AHA Reaffirms Commitment to Scientific Integrity

The American Humanist Association Board of Directors recently adopted an interim resolution on scientific integrity at a board meeting during the 73rd Annual AHA Conference in Philadelphia, PA, on June 5, 2014.

There is much made of the atheism of humanists, our skepticism about god. Humanism relies on a skeptical and progressive approach to knowledge. This new statement on scientific integrity highlights the unparalleled value of science in improving the human condition, and the great danger to humanity from unethical or insincere presentation of scientific concepts.

For questions or comments on this resolution, or to suggest ideas for future resolutions, please contact Jason Torpy, AHA Board Resolution Committee Chair, at jtorpy@americanhumanist.org.


American Humanist Association

Interim Resolution on
Scientific Integrity

Adopted by the Board of Directors
5 Jun 2014, Philadelphia, PA

The American Humanist Association (AHA) reaffirms its long-standing support of scientific integrity and its stand against pseudoscience and exploitation of science. While primary attention is given to the “natural” sciences, we also want to be mindful of empirical approaches to study that produce significant work within the social sciences and the humanities. This interim resolution, being a major advancement of prior AHA positions, is presented for review by the humanist community and by experts in related fields. The following prior resolutions are now encapsulated in this new resolution:

  • 1951-150 Resolution on the Scientific Method
  • 1975-155 Objections to Astrology
  • 1977-157 Affirming Evolution as a Principle of Science
  • 1978-097 Biblical Creationism
  • 1998-009 Supporting Evolution in Textbooks
  • 2005-173 Supporting Stem Cell Research
  • 2005-174 Cloning

WHEREAS the power for human progress resident in modern science, when used and controlled democratically, offers a method for the establishment of peace on a global scale; and

WHEREAS humans the world over are subjugated by charlatans and shamans who use supernatural powers to secure intellectual, physical, and financial control over the helpless and credulous; and

WHEREAS scientific knowledge expresses the consensus, peer-reviewed understanding of experts in related fields;

WHEREAS supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and dogma are not labels given to certain ideas but to different unscientific approaches to knowledge;

WHEREAS those of all beliefs, humanist and non-humanist, can and do agree on scientific approaches to knowledge and the many conclusions we have drawn from the standards of the scientific method as embraced across a variety of disciplines in and outside the empirical sciences;

WHEREAS the outcomes of our actions are predicted by scientific methods and play a key role in our ethical decisions;

WHEREAS scientific leaders require the professional integrity to identify a level of certainty to all claims, distinguishing between tentative and conclusive findings;

WHEREAS scientific discovery represented by work within a variety of disciplines in and outside the empirical sciences can amplify feelings of awe, wonder, and beauty at the natural world and our place in it;

BE IT RESOLVED in furtherance of human flourishing, the American Humanist Association

AFFIRMS that scientific naturalism, the concept that the methods of study and exploration represented by the sciences provide the most reliable method to understanding the world around us, is a fundamental tenet of the humanist lifestance;

DECRIES the elevation of the current conclusions of science over the ongoing process of science (aka scientism);

AFFIRMS that a skeptical approach to knowledge, assigning a level of certainty according to the weight of the evidence, is important to personal well being;

AFFIRMS that some claims are demonstrably false and pseudoscientific and that some claims are fringe science that deserve fair review and scientific inquiry, and that some claims are genuinely inconclusive and require further study before judgment is pronounced, and when such claims produce verifiable harm such conditions must be addressed as a matter of ethical obligation;

AFFIRMS that the advancement of scientific exploration and study must be tempered by humility, compassion, and constant care for all life and our environment;

AFFIRMS that the methods of science be relied upon in assessing the efficacy of our actions and policies to bring about stated ethical outcomes;

AFFIRMS that scientifically derived knowledge is always subject to scrutiny and revision based on new evidence of fact or ethical consequences;

AFFIRMS that the relating of the scientific method and a socially responsible science be included as principle items on the program for humanist study and action;

DECRIES the subordination of science to faith-based beliefs, religious dogmatism, the tyranny of authority, or the inertia of tradition;

DECRIES the elevation of ideological conviction or preconceived certainty over coherent theory, empirical observation, or expert peer review as determiners of truth;

DECRIES censorship, misinformation campaigns, and obstruction in the general populace, the Internet, or schools that subvert the process of free inquiry, dissemination of knowledge, or discovery of new information;

AFFIRMS the importance of instruction of the public and funding of research of proven scientific concepts and methods;

DECRIES the public funding and research of claims and practices roundly rejected by the consensus of experts in related fields (i.e., pseudoscience).

 

Selected Scientific Concepts

Science has the capacity to police itself, distinguishing clearly those claims that are demonstrably false from those that show proven utility to explain the world. These areas include theoretical basis (why something works), empirical observation (testability and repeatability of results), and expert peer review (to confirm theory and evidence). We rightfully ascribe certainty through increased evidence in these three areas of theory, observation, and peer review.

In the following section, the AHA presents selected areas of science that provide good opportunities for detailed study in the areas of proven, fringe, or falsified claims. This list is not comprehensive by any means but advances the discussion by presenting areas that call for further discussion. While it is tempting to simply categorize each area summarily, science is not about quick categorization. The AHA may provide more detailed resolutions or position papers on these or other areas to give them the treatment they deserve.

As with all science, even proven science should be studied with not just intellectual but also ethical and financial responsibility. While certain scientific areas may stand scrutiny on their technical merits, we must be continually vigilant against ethical pitfalls. Even areas broadly considered to be pseudoscientific in one application may provide interesting avenues for research if studied through the lens of a different discipline, for example homeopathy has no pharmaceutical value but may call for study from the perspective of placebo medicine and medical ethics. Research methodology and technical application for all science must recognize the certainty of the science as well as formal, deliberate, and rigorous ethical standards.

Certain areas of science provide important areas for study in the area of scientific integrity. It is not for AHA to determine scientific truth, but AHA may comment on the consensus of science or lack thereof in order to provide examples of scientific integrity in action.

Areas Considered by AHA for Further Commentary

Anthropogenic climate changeEvolution vs. creationismGravity

Vaccination

The Big Bang

Dark matter

AstrologyHomeopathyChelation therapy

Social Darwinism

Human cloning

Non-human cloning

“Gay reparative” therapyPlacebo medical ethicsChiropractic Acupuncture

Transhumanism and the technological singularity

 

 

Evolution

Evolutionary biology is the unifying principle of the life sciences. The National Academy of Sciences has continuously reconfirmed the importance and utility of evolution as a principle of biology. The principles of modern evolutionary theory are accepted as having continuously met the burden of scientific proof among biological scientists the world over; and

WHEREAS widespread ignorance and misunderstanding exist concerning the scientific field of evolutionary biology among students, teachers and the public at large; and

WHEREAS new forms of anti-evolutionism such as “intelligent design theory,” “evidence against evolution,” “teaching the controversy,” and requirements that evolution be disclaimed by teachers or in textbooks have risen, creating additional pressures upon educators to eliminate evolution and/or introduce religiously inspired “alternatives” to evolution in the classroom; and

WHEREAS the scientific community in the United States and its potential contributions to the betterment of the human condition the world over is seriously threatened and impaired by the inclusion of erroneous subject matter in the teaching of science at all levels, including in particular kindergarten through twelfth grade; and

WHEREAS evolution holds special value to humanism only by virtue of its proven utility to explain the diversity and origin of life on Earth and that humanists would choose a better explanation if one were discovered; therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED that the concept of evolution as well as its instructors, researchers, and practitioners be granted public and private funds, be prominent in public and private institutions of learning, and be understood, supported, and advanced by humanists.

 

Stem Cells

Inspired by compassion and informed by reason, humanists are committed to the treatment of each person as having inherent worth and dignity. In recognizing the potential of the medical and biological sciences to improve human lives through the cure of debilitating diseases, amelioration of suffering, and reduction of the consequences of aging, humanists oppose efforts to constrain the advance of beneficial scientific research on the basis of religious or political dogma.

WHEREAS research using human embryonic stem cells holds great potential for treatment of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, and other debilitating afflictions, and

WHEREAS human embryonic stem cells, derived from pre-implantation blastocysts, possess the unique capacity to differentiate into any somatic tissue, thus creating an unprecedented wealth of potential investigative and therapeutic applications, and

WHEREAS the derivation of additional cell lines from human embryonic stem cells will greatly facilitate important research and its translation into therapeutic benefit, and

WHEREAS embryonic cells derived from the process commonly referred to as “therapeutic cloning” (the transfer of somatic cell nuclei into enucleated eggs) or by the manipulation of somatic cells by artificial means may have particular value in regenerative medicine by providing cells that are a perfect genetic match for patients, and

WHEREAS embryos obtained or derived for research or therapeutic purposes with the informed consent of the donor are not destined for personhood and have no independent moral status; therefore,

BE IT RESOLVED that the American Humanist Association supports research employing embryonic stem cells and federal funding for such research commensurate with its potential to advance scientific knowledge and lead to the development of novel therapies. Further, we encourage the development of ethical guidelines for such applications through the use of reason rather than religious or political doctrine.

 

Human Cloning

Humanists are committed to the treatment of each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to the opportunity for all people to make informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility. Therefore, humanists seek to ensure that a full range of ethical and safe reproductive choices are readily available, unhindered by the constraints of either religious or political dogma.

WHEREAS genetic similarity or dissimilarity to another, the mode of procreation, nor the nature of parentage should ever be determinate of the worth or dignity accorded an individual; and,

WHEREAS a woman has the right to control the use of her ova and any embryos developed therefrom; and,

WHEREAS a woman must be permitted to make an informed choice as to whether or not to serve as the surrogate mother of a cloned human embryo; and,

WHEREAS a man retains the same rights as a woman regarding his genetic material should it be suitable for use in cloning; and,

WHEREAS efforts toward human reproductive cloning must be subject to the most rigorous of investigative standards and comprehensive pre-clinical testing to ensure that the resultant children do not suffer compromised developmental potential, health, or longevity; and,

WHEREAS the potential for reproductive cloning to facilitate the manipulation of the human germline necessitates intense scientific and ethical scrutiny and a reasoned public dialogue; and,

WHEREAS any outright ban on such research could remove it from the public domain and would likely cede it to those with lower ethical research standards,

WHEREAS any outright ban on such research could remove it from the public domain and would likely cede it to those with lower ethical research standards,

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the American Humanist Association opposes any permanent ban on reproductive cloning, and instead encourages the continuation of scientific research and the simultaneous development of rational ethical guidelines so as to ensure the safe application of this technology and to protect against its misuse or abuse.

THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the American Humanist Association advises the same care, concern, rights, and treatment of cloned persons as should be afforded non-cloned persons, both in the decision to procreate and in the treatment of such persons throughout their lives.

 

Afterword on Science, Pseudoscience, and the Frontier

Part of Scientific Integrity is striking a balance between openness to draw any conclusion from sufficient evidence while also understanding that there is a clear distinction between accepted concepts and thoroughly debunked concepts. For example, evolution and gravity are thoroughly accepted concepts. Gravity provides a clear, mathematical law while “modern synthesis” evolution collects concepts such as genetics, epigenetics, natural selection, and evolutionary development into a strong foundation for human understanding of the world.

Such strong understanding and wide acceptance does not mean that these concepts are immutable truths. As noted, evolution continues to develop as we build stronger understanding of how it works. In addition, the expansion of evolution into social planning, i.e., social Darwinism and eugenics, has been almost entirely discredited as unethical. Thus we see one expression of how efficacy is irrelevant when ethics are violated.

Gravity is another well-accepted concept. While it is well-understood, humans have just recently observed its “carrier,” the Higgs boson. And while that particle holds gravity, there is still no scientific consensus or even a strong theory on how this particle carrier, the Higgs boson, affects other types of particles or the fabric of space-time. Concepts such as gravitational waves are proposed but as-yet unproven. So science recognizes that even where there is certainty, there is still opportunity for study.

On the other end of the spectrum, concepts such as astrology, gay cures, and homeopathy have all been thoroughly disproven and have no useful application. Not only have they been shown to have no experimental efficacy, their scientific bases have been reviewed and discarded. For example, ‘homeopathy’ rests on concepts such as “memory” of water and toxic “opposites” curing the maladies they create. Such theories can and have been set aside after experimental and theoretical scrutiny. While we are open-minded and curious about even the most foundational scientific concepts, we must be equally vigilant to reject that which has been disproven.

Gray areas where real controversy may exist frequently arise as a normal process of science. In recent times, health risks of vaccines and anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change were the target of great scrutiny in the scientific world. After a decade of expert research, review, and intellectual conflict, a scientific consensus has arisen that vaccines are critical to public health and that human-caused climate change is occurring at a rapid pace. Some continue to claim dangers from vaccines or to deny the damage of human-caused climate change. This is dangerous in many ways and is unscientific in its denial of consensus evidence and the hard work over many years that have provided valuable understanding of the situation. The proper scientific response is to move forward with the new information. The medical and public health community has returned to expanding vaccination programs to push back the new whooping cough and mumps epidemics that arose from anti-vaccination efforts. Political and environmental leaders do the hard work not of denying climate change but of changing our cultural, financial, and industrial infrastructure to mitigate the damage done to our Earth.

This integration and adjustment of knowledge has happened in the past. Geocentricism (Earth/firmament) gave way to heliocentrism (solar system) which gave way eventually to the “observable universe” view we have of 13 billion light years of space-time. The classical physics of Newton were adapted over the course of decades into Einstein’s quantum dynamics.

Complementary and alternative medicine is an exciting area of scientific development. While such things as Reiki and homeopathy should be set aside, others like acupuncture and chiropractic are almost but not entirely discredited and may have some uses. Much of this also relates to placebo medicine where patients are essentially lied to in an effort to improve their mental state to create positive outcomes. The positive outcomes are real even if the treatments are not, so how can the outcomes be protected along with the integrity of the doctor and the rights of the patient?

Integration of knowledge has not been without risk. Concepts of evolution, even as they were advancing medicine and agriculture, were used to promote sterilization and genocide. The terrible power of the atomic bomb is another example of how scientific knowledge can have terrible consequences. Chelation therapy is effective in removing heavy metals from the body but can kill and is dangerous when used for other ailments. Ethics is not separate from science but must at all times be an integral and important part of the process of discovery, experimentation, and application of new ideas.

With excitement, awe, wonder, and no small amount of indignation at the diminishment of our previous successes, we can find new discoveries every day. But this cannot happen when we hold onto disproven concepts, reject areas of discovery, or fail to accept the preponderance of evidence in a new area. We must always do so with our ethical considerations in mind, applying science with concern for the well-being of our planet, our fellow humans, and other life. We can reach Mars with propulsion and materials science, free our minds with secular meditation and educational methods, and free our hearts as we learn to raise our children and accept love among adults however it appears.

  • J

    Where does herbal medicine fall?

  • http://pragmaticdomesticity.wordpress.com Ava Trimble Perls

    What a fantastic, balanced document! I really appreciate the attention to scientific ethics as well as the scientific method. My only criticism is that the section on human cloning refers to women and men and their rights over their bodies and genetic materials in a narrowly cisgendered way. There is a Trans* population out there who should be recognized when writing things like this – I’m sure that section of the document could be rephrased to be inclusive of people whose gender and reproductive systems don’t match up as described. Especially when discussing ethics, inclusivity seems critical. Thank you.

  • Jherad

    I *loathe* the term ‘scientism’. It is largely a non-existent straw man and is almost always used by those looking to slip new-age ‘woo’ into places as a substitute for science.

  • Mr. Timm

    While I am in no way endorsing the view that the planets can control our lives, it’s my opinion that Astrology has historic value, Astrological research eventually led to advances in Astronomy, and the stars and planets were the first clocks for almost all of the ancient civilizations. In that respect, Astrology may not be a true science, but it should be preserved as a social science to gain valuable insight into anthropological research. Human behavior isn’t so much influenced by Astrology, but much of its formulation turned on observation of social patterns, some of which are still relevant today.