Can ethical reasoning contribute to better epidemiology? A case study in research on racial health disparities

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A common belief among epidemiologists and other scientists is that they ought not engage in ethical evaluation or endorse any particular ethical, political, or social values while involved in scientific reasoning. Such values are irrelevant to collecting and interpreting data and can only lead to bias. This view is also reflected in scientists' education. The authors argue that ethical values are crucial to conducting much epidemiological research. Focusing on epidemiological research on racial health disparities, they show that value judgments are inescapable when performing such research. Values are implicit in the framing of research questions, the identification of the problem, and the choices of design and methodology. By making value judgments explicit, scientists will be more likely to pay attention to them and thus assess them in critical ways. Finally, the implications that this has for scientific training are discussed. Scientific training should prepare scientists to engage in ethical reasoning not only because it will make them more responsible human beings, but also because it will make them better scientists.

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