Relativism, Regulation and the Dangers of Indifferent Science: The Sir Roy Cameron Lecture of the Royal College of Pathologists
Berry, Colin L.
Toxicology 2010 January 12; 267(1-3): 7-13
The evaluation of data obtained from scientific investigations is not easy and the process often seems counterintuitive to the uninformed. Some commentators hold the conviction that ideological motives colour all deliberations-this makes it easy to suggest that in any scientific debate an opponent's reason for holding a particular viewpoint or belief depends on his or her motives, rather than their knowledge base. This position may be useful in providing the grounds on which to mount a polemic against any perceived threat (drugs in modern medicine, pesticides in intensive agriculture or genetically modified organisms). However, its existence is not a reason to ignore the fact that the data obtained by use of the scientific method may be of a different kind from that which depends on opinions, honed by prejudices. Here I use prejudice to mean a bias that may be favourable or unfavourable to a particular viewpoint, rather than to a willful disregard of fact or an unreasoning predilection to arrive at a particular answer--the Precautionary Principle is a good example of only considering results that fit a preconceived viewpoint. The conviction that opinions cannot be based on independent thought has led to a disregard of professionalism and the development of the view that who pays you determines your opinion--not your science. This is relativism, which embodies the assertion that knowledge is relative and that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them-there are no absolutes. This compounds the problems of regulatory toxicology which is always beset by unavoidable uncertainties and suffers from being based on the use of the results of testing procedures many decades old which have themselves failed to incorporate new knowledge about the processes we investigate (see Hartung, 2009). A more vigorous assertion of the particular values of the scientific viewpoint and a willingness to incorporate new knowledge into regulatory decision making is necessary.
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