In Conversation With LSR Visiting Faculty Fellow Andrew Schroeder

Thursday, Feb 1, 2018
by Julie Clack

Andrew Schroeder is an associate professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and a Laurance S. Rockefeller (LSR) Visiting Faculty Fellow. His research and teaching cover a range of issues in ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of science, with a special focus on problems that lie at their intersection. 

This year at the University Center for Human Values (UCHV), Schroeder is studying the ethics of scientific communication. “Ethicists have worked out detailed principles covering scientific research itself  – including informed consent requirements for human subjects, standards for the treatment of non-human animals, and so forth – and we have standing committees designed to give scientists guidance where needed,” said Schroeder. “But when it comes to reporting results, we tell scientists to be honest and transparent, but otherwise give little advice.”

For example, if we are told that hormonal birth control doubles teens’ risk of depression, we might be wary of this contraceptive as a viable option for young women; however, if we hear that the risk was increased from 0.008 to 0.016, our reactions will likely be less severe, knowing that it is increased by less than a percent.

“That’s a simple case,” said Schroeder. “But there are many more where the presentation issues are much harder for non-scientists to spot, and so I think it matters a great deal how we choose to describe things.”

At his LSR seminar later this month, Schroeder will present a paper on one of these complex cases: how global health data is reported. “If you look at the biggest study of global health, you’ll be surprised to see that cancer doesn’t appear anywhere on the list of the top 15 biggest global health problems,” Schroeder said. “The reason for that is that the scientists who ran the study decided to divide up cancers by type – so they rank lung cancers separately from breast cancers, etc.”

The decision to group cancers separately drops all of the cancers down the list significantly, whereas reports that group cancers together suggest that cancer is the world’s leading health problem.

So how should we present cancer data, and why does it matter? “This may seem like an unimportant question, except that these ranking lists direct billions of research and treatment dollars,” said Schroeder. “My paper tries to figure out what to think about this case, and others like it.”