January/February 2002

Ethical Problems in Seismology

Science and Ethics

Before discussing the specific ethical problems that may be encountered in the practice of seismology, I will start with some brief general considerations about science and ethics. Recently an article was published by John Ziman, professor of theoretical physics at the University of Bristol, with the provocative title "Why must scientists become more ethically sensitive than they used to be?" (Science 282, 1,813-1,814, 1998). The article reflects the new sensitivity among scientists on ethical issues arising from their own work and at the same time recognizes that in the past this has not always been the case. What has changed in recent years to justify this new interest? Why has the ethics of science become such a common topic in books, articles, and conferences?

The traditional position in this matter has been that science in itself is ethically neutral. This supposed neutrality was usually supported by the clear separation between pure and applied sciences. The name "pure" seems to indicate that applications in some way contaminate the purity of science. Today this terminology is rarely used, but instead one finds the equivalent separation between fundamental or basic science and technological applications. Science and technology are, then, clearly separated. According to this separation ethical problems are relegated to the applications of science, that is, to technology, but they do not apply to science itself. We could say that ethics is a problem for engineers but not for scientists. Another similar division is that of academic and industrial science. The first is mainly practiced at universities and research institutes and the second in industry. Each of them has different characteristics. In neither case, though for different reasons, do ethical problems arise. In the academic science, they are thought to be outside the normal considerations that occur in research practice. They are simply not the type of problems academic scientists have to worry about. In industrial science, ethical considerations, which may be more strongly felt, are left to the management and direction of the research programs. Industrial scientists do not have a direct say in the solution of possible ethical problems that are left to their corporate employers. To bother with such problems might incur the risk of a possible removal from their posts.

The link between science and technology has become stronger, and it is difficult today to establish where one ends and the other begins. They have become, in fact, a unified phenomenon which has been given the name of technoscience. As the frontier between science and technology is erased, scientists cannot hide behind their separation, cannot maintain their neutrality in the face of ethical problems. The separation between academic and industrial science is also no longer clear. Both types of science have begun to merge in a complex, pervasive, and irreversible process driven by forces that as yet are not well understood. According to Ziman, a hybrid research culture is now emerging with the qualities of both academic and industrial sciences. For example, universities and research institutes are strongly dependent on government and industrial funding for commissioned research in which there are always concrete interests. Government funding agencies moreover favor research projects in which academic and industrial interests are combined, often with preponderance of the latter.

In this new way of doing science, the reasons for keeping ethical considerations out of the practice of science are essentially inconsistent. Applications of scientific discoveries to uses that affect human lives are increasingly immediate. The development of new and more lethal armaments, human genetic manipulation, and the deterioration of the environment are only a few areas of concern. A growing awareness is being created about the long-range consequences of many scientific and technological applications. An important question, seldom made but with grave ethical consequences, is the use of large resources in scientific experiments when basic human needs are not being met. As a scientist has expressed it, the greatest shortcoming of modern science has been its failure to end hunger in the world. The unequal share in scientific and technological achievements by different countries is another problem that scientists cannot be blind to. It is an ethical scandal that in the twenty-first century many people still live at a level of subsistence with life expectancy, health care, and education quite similar to that of the Stone Age.

In consequence, scientists cannot avoid the many ethical problems that are related to their work. Joseph Rotblat, professor of physics at the University of London and 1995 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently stated (Science 286, 14, 1999) that science and technology have become dominant in our lives; they have enormously improved the quality of life, but they have also created great perils, threatening the very existence of the human species. Scientists can no longer claim that their work has nothing to do with the welfare of the individual or with state policies. Thus, he proposes a type of Hippocratic oath for scientists, in which it is recommended that they consider the ethical implications of their work and promise not to use it for any purpose intended to harm human beings or the environment.

Ethics and Seismology

Let us now apply some of these ideas to the specific ethical problems that may arise in seismology. In the first place, the consideration of the separation between fundamental science and technological applications, and the relegation of ethical problems to the latter, can be found in the different attitudes of two well known institutions, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) and the Seismological Society of America (SSA). EERI has engaged formally since 1996 in a project to address many of the ethical issues which occur in the field of earthquake risk reduction. It established in 1996 a Seismic Ethic Committee and produced in 1998 a white paper entitled "Ethical Issues and Earthquake Risk Reduction" (EERI Endowment Fund White Paper, 1998). In 1999 it established a Web site on "Ethical Dilemmas in Earthquake Risk Reduction: Case Studies." Its introduction states that the project is founded on the belief that ethics are important but often unacknowledged in this field. Up to this date nine cases have been proposed and discussed. The last ones were on "Post Earthquake Evaluation Requests" and "Applying for Earthquake Recovery Assistance." It seems that, as mentioned before, ethical problems seem to be more acutely felt by engineers than by scientists.

SSA considered ethical problems for the first time in regard to the specific issue of earthquake prediction between 1978 and 1983, but has not considered any other ethical problems to the present moment. It is symptomatic, in this respect, that in the document published by SSA, the word "ethical" was dropped from the title. The document prepared in 1982 by a committee chaired by Gil Bollinger was named "Ethical Guidelines for Earthquake Predictors", but the Board of Directors objected to the word "ethical" and favored dropping it from the title. Finally the document was published as "Guidelines for Earthquake Predictors" (Bull. Seism. Soc. Am. 73, 1,955-1,956, 1983). This resistance to admitting the necessity of entering into ethical considerations is present in the document, where it is stated that, "In contrast to some professions serving the public interest, seismologists have not felt the necessity to codify the ethics of their scientific activities and endeavors." However, in spite of dropping the word "ethical", the tone of the document is clearly ethical. Thus, it appeals to a conduct guided by fidelity and impartiality and states that seismologists should apply their special knowledge for the benefit of mankind. Bollinger wrote to me that ethical problems were the basic reason why the "Guidelines" were dealt with by SSA. I wrote to Terry C. Wallace, when he was President of the SSA, inquiring about any further developments in ethical problems and received an answer from Susan Newman, Executive Director, saying, "I do not remember any formal attempts to deal with more encompassing (ethical) issues either, though I remember informal conversations on dilemmas on prediction and forecasting, land-uses planning and earthquake engineering."

Among the many instances in seismological practice in which ethical problems may arise I have already mentioned earthquake prediction and those related to earthquake risk assessment. Others exist, such as evaluation of earthquake damage, damage prevention, and research in developing countries. Seismologists, in contrast to earthquake engineers, seem to be less perceptive of the ethical consequences in these and other problems. They may be too enclosed in their purely academic world to recognize their responsibilities: due concern about the reduction of human suffering caused by earthquakes and the consequences that may follow from their research and professional decisions. This amoral attitude, which may follow from clinging to an ivory-tower mentality, is in Rotblat's opinion actually immoral, because it eschews personal responsibility for the likely consequences of one's actions. In conclusion, the ethical implications of one's work can never be dismissed. Seismology is not an exception.

Agustín Udías
Departamento de Geofísica y Meteorología
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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Posted: 1 November 2002