Does “Science” Make You More Earnest to Appear Moral?

The title of this paper has aroused a bit of discussion in the last few days. You can read it for yourself, but in brief it claims to show:

  1. Science undergraduates or those who profess “belief” in science are more likely to condemn “date rape” than students of non-science subjects;
  2. Undergraduates who perform sentence unscrambling tasks involving the “scientific” words logical, hypothesis, laboratory, scientists, and theory are more likely, immediately afterwards, than those who perform similar tasks with “non-scientific” words to:
    1. condemn “date rape”;
    2. claim that they will perform “pro-social” actions (donating to charity, giving blood, volunteering);
    3. give more to the other person when asked to divide five dollar bills of someone else’s money between themselves and that other person any way they like.

These studies are – perhaps – interesting but hardly conclusive. The subject groups were not large and were recruited from undergraduates at a single college (University of California, Santa Barbara). Clearly, more work is needed if anything is to be made of this. However, what strikes me about the published study is that the “moral” behaviour it investigates is really only protestation of morality. The respondents condemned “date rape” more or less strongly, but their own predilection for committing “interpersonal violations” was not tested. They stated their intentions regarding prosocial acts, but the extent to which they actually did such things was not followed up as far as I can tell. One might say that the money-sharing tests studied actions in response to a real moral dilemma, but the cost to the respondents did not involve losing any of their own money (and they were finally given the whole $5 whatever they did), it was more a question of how they imagined the owner of the money or any other observer might judge them in the light of their decisions.
If anything, therefore, the studies seem to suggest that thinking about science makes people more sensitive to how they imagine others might morally judge them. Does that make science good or bad? Is it good or bad for science?

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