Science research decisions: risks and benefits or morals and ethics?

Science research decisions: risks and benefits or morals and ethics? December 20, 2008

Some more survey results today. Tis the season for it, it seems! This time its the 8th Annual Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey. The survey covers a bunch of issues related to US public attitudes to life sciences. They surveyed about 1000 people, and also asked them about their religious beliefs. A frightening 42% of the sample were biblical fundamentalists – who reckon the Bible is the literal word of God.

They asked one quite peculiar question (see the graphic). Surely the moral and ethical issues depend upon the risks and benefits? Clearly the people who came up with these questions are not Utilitarians!

Anyway, this is the only question that they analyse by religious beliefs:

Religiosity tends to correlate with views about scientific decision‐making. Those who are more religious tend to say that decisions should be based on the moral and ethical issues involved (44%); 39% of this group say the risk‐benefit analysis should be primary. Those who are less religious clearly side in the opposite direction; 69% of those for whom religion is not important say decisions should be based on a risk and benefit analysis.

I guess there are no surprises here. I’d interpret it like this: people who are not religious think that decisions should be made on the merits of the issue itself, taking into account a careful analysis of the pros and cons.

The religious, on the other hand, think that it doesn’t matter whether the research itself is beneficial or harmful. If it conflicts with what they think their god wants, they don’t like it and want to stop it.

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