Engineering Body and Earth

NYT grasps, and misses, the ethical dimensions of science

The cover of today’s New York Times Science Times section carries two stories, a feature and a column, concerning the ultimate limitation of science: that it can tell us what our options are (or might be) in the face of certain problems, but not which one to exercise. Where the reporter understands full well that she is writing about ethical choices, however, the columnist, seemingly, does not.

Cornelia Dean’s lead story, about the ethical dilemmas involved in implementing, and even studying, “geoengineering” strategies to mitigate global warming, is an excellent example of covering the morality angle in science journalism. John Tierney’s column calling for the legalization of doping in sports, on the other hand, is an example of a piece that misses a beat. It’s not Tierney’s position that bothers, but his failure to lay bare the ethical rationale behind his argument in way that would be helpful to readers.

In June, I wrote about how journalists must cover the moral questions revolving around what to do (or not do) about climate change. Science journalists are responsible for explaining how science informs the decision-making process, but also for delineating where objective reasoning ends and subjective answers begin.

Dean’s feature fulfills this charge. Rather than going through the technical aspects of geoengineering strategies like launching sun-reflecting mirrors into space, her article focuses on the ethical implications of such technologies:

Ethical and philosophical issues have long occupied biotechnology, where institutional review boards commonly rule on proposed experiments and advisory committees must approve the use of gene-splicing and related techniques…

But such questions are relatively new for scientists and engineers in other fields. Some are calling for the same kinds of discussion that microbiologists organized in 1975 when the immense power of emerging knowledge of gene-splicing or recombinant DNA began to dawn on them.

As Dean observes, every geoengineering scheme so far envisioned “would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo.” The real question, then, involves the levels and types of risk are we willing to assume given different sets of circumstances and degrees of scientific uncertainty. Journalists need to explain and account for those variables in a variety of scenarios. Given a 50 percent chance of a one-foot rise in sea level by 2099, for example, is the public willing to take a 50 percent chance of precipitating an uncontrollable algal bloom in the oceans by fertilizing them with iron?

Actually, and fortunately, we haven’t come to the point where the public, or journalists, must really turn to such endgame questions. One of the most interesting points that Dean makes in her column is that scientists are still grappling with the ramifications of even broaching certain studies:

…[R]esearchers working in geoengineering say the worry that if people realize there are possible technical fixes for global warming, they will feel less urgency about reducing greenhouse gas emissions… On the other hand, some climate scientists argue that if people realized such drastic measures were on the horizon, they would be frightened enough to reduce their collective carbon footprint. Still others say that, given the threat global warming poses to the planet, it would be unethical not embark on the work needed to engineer possible remedies…

Unfortunately, none of this ethical nuance can be found in Tierney’s column advocating the legalization of performance-enhancing drugs and other treatments in sports. Again, it is not the position that he takes that casts a shadow on his work. One year ago, during the Tour de France, I wrote a column about what one longtime sports writer called the “shockingly fashionable” opinion among journalists that athletic authorities should at least consider legalizing doping. The problem with Tierney’s piece, rather, is that he does a disservice to readers by not explaining how he cleared the ethical hurdles that have, historically, buttressed anti-doping arguments.

Tierney begins by quoting an editorial in the current issue of the journal Nature, which argues that poorly calibrated doping tests have damaged athletics with false results and created “a sporting culture of suspicion, secrecy and fear.” This, and a Science News article about some trainers’ quests to always stay ahead of current detection systems, leads Tierney to conclude:

So what we have now is not a level playing field. The system punishes some innocent athletes and rewards others with the savvy and connections not to get caught. The more that the authorities crack down on known forms of enhancement, the more incentive athletes have to experiment with new ones - and to get their advice from black-market dealers instead of doctors.

Granted, there is an ethical strand to Tierney’s argument here, and he later quotes a doctor of sports medicine and two bioethicists’ opinions that legalized doping would “encourage more sensible informed use of drugs in amateur sport…” But as every good columnist knows, part of mounting an effective argument involves a rebuttal of contrary opinion. Here, Tierney’s work is lacking. He quotes an article in the British Medical Journal, endorsed by thirty other scholars, which criticizes healthcare professionals for inflating the dangers of drugs like anabolic steroids based “on scant evidence tainted by a misguided moralistic motivation to protect sport.”

What are these misguided moralistic motivations? Tierney doesn’t elaborate, but the BMJ does:

Four reasons are conventionally advanced in favour of anti-doping: the need to ensure a “level playing field,” the need to protect the health of athletes; the need to preserve the integrity of sport; and the need to set a good example. All four assumptions have at their core a need for moral certainty, and all four are flawed.

The article then goes on to explain, in detail, why the authors think each of the four arguments is flawed, an act of cost-benefit analysis that would have improved Tierney’s column immensely. From him, readers get only the much-too-simplified rationale that performance enhancement should be less taboo because “The fans, after all, include people with laser-corrected eyes, chemically whitened teeth and surgically enhanced anatomies.” He also throws in the idea that legalized doping could “point the way for lesser mortals to coax more out of the their bodies.” By “lesser mortals,” he seems to mean the elderly and the injured. Ignoring the callous turn of phrase for a moment, one might ask why he thinks it is ethically justified (or even necessary) to permit sports doping in order to achieve medical progress.

Tierney’s failure to fully explain the ethical underpinnings of his anti-anti-doping argument is not his only problem, however. His proposed solution to the current system also falls flat. Both the Nature and the BMJ report cited by Tierney stop short of supporting the legalization of performance enhancement, though Nature suggested as much a year ago. Instead, they discuss the need for a massive overhaul of anti-doping policies and procedures, offering suggestions about how they might become more effective and fair. Tierney’s plan:

I’d like to see what would happen of someone started a new anthing-goes competition for athletes over 25. If you have any ideas for how to run it or what to call it — Max Match? UltraSports? Mutant Games? — submit them at

Mutant Games might be a stretch, but who knows, Tierney could be right. Again, though, he fails to outline the ethical questions behind his argument that might better inform readers. If the system is broken, why does he favor abandoning it, rather than fixing it? Or if we keep the current system, but institute a parallel one that allows doping, how does that address the four moral qualms outlined in the BMJ report?

Much like geoengineering, people will come to very different conclusions about the cost versus the benefit of sports doping based on the same set of scientific facts and uncertainties. Where Dean clearly indicates the boundaries where science must give way to ethical decisions, however, Tierney does not, and therefore fails to make his case.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.