Write an Oath for Scientists

By Michael Edmonds 18/12/2011 5


I’ve just started reading “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, which describes “how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.” It is an interesting topic and one which bothers me, as I find the idea that a scientist could actively obscure the truth instead of revealing it, to be contrary to everything I think being a scientist is all about.

It got me to thinking, should scientists have their own version of the Hippocratic oath, as a reminder to us all that science is about seeking knowledge, not concealing it? Granted, the existence of an oath would not necessarily mean that no scientist would ever go over to the “dark side” (it certainly hasn’t appeared to have helped Andrew Wakefield), but it would certainly be an explicit acknowledgement by the scientific community that there are ethical expectations in our profession.

If such an oath were to exist what should it contain? I’ve posted one of the modern versions of the Hippocratic oath below and highlighted points that I think would be salient to science.

If you were to write an oath for scientists, what would it say?

HIPPOCRATIC OATH: MODERN VERSION

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

–Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today (taken from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/hippocratic-oath-today.html).


5 Responses to “Write an Oath for Scientists”

  • Another group of people that should be mandated to explicitly explain why they contradict the scientific consensus are politicians and journalists: http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2011/08/agnotology-or-denialism-as-policy.html

    In general I would propose something akin to malpractice laws for everybody involved in denialism as official representative of a certain profession, This means laws prohibiting the willful misrepresentation of the science behind ( … insert topic here). See a detailed version of that suggestion here: http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/11/freedom-of-speech-clarification.html As such if you violate that professional standard, i.e. engage in explicitly refuting science because of ideology or monetary gains, you should be liable for civil, if not criminal, prosecution. Just like physicians are liable when they practise utterly discredited therapies.

  • Thanks, Siouxsie. I should have thought to see if someone had done this before. Some good ideas there

    Nescio, nice ideas but good luck getting politicians to promise not to tell lies, back pedal or to stop talking without saying anything.
    In theory they do swear an oath to the country – must look this up and see what it actually says

  • Apparently BBC Radio 4 is covering this right now, via twitter:

    @AdamRutherford (Adam Rutherford)
    The Oath, on @bbcradio4 right now: should scientists take a version of the Hippocratic Oath? with @bengoldacre @GeorgeMonbiot and me hosting