviously served more than research ethical goals, they were believed to contribute to ethical formation by fostering relevant character traits, not least including self-discipline and devotion to a common cause Levine ; Anderson Research ethics was not usually the subject of special courses, but a matter of character formation to which informal academic socialization contributed at least as much as formal educational practices Eskildsen , If the analysis so far lends plausibility to the view that nineteenth-century scientists conceived of research ethics in terms of virtues or character traits, further argument is needed to sustain the claim that the scientific self is a suitable focus for a long-term history of research ethics.

Specifically, two closely related issues need to be addressed: 1 Assuming that virtue language largely fell into disuse in the twentieth century, how do the virtues advocated by Ranke, Darwin, and Durkheim relate to the moral language prevalent in twentieth-century codes of conduct? Specifically, is there sufficient continuity to allow for long-term comparison? As for the first question, the assumption that virtue language has disappeared in the course of the twentieth century is in need of empirical testing.

Whether scientists in, say, spoke less often about accuracy, precision, or objectivity than their predecessors in is a question still awaiting detailed historical inquiry. Additionally, it would be erroneous to think that codes of conduct had no space for virtue language. Codes of conduct were, and are, a heterogeneous genre, especially in that they often drew eclectically on several moral languages at once. Arguably, therefore, the story of virtue language in twentieth-century research ethics is more complicated than assumed in simple narratives of decline.

Likewise, whenever scientists in more recent decades tried to persuade venture capitalists to invest millions of dollars into research projects aimed at curing cancer, they made strategic use of time-honored repertoires of respectability and trustworthiness Shapin : All this leads Shapin to conclude that the scientific self has anything but become obsolete, even if categories of virtue have frequently been replaced by skills and competences.

A history of research ethics focused on the scientific self is therefore not a history of virtues alone, but a history of multiple discourses and practices on which scientists in various times and places drew in articulating, advocating, and implementing their research ethical standards.

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Yet what all these genres, discourses, and practices had in common is that they defined the scientific self and specified the expectations that scientists had to meet in order to be recognized as professionals. This, then, offers a suitable prism for a history of research ethics able to cover various periods, regions, scientific disciplines, and linguistic conventions.

The history of research ethics proposed in this article is a history of demands placed upon the scientific self, in multiple languages, in several scientific genres, and in various research and educational practices. This implies, by way of conclusion, that a history of research ethics focusing on the scientific self expands the standard narrative, according to which research ethics emerged in response to World War II atrocities, into a longer and more intricate story about the demands that changing moral economies place upon scientists.

Also, it broadens the subject matter of the history of research ethics by expanding its subject matter beyond ethical protocols. By putting the scientific self at center stage, it locates ethical reflection and formation right in the heart of scientific activity. Strategically, this encourages cooperation between historians of science and historians of research ethics. It invites the former to take seriously the ethical aspects of the scientific revolutions associated with the names of Ranke, Darwin, and Durkheim, just as it invites the latter to recognize that virtues such as advocated by these scientists were markers of a research ethics avant la lettre.

Finally, by way of coda, a study of moral demands made on scientists in times and places other than ours is not an antiquarian project. Examining how scientific selves were shaped and disciplined in earlier periods of history implicitly raises the question how scientific selfhood is molded in our days. What sort of scientific conduct do competitive research funding schemes encourage Mountz et al.

Historical research of the kind proposed in this article holds up a mirror to present-day scientists, thereby encouraging them to examine the ethical implications inherent to current models of scientific selfhood. The author would like to thank the editors of this journal and two anonymous readers for their useful feedback. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Science and Engineering Ethics. Sci Eng Ethics. Published online Jul Herman Paul.


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Author information Article notes Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Institute for History, Leiden University, P. Corresponding author.

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Received May 2; Accepted Jul 3. Abstract How can the history of research ethics be expanded beyond the standard narrative of codification—a story that does not reach back beyond World War II—without becoming so broad as to lose all distinctiveness? Introduction The history of research ethics has often been reduced to the history of its codification.

Moral Economies of Science To what extent does such disciplining of scientific selves qualify as belonging to the realm of research ethics?

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Beyond the Nineteenth Century If the analysis so far lends plausibility to the view that nineteenth-century scientists conceived of research ethics in terms of virtues or character traits, further argument is needed to sustain the claim that the scientific self is a suitable focus for a long-term history of research ethics. Conclusion This implies, by way of conclusion, that a history of research ethics focusing on the scientific self expands the standard narrative, according to which research ethics emerged in response to World War II atrocities, into a longer and more intricate story about the demands that changing moral economies place upon scientists.

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