Does science make us good?

A number of stories have emerged in recent times revealing misconduct in science. But, perhaps things are better than they seem. A new study has just been published – Does Science Make you More Moral? – by social psychology researchers Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich of the University of California Santa Barbara in the online journal PLOS One, that claims to find a strong link between exposure to science and moral behaviour.


There is evidence that people harbour deep-seated perceptions of science as a moral pursuit, conducted to advance the collective well-being of all, and that science is popularly seen as operating according to the guiding lights of rationality, impartiality and truth-seeking. Based on this assumption, the authors of this new study made the hypothesis that the association between science and goodness is so ingrained that merely thinking about science can trigger moral behaviour and the study tests that hypothesis.



The new study is in four parts. Study number 1 looked for a correlation between individual belief in science and the likelihood of choosing moral norms when presented with a hypothetical violation of morals. Participants in the study, mostly undergraduates from the University of California, were asked to read a story about a date-rape and to rate the ‘wrongness’ of the offence. 


They then completed a questionnaire designed to measure their belief in science. The result showed that greater the belief in science the harsher the condemnation of the date-rape.



The simple correlation seen in study 1 could be explained in ways other than that belief in science induces morality and studies 2 – 4 were carried out to see if these alternative explanations could be ruled out. A technique called priming was used in studies 2 – 4. In priming the participants are exposed to a series of words relevant to a particular category in order to increase the cognitive accessibility of that category. The words ‘logical’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘laboratory’, ‘scientists’ and ‘theory’ were used to refer to the category of science. These words were included in scrambled word lists and participants in the study were asked to rearrange the words to make sentences. Participants in the control group were given primers where all the words were neutral, e.g. ‘shoes replace old the’ was one such neutral primer.


After the priming exercise, the participants either read the date-rape story and then answered questions regarding the severity of the transgression (study 2), or stated the degree they intended to carry out a variety of altruistic acts (e.g. donating money to charity, giving blood) over the coming months (study 3), or declare how they would divide a gift of $5 between themselves and an anonymous other participant in the study – each could make the division as they pleased (study 4).


Moral behaviour 

The results showed that priming with science-related thoughts increased adherence to moral norms – those primed with the science words were harsher in their condemnation of the date-rape – (study 2), enhanced altruistic intentions (study 3) and increased generosity towards an anonymous other (study 4). Thinking about science seems to encourage moral behaviour.


As a scientist myself, I would like to think that my discipline has this wonderful bonus effect of promoting moral behaviour. However, I remain to be convinced, although the results of this recent study are undoubtedly interesting.



One question that gives me pause for thought is – if thinking about science induces moral behaviour, how is it that a worrying number of scientists indulge in misbehaviour – mainly perpetrating fraud? As far as we know, gross cheating is carried out by only a tiny minority of scientists but there may well be a considerable incidence of less serious misdemeanour such as data-massaging, selective reporting of experiments and stopping data collection once experiments support a hypothesis. One fears the growth of a general culture of sloppiness in science involving not only scientists themselves but also journal editors and reviewers. There are reports that the incidence of fraud in science is increasing (e.g. news report in The Psychologist, September 2013) and some incidents are quite spectacular indeed.


Ironically one spectacular incidence of fraud that came to light in 2011 was in the field of social psychology and partly involved the study of priming – the technique used in the University of California study I described above. A leading professor of social psychology in a Dutch university was at the centre of this incident. An official investigation of his 137 research papers showed that he had committed data fraud in 55 of them. Basically he was telling the world and the field of social psychology what it wanted to hear about human nature. Interestingly this incident was not mentioned in the recent paper by Ma-Kellams and Blascovich.



Also, if it is true that science does induce moral behaviour then one would expect that, amongst academics, scientists are more moral than their counterparts in the humanities. I am sure that the academic community would greet the confirmation of this hypothesis with great hilarity!


And finally a little joke as a reward for sticking with this article to the end: A reporter went to interview the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, and was astonished to discover that Bohr had a horseshoe hanging over his desk. “Surely you don’t believe, Dr Bohr, that hanging a horseshoe will bring you good luck!” said the astonished reporter. Bohr replied – “No, of course not. But I have been informed that it will bring me good luck whether I believe in it or not.”


William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.