The challenge of reconciling science and society

A new book explores the moral and ethical principles that guide the practice of science, and their resulting impact on society.

Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. -- In this modern era, science affects every member of society on a daily basis, from technological conveniences such as the automobile and television to the year-round availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. But some scientific advances, especially those with clinical applications like stem cells and cloning, jostle with religion and politics in the public sphere to provide a potent and complex mix. A new book released today by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press explores the moral and ethical foundations of science in this context.

Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt, written by the eminent geneticist and historian of science Elof Axel Carlson, analyzes the current hot-button topics of genetically modified food, prenatal diagnosis, the environmental effects of pesticides and herbicides, new pharmaceuticals, and assisted reproduction, and also historical case studies such as thalidomide's effects on unborn children, human experimentation at Tuskegee, and the atrocities of Nazi medicine. Carlson dissects the motivation and ethics of the scientists involved and the conflicting points of view of the scientists and their critics--asking why, despite good intentions, scientists sometimes lose the public's trust.

"Scientists have dual responsibilities," Carlson explains in the first chapter. "As scientists, they are expected to have ethical standards for conducting research…scientists are also citizens, and they are not exempt from the ethical and moral standards of their communities."

By applying an ethical framework to the historical facts in each case, Carlson shows how events spin out of control. He indicates how scientists can be more effective in preventing undesirable consequences of their work. And he argues that such bad outcomes are largely preventable when scientists consult a range of opinions, including critical voices.

Carlson ends with a discussion of science and social responsibility. Our world is enriched by the knowledge science provides and unfortunate outcomes are rare compared with the benefits that science has brought us. "For most scientists, science has led to good outcomes that have reinforced both the pleasure of doing science and the satisfaction of contributing to human benefit," Carlson writes. "That is the ideal of science that we cherish."

This book is geared towards everyone interested in the interplay of science and society, including journalists, theologians, legislators, lawyers, and scientists themselves. "I hope young scientists, who are unaware of past abuses and errors, will be more reflective about their own values and the values of the people who supervise their work or who pay for their scientific research," Carlson says.


About the book:
Times of Triumph, Times of Doubt: Science and the Battle for Public Trust ISBN 0-87969-805-5
227 pp., index Hardcover, $39 See for more information.

About the author:
Elof Axel Carlson is a Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York. He received his Ph.D. under the mentorship of Nobelist H.J. Muller at Indiana University in 1958 and had an active career as a geneticist at Queen's University (Ontario, Canada) and UCLA, and as a Visiting Professor at San Diego State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Utah, and Tougaloo College. He has published his scientific work in the areas of gene structure, comparative mutagenesis, and developmental genetics, as well as human genetics. Carlson's interest in the history of science is reflected by his books The Gene: A Critical History (1966); Genes, Radiation, and Society: The Life and Work of H.J. Muller (1981); The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (2001); and Mendel's Legacy: The Origin of Classical Genetics (2004).

About Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press:
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press is an internationally renowned publisher of books, journals, and electronic media, located on Long Island, New York. It is a division of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (, an innovator in life science research and the education of scientists, students, and the public. For more information, visit

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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