Expertise and Ethics in Academics

Today writing about ethics in academics became a necessity, after all that has been happening in Japan for the past week.

March 22, 2011

Today writing about ethics in academics became a necessity, after all that has been happening in Japan for the past week.

Following the earthquake and the tsunami, a nuclear disaster seems to be hitting the country. As in the midst of any such crisis, we see three kinds of people who appear on the media: the victims, the authorities and the experts. The victims are the people who experienced the event. The authorities are those in seats of decision making and are in charge of the public service. These authorities can be administrators on a local level, politicians on a national level or civil servants of relevant international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency on an international level. The experts are often scientists who are also mostly academics.

The victims tell their own stories, how they survived the disaster, how they were rescued and their feelings about the events. The authorities try to reassure the public that everything possible is being done. The experts make scientific declarations about the event in question.

The experts also act as advisers to the decision makers. However, while fulfilling this role, they do one of the following two things:

Either they try to warn the public in general and the decision makers in particular about the dangers of such disasters. They give scientific evidence, statistics, event history, technical details to make the event better understood both by the public and the decision makers. By allowing the event to be better understood, the experts actually serve as guides to let the decision makers to take the necessary measures before and after the event and the public to grasp the necessity of them doing so.

This is something we can call as a positive input of the experts. Short of this input, the decision makers and the public would be left in the dark about the reasons and the consequences of most events. In a way, the experts are the translators of the language of a phenomenon, whether this phenomenon takes place within the realm of the life sciences or social sciences.

Or the experts act as legitimizers for the decisions that the decision makers see as benefiting their nation, ideology, political party or even themselves. The decision makers may use the expertise of the experts to downplay the risks, to maximize the likely benefits, to argue the inevitability of taking a certain decision, as it is based on scientific or academic grounds. This is something we can call as a negative input of the experts, the negativity being in the fact the experts are manipulating or are being used to manipulate the public.

The discussions about nuclear energy safety and about our renewable energy alternatives following the post-earthquake picture of the uncontrollable Fukushima nuclear power plant made me think about the role of the experts on such issues who are oftentimes people employed at universities. The discussions reminded me that the loyalty of the academics should lie with humanity. Academics owe humanity the scientific truth, be it the truth on earthquakes, nuclear safety, global warming, rocket science or on better ways of governance, the electoral politics, the mysteries of the human psyche resolved so-far or the consequences of apathy among the youth in our societies. It is also important that academics not act as omniscient because most of the times they are not. Academics are also responsible by knowing the limits of their own knowledge and not misleading the public with what they pretend to know when they do not know for sure.

Academics are scientists who, serving as experts, become the gatekeepers between the natural and also the human-made order we find ourselves in and the way this order is perceived and used by both the public and the decision makers. This should be one role that the academics should never be allowed to cheat in; the role of academics as legitimizers of any decision (political or technical) when it is not appropriate to do so is equal to cheating. That should be regarded as the highest level of ethics in academics.

Istanbul, Turkey

Itir is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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