by Paul Scherz, Ph.D.

Evidence from many sources suggests that there are problems in the current practices of scientific research. There is a growing concern over the trustworthiness of the scientific literature because a number of studies have demonstrated the inability of independent investigators to replicate the results of published experiments. These studies, along with anecdotal and survey-based data, have led to investigations and reports not only by journalists but also by prestigious bodies like the National Academy of Sciences. The problems discussed in these publications do not arise from the actions of a few bad apples, but seem to reflect broad issues related to carelessness in experimental design, testing, and statistical analysis.

Commentators have traced these issues to problems in the institutions and culture of science such as a competitive culture that emphasizes speed over accuracy or evaluation mechanisms that prize the number of publications over their contribution to the advancement of knowledge. While these discussions can identify such issues, they rarely point to good solutions, frequently simply encouraging more training in research ethics of the type scientists have undergone since the 1980s or an intensification of evaluation mechanisms. These current discussions lack an adequate picture of the human person that would illuminate how and why the person acts and how a person forms good dispositions.

It is here that moral theology can be helpful. While the relationship between science and religion is often framed only in terms of conflict (either as science opposing religion or religious ethics trying to constrain science), the Christian ethical tradition provides resources for confronting current problems in the moral education of researchers that science desperately needs. By engaging classical and medieval sources on virtues, one can come to a better understanding of how a person develops certain vices that can lead to problems like those found in contemporary science, as well as how a community can foster positive character traits that will aid the search for scientific truth.

In recent articles and a book manuscript, I have used the Catholic virtue tradition to develop resources to identify virtues that scientists need and practices that would form these virtues. My work further seeks to help Catholic scientists to understand how to live their lives as a Christian vocation. By focusing on developing the virtues of individual scientists, this project hopes to reorient science by encouraging a richer human ecology in science that would better serve the common good.

Paul Scherz, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of moral theology and ethics and an IHE Fellow. Dr. Scherz researches the moral theology of biotechnology. He examines how the daily use of biomedical technologies shapes the way researchers, doctors, and patients see and manipulate the world and their bodies.

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