Disciplines, Discipline, and the Ethics of Correction

I’ve had a few conversations this month about Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist whose research and pronouncements consistently stir controversy. Whether he’s ranking the attractiveness of Black women or analyzing the child-bearing choices of high-IQ women, Kanazawa draws criticism, rebuttal, and disavowals from other scientists as well as the general public.

One friend wrote that Kanazawa shouldn’t be cited as proof that evolutionary psychology is an inherently racist field: the field, he said, shouldn’t be judged by one member:

I agree that one controversial member can’t represent an entire field. I also disagree that a discipline’s internal debates should automatically de-legitimize its unpopular figures: just because there’s disagreement doesn’t mean anyone should be excluded. Misapplications, false positives, and failures are part of what differentiates a profession or discipline from a dogmatic inquisition: dissociating from dissidents, outliers, renegades, and spotlight hunters can’t be the measure of disciplinary status, or the definition of “discipline” would have to be “Borg collective.”

A conference presenter (seated) addresses his audience

At the 2nd Annual Responsible Conduct of Research Conference, Texas Tech University Ethics Center, 2012

So what does make a discipline? A discipline is bounded by common epistemology, common research methods, common credentialing, and common peer review. Sharing a discipline doesn’t bind members to agree on interpretation; and those 4 common areas mean that Kanazawa is still “in” with evolutionary psychology no matter how much his peers distance themselves from his work. His public statements don’t degrade the profession, and peer dissociation doesn’t bolster his field.

My friend suggested that it was nevertheless “important for others in his field to call him out.” So I asked whether he could see a difference between “calling someone out” and challenging their research assumptions, methods, or findings in commentary or further research. If disciplinary “discipline” doesn’t distinguish between the two, then it risks conflating the integrity of field boundaries with that field’s approval of individual members and their personalities.

Furthermore, disciplines are communities of common practice. They’re not personality factories. They’re about what we do, not about who we are. This is why professional codes of ethics tend to focus on activity and inaction, not belief or character. Ethics codes tenets will include reducing conflicts of interest or maintaining confidentiality as these are fundamental actions that guard professional integrity and ensure that clients, customers, patients, and the public at large can rely on whatever professionals do. But those same codes won’t sneak from action guidelines into thought regulations; they won’t police a member’s feelings about his clients or try to fix his cosmological opinions. Those opinions will rarely even become a conversation topic unless they’re perceived to undermine the quality of a professional’s client relationships and performance.

In 2012, 500 Emory students declined to host neurosurgeon Ben Carson as their graduation speaker because of his views on the moral implications of evolutionary science. He saw the controversy as an attack on his personal religious rights, but his critics challenged him “as a representative of science and medicine.” Respondents debated the merits of his position, concerned by his philosophical assertion that “relativism” and amorality or un-grounded morality were the natural consequence of affirming evolution. Other criticism focused on how Carson had represented evolution to the Seventh-day Adventist paper that published his comments (Carson later said that the paper had misrepresented him by not printing complete quotations; I’ve not been able to find any statements from the paper confirming or denying Carson’s claim.)

But even though Carson eventually stepped down as Emory’s speaker, he wasn’t cast out of medicine. The event was extra-curricular, an out-of-work event. He wasn’t sanctioned by his discipline at any point—and wouldn’t have been unless he was found to have breached medical standards of practice.

My friend and I agreed that a person doesn’t have to be a decent human being in order to become an effective professional. Of course clients and customers prefer to work with decent human beings! Professions do shape how we live out our humanity with other people because they structure the spaces in which we practice and the relationships through which we interact with others in those spaces. But while our professional training and practice is based on shared disciplinary knowledge, that training isn’t responsible for professionals’ core sense of compassion or brutality. If a discipline’s members are adults with an intact sense of morality, the discipline’s ethics will lie on top of and interact with individuals’ ethics and the various intersecting ethics of their cultures, communities, and nations.

The consequence of this is an insight shared in an influential technical communication essay (summary) and made during my conversation with my friend: unethical practice and research can still be done with good technique,” and a “good technique” doesn’t change a practice’s fundamental ethical nature. Disciplines might make a person more effective, but they can’t make them “good.”

Some Questions

During this entire conversation I was thinking not just about how disciplines police their boundaries but also how religious groups police theirs. Are you part of a religious group or a professional discipline? What have you noticed about how these groups monitor who’s in, who’s out, and how they resolve conflicts about group identity and group ideas? Do they seem to prioritize the protection of their group brand and their public reputation; how are controversial ideas dealt with? What are that group’s ethics based on? Are those ethics about actions or character?

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