Business Ethics and Science

Facts alone are never enough to tell us how we should behave. But facts do matter.

This means that, sometimes, the right thing for a business to do will depend on what the relevant science says. But scientists often disagree with each other. (That in itself is not something to lament, but something to celebrate. Orthodoxy is anathema to scientists, and it is only grudgingly that scientists, collectively, declare one particular point of view “proven.” That’s part of the power of science.)

So, what should businesses do in the face of scientific disagreement? Here are a couple of possible approaches to consider:

1) Default to safety. If there’s any scientific disagreement over whether a particular food additive is dangerous, for example, then don’t use it in your product.

2) Default to freedom of commerce. If there’s any scientific disagreement over whether a particular herbal remedy is useful, for example, then let consumers (and whichever advisors they trust) decide for themselves.

Both of those are ethically questionable, for reasons that are probably obvious. Insisting on total agreement, one way or the other, is impractical, not least because there’s always the chance that the one or two holdouts just haven’t thought things through, or are even insane. It happens.

But those aren’t the only options. One other solution (or cluster of possible solutions) would involve determining a threshold for what should count as “substantial” scientific disagreement. One loony scientist saying X is safe isn’t very reliable, just as one loony scientist saying X is dangerous isn’t very worrisome. But things are different if a substantial, credible minority — perhaps even a very small minority — disagrees with the majority of scientists. Now, just what should count as a “substantial, credible minority” is not an easy question. But I can at least imagine a well-reasoned, reputable account of corporate decision-making that appealed to such a standard in the face of scientific (and social) disagreement.

Of course, all of this can be rendered moot if government decides to “settle” controversy by imposing regulations. But note the important asymmetry here: government forbidding something as too dangerous, in spite of (or because of) scientific controversy effectively settles the matter, as far as business is concerned. If it’s legally forbidden, businesses shouldn’t do it. But an explicitly permissive regulation — such as the FDA’s or Health Canada’s approval of the use of a particular plastic in baby bottles — doesn’t necessarily settle the matter. It’s always possible that the relevant regulatory agency isn’t on the ball, or is subject to pernicious influences. And so businesses are still ethically obligated, in the face of scientific disagreement, to think through just what their obligations are.

5 comments so far

  1. Annie @ PhD in Parenting on

    I’ve thought a lot about this. Most things cannot be classified as completely safe or completely unsafe. I think that it would be better for the government to educate the public about the risks of different substances, but let them make their own decisions (in cases where it only affects that individual and not others too by virtue of them using it).

    I wrote a bit about it here:

    Since writing that and reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, I’m even more convinced that we need some sort of sliding scale to indicate the risk level.

  2. richardwilsonauthor on

    Isn’t there maybe also a further complication here – that sometimes a particular industry will argue that there is a significant scientific controversy around a particular issue when in fact a) the overwhelming majority of scientists in the relevant field have a settled view on the issue b) many/most of the high-profile ‘dissenters’ are in some way compromised by links to said industry. I guess the classic example would be the ‘controversy’ around the link between smoking and lung cancer.

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Yes, sure, that does happen.
    My question is about what should happen. At what point is it ok for companies to say, “hey, the science isn’t settled here?”



  4. richardwilsonauthor on

    I see your point – I guess there are a few indicators that could be used – ie. Is there a Cochrane review (or at least an independent and relatively well-reputed systematic review) on the issue and if so what does it say? Are the ‘dissenters’ able to get their stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal? The latter question could help weed out some of the more obvious nuts though may still only be of limited benefit given the long history of well-respected scientists going totally off the rails on some issue or another (eg. from the virologist Peter Duesberg on AIDS to Alfred Russel Wallace on vaccination).

  5. […] Business Ethics and Science June 27, 2009 […]

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