This Year's AAAS Propaganda Flurries or "Hello, Dolly!"
by Milo Clark

Recently in Seattle, the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) did its annual braying about science as the ultimate expression of humanity. Newspapers, periodicals, radio and TV filled with nearly verbatim releases answering scepticism with "If you don't believe it, ask me!"

In reporting this annual extravaganza, the very conservative newspaper the Economist (22 Feb, p. 18) noted, ". . . for the layman, who will always need an interpreter to keep abreast of new discoveries, some familiarity with the scientific method is at least a way to keep the interpreters honest. A person equipped should be better able to make sense of the claims made by those who invoke science in debates over the environment, abortion, public health and the like. He may even make sense of the week's effluxion of gee-whizzery from Seattle." I suspect that this is the Economist's subtle way of advising readers that the outputs of AAAS need to be carefully shoveled when picked up.

Ever mindful that "science" is routinely invoked to convince the unwary that smoking tobacco is harmless and such, I think all the AAAS frippery borders on the unethical, a concept perhaps unscientific although palpable. Essentially, most of what outrages me about scientific institutional behavior boils down to ethical questions.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 1986) Saul Gellerman, a business school dean and prolific author on management, asks, ". . . how usually honest, intelligent, compassionate human beings could act in ways that are callous, dishonest and wrongheaded." He goes on to outline ". . . four rationalizations that people have relied on through the ages to justify questionable conduct:

** A belief that the activity is within reasonable ethical and legal limits--that is, that it is not 'really' illegal or immoral;

** A belief that the activity is in the individual's or the corporation's best interests--that the individual would somehow be expected to undertake the activity;

** A belief that the activity is 'safe' because it will not be found out or publicized; the classic crime and punishment issue of discovery or

** A belief that because the activity helps the company the company will condone it and even protect the person who engages in it.

Gellerman notes that Amatai Etzioni, a distinguished sociologist, "... recently concluded that in the last ten years [1976-1985], roughly two-thirds of America's 500 largest corporations have been involved, in varying degrees, in some form of illegal behavior." Gellerman goes looking for "... the roots of the kind of misconduct that not only ruins some people's lives, destroys institutions and gives business as a whole a bad name but that also inflicts real and lasting harm on a large number of innocent people."

By way of guidelines, Gellerman suggests that "... managers are not paid to take risks; they are paid to know which risks are worth taking. Also, maximizing profits is a company's second priority. The first is ensuring its survival." "The smartest managers already know that the best answer to the question, 'How far is too far?' is don't try to find out." "...The real interests of the company are served by honest conduct in the first place." "Since the main deterrent to illegal or unethical behavior is the perceived probability of detection, managers should make an example of people who are detected." Finally, "Top management has a responsibility to exert a moral force within the company."

** Irony, 1) a method of humorous or subtly sarcastic expression in which the intended meaning of the words used is the direct opposite of their usual sense (the irony of calling a stupid plan "clever").

** Specious, 1) seeming to be good, sound, correct, logical, etc. without really being so; plausible but not genuine (specious logic).

Bronislaw Malinowski is usually credited with shaping modern anthropology into its "functional" modes, by which is meant knowing the natives by living among them to learn about and to observe characteristic behaviors. In his culminating work on the Trobriand Islanders, Soil-Tilling and Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands, Indiana University Press, 1965, Malinowski observed, "Behavior in a society in which one is not a member, however different or exotic it may seem, forms part of a complex, learned system by which that society is maintained. We gain a degree of understanding when we see how the intertwined elements of that social system function to satisfy needs within it."

From his grave, Malinowski may have given us profound insights into the functional behaviors of big business and its twin big science. I'll leave it to you, the reader, to name them.

I rest a dedicated skeptic.

Published March 05, 1997
[Copyright]-[Archives]-[Main Page]