Fear of Science

Brian Barnett

Injecting a conflated understanding of ethics into journalism negatively affects scientific progress. That is to say, unethically performed research such as the fraudulent Wakefield paper on autism and vaccines or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment should be reported on and brought to the attention of the public. In contrast, journalism involving research findings should not jump to conclusions about the potential for research to be used unethically. When these unwarranted ethical questions are presented in the media, their only utility is to propagate a mistrust of science research.

A recent Atlantic article presents recent neuroscience research as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The research focuses on altering memories that trigger PTSD symptoms. When a memory is retrieved, it can be affected by additional stimuli or neural signals. This is generally useful, as memories need a way to update themselves in response to changes in the environment or behavior. The research targeted the unstable nature of recalled memories by giving participants a dose of propranolol (a beta blocker drug) before asking them to recall a fearful memory. The idea is that these drugs reduce emotional responses (e.g. some musicians take beta blockers before a big audition so that their nervousness or anxiety is lowered and they are able to play well). If a person’s emotional responsiveness is reduced, then recalling a fearful memory might not produce the usual physiological response. Over time, repeated and directed therapy could cause this memory to reconsolidate into a non-stressful version.

The article does a great job of explaining the content of the research in a concise fashion, but its attempt to incorporate ethical concern is harmful. The subheading at the top of the article is as follows: “A controversial area of brain research suggests [changing memories] may be possible – but is it ethical?” The article does not mention ethics again until the very last sentence, where the author asks the same exact question. The author wants to make sure that the first thing that the reader sees after the title is this question. I find this disconcerting. When a proposed treatment is not even close to being verifiable, and the scientific community understands the limitations of a specific study, we do not need to spend time questioning its ethical nature.

It is easy to take our science findings and extrapolate them to their scary extremes. Tacking on a question of ethics probably generates controversy and can be good for an author’s page views. It is telling that the author asks the question but does not address it. It can be hard to make definitive statements about what is right or wrong when it comes to a complex concept like memory alteration. Regardless of how difficult this question is to answer, science research on memory alteration should not be stopped. When our scientists are not close to figuring out how to reliably alter memories in a benign, therapeutic context, then we do not need to worry about their ability to perform unethical experiments. The research studies presented in the article followed Institutional Review Board guidelines and underwent stringent peer review (processes which are largely meant to prevent unethical research from occurring). There is a distinction between ethically performed research and the ethical use of a technology or process. This neuroscience research followed all established ethical guidelines and it should not be stopped because of the fear that it might lead to unethical practices later on.

If we are going to worry about anything at all involving this research, it would be that a rogue actor, who somehow does understand how to manipulate memories, starts to cause undue harm and suffering to others. If this hypothetical situation occurs, what can we do? Our only option would be to perform even more research to figure out how to undo his or her actions! Opportunists will always try to take advantage of science and technology advancements. We cannot avoid that fact, unless we become complacent, halt all research, and never solve another difficult problem again. Performing solid, peer-reviewed research on topics like PTSD therapy is a valuable endeavor and placing unnecessary questions of ethics around it will limit our abilities to succeed. Ethics are an important aspect of our society and are the vehicle by which we demonstrate fair and just treatment of our fellow citizens. However, scientific research should not be hampered by premature concern about its ethical consequences.

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