Now that exams are over, I have time to reflect on the material I’ve covered over the last 4 months. From Cognitive Systems and Philosophy of Perception to Functional Programming, I’ve had an extremely varied curriculum. A strong common theme which ran through all my school work this term was the ethical practices and ramifications of scientific work: from discussions of the bioethics of genetic modification, to more abstract debates over what rights, if any, we should afford to a hypothetical True AI.
As good as this has all been, and as much as I believe that ethics should be given a more prominent place in all undergraduate science programs, one simply cannot escape the fact that when it comes to advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge, ethics can be a big ol’ wet towel. How much more advanced would our civilization be if we weren’t guided by our silly moral principles? How many more answers would be within our grasp if we didn’t have to give so much thought to the rights or general physical well being of our fellow man?
In order to answer that hypothetical, I’ve compiled a short-list of unethical experiments which would genuinely advance our scientific knowledge:
1. Brain Lesions and Lobotomies
From Split-Brain patients who shed light on different functions of the left- and right- brain, to the remarkable case of Phineas Gage – who’s personality changed drastically after he suffered specific brain damage in a construction accident – neuroscience owes a significant portion of its knowledge to the study of rare individuals who, either by trauma or by unavoidable medical procedures have come to have localized damage to specific portions of the brain. By observing the behaviour of these individuals, important insight is gained into the function of the damaged structure. Such cases even play a part in the philosophy of pain – the phenomenology of prefrontal lobotomy patients is sometimes taken as evidence that pain is in fact an instance of perception.
But if I’ve learned anything from my various lessons in research methods, it is that case studies are, at best, an unreliable way of gathering information. Without a random sample of participants, we can never rule out selection bias or indirect variables as an alternative explanation for the observed phenomena. How can we be sure that the behaviour we observe in – say – individuals with damage to their amygdala can really be attributed to the damage and not to some other common trait of those likely to suffer amygdala damage (like risk-taking behaviour)?
How? I’ll tell you how. All these methodological qualms could be avoided if we were to just bury our ethical principles and observe the effects of localized brain damage on a specially chosen random population of a healthy sample size. Imagine if, rather than just one Phineas Gage to study based on fallible historical accounts, we had 100 test-subjects with tamping irons through their skulls! Forcefully inflicting permanent brain damage on other human beings would allow us to significantly reduce our sigma values.
2. Fun with Kids: Feral Children and Twin-Studies
Like neuroscience, developmental psychology has gleaned much information from case studies of freak accidents of history – cases which suggest answers to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate which is central to much biological and psychological research.
Feral children – kids who spend their developmental years devoid of human contact – suggest a tantalizing area of study for those seeking to understand developmental brain processes – such as language and cultural acquisition. Unfortunately, real cases of such circumstances occurring are few and far between, and those few which do exist are hard to separate from myth and fraud. Even when such children are found, little real study is done on them as rehabilitation is the primary focus.
In a similar vein are Twin Studies in which, through an accident of history, identical twins have become separated at birth and grown up in different environment. The impact of such cases on the nature vs. nurture debate should be obvious, but once again scientists who do research in this are slaves to the whims of Chance.
Why not tell Chance to take her whims hence, and get down to making real advances in our understanding of psychological development by creating a large population of feral children and identical twins, on which we can do real, methodical study of the effects of environmental factors? Feral children are easy enough to create: any child can be put in a cell devoid of human contact for the price of only food and water. The creation of identical twins is a bit harder, but I’m confident such a hurdle could be overcome with sufficient embryonic tampering. From there they just need to be separate at birth. Then we play the waiting game.
3. Life on other planets!
Whenever a probe or rover is sent to another planet, meticulous care is taken to ensure that no biological organisms are playing stowaway, the rationale being to avoid unnaturally seeding life elsewhere in the galaxy. Something about “playing god”. There’s even a UN treaty to prevent such contamination! Of course, despite best efforts, mistakes have been made.
But why should these be seen as mistakes? We humans are several generations away from being able to legitimately colonize other worlds, but there are certainly several extremophile species which could make a real go of it. Tally ho, I say! Watching the evolution of a bacterial species on a foreign world would answer many questions about the development of life. It would certainly shed like on the likelihood of life on other planets. Of course, it would also be super cool, and with any luck, a few million years hence there would be a race of intelligent beings on Planet X for us to hang out with.
4. The Social “Sciences”
Winston Churchill has often been paraphrased as saying of democracy that it is “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But let’s face it: those “trials” have lacked the typical methodological rigour which is the hallmark of proper scientific inquiry. In fact, social sciences in general are so largely theoretical that there is little for a red-blooded empiricist to sink her teeth into. When a Marxist comes up to you on the street (as they are wont to do) and identifies the oppression of the proletariat as the root cause of societal ills, or when a libertarian tells you we’d all be better off with no governmental intervention, what are you to say to him? Of course, you can try and explain why, in theory, he might be wrong. Or, you could quote a few disparate statistics which would indicate the error. But, really at base, you don’t know. It’s never been tried. Maybe the perfect Utopia really IS within our grasp.
The only way to know for sure is to test it. Here’s what I envision: Every time someone claims to have a better way to structure a society, they are provisioned with a population of 10,000 and a few hundred square kilometres to really give it a shot. Of course, the people sent can’t be volunteers; that would invalidate the hypothesis that the given societal structure will result in a stable society in-and-of itself. In these rigorous conditions, only those societies which can deal with the real problems of scarcity and dissent will survive.
Of course, such experiments would finally give me the chance to prove the benefits of meritocracy over democracy for all. Damn proletariat.