Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ethical Responsibility

In our lifetimes, we have seen the once deadly scourge of another terrifying virus, polio, eliminated. We have made remarkable progress in the prevention, early detection and treatment of many forms of cancer and heart disease. All of this progress was possible because of wise investment of federal support for research." Robert N. Golden, dean UW School of Medicine and Public Health. John R. Raymond Sr., president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

When I discover I've made a mistake by claiming something is that isn't, I say so. As a layperson who writes about the history of medicine, I like to cite my sources so that readers don't get the idea that I'm making things up. But I'm not sure whether or not I have an ethical responsibility to strive to be accurate. I try hard to be accurate, but I do so for personal and calculated reasons, not because I believe I have an ethical responsibility to do so.

On the other hand, I think public employees have a clear matter-of-fact ethical responsibility to the public at large. When a public employee makes a public statement on a matter that the public should reasonably believe them to have an authoritative expertise, that employee has an ethical responsibility to be accurate.

The Golden-Raymond statement above isn't accurate. It's wrong. It hasn't been corrected; I doubt it will. The authors and other senior administrative/executive staff at many taxpayer supported institutions act as if they believe that they have a greater ethical responsibility to their coworkers and their institution than they do to the public at large.

I've written a little bit about the repeated false assertions regarding polio. See for instance, "VandeBerg is all wet" (12-20-2009); and "[The Dalai Lama] is the human embodiment of compassion." (6-16-2013).

It isn't unethical for Golden and Raymond to have written something wrong, we all make mistakes; it is unethical not to correct their error and to notify the public of their correction.

I suspect the problem is systemic. Goldman and Raymond appear to embrace much of what Milton Freedman has said regarding the purported ethical responsibility of businesses to increase their profits. But they contort Freedman's already twisted philosophy.

They act as if they believe that their primary responsibility is to increase the already torrential flood of tax dollars that keep the university growing -- it is ironic that Golden and Raymond appeal to people's fear of cancer, while striving to emulate cancer's runaway growth. Sick. In more than one way.

Golden and Raymond have failed to meet their obligations to the public. They have an obligation to be sure that their claims are accurate and to correct them when they aren't. They have an obligation to act in the public's best interests, not their own financial interests and not the financial interests of their co-workers and institutions.

Particularly sad is the possibility that these purported leaders aren't actually calculating self-interested public teat-suckers, but that they are just gullible uninformed yahoos who believe their industry's propaganda. Claiming that the federal government's support of polio research is the reason for the polio vaccine is doubly wrong. It wasn't the federal government's "wise investments," it was private donors responding to appeals from the privately run National Foundation For Infantile Paralysis.

For an accurate accounting of the history of the polio in the US see: David M. Oshinsky's Polio: An American Story (2005). It won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History and the 2005 Herbert Hoover Book Award. Here's a excerpt that exposes the silliness of Golden and Raymond's uninformed assertions:
National attention was riveted on the vaccine trials, with news coverage rivaling the other big stories from that remarkable spring... Salk's likeness adorned the cover of Time magazine.[...] By one estimate, two-thirds of the nation had already donated money to the March of Dimes by 1954 [the funding arm of the National Foundation For Infantile Paralysis], and seven million people had volunteered their time.[...]

From a managerial standpoint, the field trials were divided into three parts: operational planning, vaccine production, and statistical evaluation. "Our basic problem," wrote Melvin Glasser, the man chosen to coordinate this herculean effort, "was to get three doses of vaccine or control solution into the arms of approximately 650,000 school children.... and keep accurate records on all involved in the trial." Nothing like this had ever been tried before. There were no precedents to follow, no corporate donations to be tapped, no federal assistance.[my emphasis] This was virgin territory, the biggest medical gamble in history. The National Foundation For Infantile Paralysis was completely--some thought distressingly--on its own. (pp 188-189.)
Robert Golden has made other silly or misleading claims somewhat recently. See my essays:

"Robert Golden: '... the opinion of the top leaders...'" (9-8-2014)

"University experts stumble over facts" (8-17-2014)

"In response to Dr. Robert N. Golden" (6-4-2014)

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