Limiting Factors
Paul Scherz’s Science and Christian Ethics
Tim Grennan

Today’s young scientists face challenges distinct from their predecessors. While not new, these challenges have intensified because of market forces and professional expectations. Paul Scherz’s monograph, Science and Christian Ethics, explores the moral formation of scientists in the current milieu of 1) scientist as entrepreneur; 2) lack of true innovation in scientific research; 3) problems of reproducibility in science; and 4) increasing problems of burnout in scientific researchers.

This monograph is part of the New Studies in Christian Ethics series from Cambridge University Press. In the preface to the current volume, the series editor lists two aims for the series:  first, “To promote monographs in Christian ethics that engage centrally with the present secular moral debate at the highest possible intellectual level;” and second, “To encourage contributors to demonstrate that Christian ethics can make a distinctive contribution to this debate—either in moral substance or in terms of underlying justifications” (ix). Science and Christian Ethics accomplishes these aims. The tightly written text includes copious footnotes and a 372-entry bibliography, giving the reader ample opportunity to further explore topics addressed in his book.

As an associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, Scherz is eminently qualified to address both science and ethics. After studying molecular and cellular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Scherz earned a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University and conducted postdoctoral research in the genetics of embryonic development at the University of California, San Francisco. Mid-career, Scherz turned to academic theology, earning his doctorate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame prior to joining the faculty at CUA.

Scherz hypothesizes that “questions of moral formation require the examination of how one comes to see and to understand the world and how this understanding shapes how one engages the world.… Conflicts may arise because of the differences in the relationship between truth and subjectivity in alternative ways of knowing” (3). The crises in contemporary science that he addresses include fraud, lack of reproducibility, the slowing of true scientific innovation, and the disillusionment and loss of career opportunities for many young investigators. Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, shifts in policy, law, and cultural norms, along with a reductionist view of the world, have caused scientists to become entrepreneurs and raised concerns about the validity and reproducibility of the scientific literature, about innovation, and about career development. These shifts have led to a moral crisis for scientists.

Scherz lays out two approaches in contemporary philosophy and social theory, the Aristotelian model and the Stoic model, to address the moral issues facing scientists. Using the work of Alasdair MacIntyre as the main proponent of the Aristotelian model, Scherz explores moral formation of the scientist through virtue ethics with training leading to conscious choice of virtuous rather than vicious actions. The Stoic model, on the other hand, is best exemplified by the work of the late French philosopher Michel Foucault. Stoicism emphasizes that one must continually shape one’s perception of the world, drawing on meditative and ascetic techniques in the long process of continuing conversion away from unreflective practices.

 Perhaps the most important aspect of Scherz’s argument is the crisis in science. Scherz argues that the crisis is insidious, that the very practice of scientific research is broken and that dangers arise from the current structure of science. The problems he addresses erode the very foundations of the scientific enterprise.

A key element in the structure of scientific research is trust. Scherz, however, enumerates several cases of fraud—primarily in biological and medical research—that have come to light and so undermined the critical element of trust that exists among researchers. A lack of resources, effects on career development, and lack of openness with regards to methodology contribute to lack of reproducibility of published research. The requirements that drug companies, for example, impose on researchers (such as maintaining final approval of research prior to publishing, unwillingness to publish negative findings, ability to withhold research grants, and avoiding true equipoise in clinical trials) has a draconian effect on the relationship that young investigators have with such funding entities. Fraud, lack of reproducibility, and legal constraints threaten the existence of the scientific enterprise.

Interestingly, there is even a lack of true innovation in research. Focusing mainly on the biomedical fields, Scherz explains that every few years there is a “breakthrough” that promises to revolutionize health care—gene therapy, genomics, and regenerative medicine are recent examples—and which shifts government funding and draws journalistic interest. Unfortunately, however, most of these “breakthroughs” have failed to translate into meaningful improvements in health care. These fads have actually harmed the scientific enterprise and slowed true innovation over the last quarter century.

A broader, long term concern that Scherz elucidates is the deleterious effects on the career development of a scientist. Given the lengthy training (often over a dozen years) of a researcher and the tenuous funding process and challenges of reaching tenure, many promising young researchers simply find the career path too stressful and seek out other professions.

An overarching concern related to the above issues is the concept of scientist as entrepreneur. Scherz argues that the new ideal in science, the entrepreneurial ideal, is the common root of the problems just listed. The shift to entrepreneurialism has led to competition rather than collaboration, “bibliometrics” (publication be-comes a “winner take all”) and secrecy rather than openness and collegiality. There is a lot of money to be made by entrepreneurial scientists.

In an attempt to address these concerns, Scherz focuses on changing the individual rather than changing the scientific enterprise. “The argument presented…suggests that contemporary moral problems can be solved only if individuals’ lives take a different form… People must cease to engage the world as material for use or sale, acting as agents of manipulation and competition, and instead undergo a different kind of moral formation” (113). He spends considerable time elaborating concepts as articulated by MacIntyre and Foucault:

In MacIntyre and those he has influenced, change can come only through engagement in alternative forms of social practice like craft, while in Foucault…the individual must also undertake conscious work on his self.

MacIntyre argues that a change in political structures must come before ethical transformation because one becomes virtuous by living within a small community devoted to virtuous practice, a model that largely derives from Aristotle’s argument that virtue arises from habituation in a well-structured polis. In contrast, Foucault see personal transformation as both necessary for and partly constitutive of political transformation. Drawing on Stoicism, Foucault argues that ethical transformation occurs through the subject’s work on the self, work that consists of practices of the self, including meditative and ascetic techniques (113).

In his final chapter, Scherz summarizes:

The social theories discussed in this book offer a diagnosis of how contemporary practices like those in science deform knowledge of self, ways of seeing, dispositions, and actions. They show the mechanisms through which individuals, especially contemporary scientists, are problematically formed in reductionist and market-based ways of approaching the world. The central impetus of this book, echoed by many other commentators, is to change this system of practice.

The problem lies not only in the structures, though. The real problem is primarily the ideal that motivates many of these structures, the ideal of entrepreneurial science. It is an ideal that distracts one from the pursuit of truth to the pursuit of profit, taking advantage of the instrumentalist stance toward the world imbued by the daily practice of laboratory research (200).

The challenge that Scherz undertakes in Science and Christian Ethics is continuing the dialogue between science and ethics. This is not an easy undertaking as each specialty has its own adherents, language, and culture. But Scherz does an admirable job, and, given the references and bibliography, readers have a wealth of material to explore what the author has so carefully documented in this monograph.


Tim Grennan is professor of internal medicine at California Northstate University College of Medicine.

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