I had a fascinating discussion today with an anonymous academic who reports himself (my bias? the commentor may be female but for the purposes of this discussion I will use male pronouns) as being “a professional and active scientist who teaches and carries out research at a university“. During the course of the discussion I was reminded about a very important difference between members of the academic community and those of us referred to as “professionals” in the private sector (ignoring tenure which is another kettle of wax). In the private sector, the use of the word “Professional” includes a requirement for a revocable professional designation.
For those of you not familiar with the topic let me provide some detail. I attended university, completed and successfully defended my thesis and was awarded a PhD. Once awarded a PhD, it is mine for life and can only be removed through processes that take the word “onerous” to another level. In essence a PhD is an irrevocable designation, and mine, regardless of any further achievements or infamies. The essentially irrevocable nature of a PhD makes it a pretty useless degree for compliance and regulatory purposes.
As described elsewhere, I have an Interdisciplinary PhD in Chemistry and Environmental Studies and an undergraduate degree in Biology and Chemistry. If, I meet someone on the street and they ask me what I do, based on my degrees I can reasonably refer to myself as a “chemist”, a “biologist” or an “environmental scientist” and not be too far off-side. However, in British Columbia (where I live and work) the College of Applied Biology Act reserves the right to award the titles “Professional Biologist” and “Registered Professional Biologist” to the College of Applied Biology (CAB). Similarly, the “right to title” for a “Professional Chemist” has been awarded to the Association of the Chemical Profession of British Columbia (ACPBC). If I were to try and sell my services as a Professional Biologist (R.P.Bio) or a Professional Chemist (P.Chem) without having been authorized by the CAB or ACPBC, respectively I could be prosecuted and risk serious legal and financial consequences. Under the Act, the CAB is a self-regulating body. As described by the College:
(s)elf-regulation requires the establishment of an organization, governed by elected members and supported by a professional staff complement, who set standards for entrance into the profession and for the conduct of members and their practice. Membership confers title and the status that the title affords. It is also an assurance of accountability to their peers and the public for their actions.
In order to become an R.P.Bio., I was required to demonstrate my professional qualifications via a process that examined my academic training, work experience and professional reporting. In order to maintain my status, I am required to meet a requirement to take ongoing ethics training and to read and understand the Code of Ethics for the College. On a yearly basis, I am required to demonstrate that I have met the College’s continued professional development requirements and attest that I have read, and agree to be governed by, our Code of Ethics. One component of the Code of Ethics is a proactive requirement to protect the reputation of the College. Of particular interest to my discussion is item 9 of the Code, which states that as an R.P.Bio, I:
(r)ecognize the duty to address poor conduct and/or practice of another member in order to protect the public interest, the profession, and the reputation of the College.
This proactive requirement means that not only am I accountable for my actions as an R.P.Bio (and as a P.Chem), I am also accountable for those of my peers. This positive obligation recognizes the fact that as an organization our reputation is only as good as the reputation of our ethically weakest members. A failure to maintain the highest ethical standards of the organization hurts not only the individual involved but every individual certified by the organization. As such a single ethical lapse can be enough to cause the loss of one’s professional designation and often one’s ability to earn a living. This is consistent with the expression: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
So how does this relate to my discussion? Well when I questioned the Physicist about hypothetical ethical lapses in his field, his responses were very telling:
Me: hypothetical question: How would you, in your peer community, address failings like those identified during “climategate”?
Me: because in my peer community we are governed by an enforceable code of ethics. To fail to meet the code results in expulsion
He… I’m not responsible for the behaviour of someone at a different university or from a different country.
Me: you are responsible for the behaviour of the members of your peer community. That is how Professional organizations work!
He: I don’t belong to a formal professional organization. That’s kind of the point I was getting at. So, no, I’m not responsible!
Me: That is where you are so wrong. You are part of a bigger more important organization. That of academic science.
Me: you are responsible for molding the minds of our next gen. and you appear to not understand the basic ethics of your calling
He: I’m neither a priest nor a politician.
Apparently, I had made two mistakes. My first mistake was to assume that when a scientist describes himself as a “professional” in his “About Me” that he/she might not actually be a “Professional” but simply someone who is paid to carry out a job. My second mistake was that until this discussion I had completely forgotten that academics can choose, if they wish, to live in an ethical void. Historically, academics considered themselves bound by the nature of the collegial endeavour. After all the etymology of the word “collegial” pretty much describes the behaviours one would expect from academics. Unfortunately, in recent years the bonds of collegiality have disappeared. There is no group capable of controlling the bad actors. I recognize that the limitations of the tenure system precludes enforcing ethical behaviours, but I am horrified to realize that for some modern academics what was once considered typical ethical behavior is now considered a thing reserved for a “priest or politician”. On a lighter note, I can’t help but notice that in a battle of ethics this academic views politicians as more ethical than academics?
Once again, I have written a long discussion and it appears to be hanging there, waiting for a conclusion. Well in this case the conclusion is simple. In a field where there is no mechanism (nor apparently desire) to enforce ethical behavior, no enforceable codes of ethics and no revocable professional designations it is contingent on outsiders to not blindly trust what you are told. In the wake of “Climategate” that chain I talked about earlier, appears to be mighty weak for some groups.
Please note, as, I have written elsewhere, two of the most ethical academics I have had the pleasure to work/study under are considered “climate scientists”. I also recognize that the vast majority of the community are highly ethical. I remain amazed, however, that bad actors in their midst can continue to behave like they have with so few repercussions.
As an addendum to my last post, I would like to remind readers to read what I write not what you want to believe I wrote. In my previous posting I was careful to not use the word sceptic (or skeptic) nor do I discuss any “skepticism” in the post. There is a good reason for that, it is simply because that is not what the posting was about. I deliberately chose the term “trust” in my discussion. I indicate that following “Climategate” I ceased to “trust” the actors involved. I no longer trusted that they had the best interests of the scientific endeavour in their minds. I am careful not to conflate “trust” and “skepticism”. Like all trained scientists, I try to maintain a healthy level of skepticism typical of scientific norms. Following “Climategate” I did not suddenly become “skeptical”, I specifically indicated that I became “less trusting”. I no longer “trust” that the actors involved are behaving in a manner consistent with the ideals of the scientific endeavour. This is not about skepticism, this is about trust.