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Ethics in scientific communication: study of a problem case.
  1. R L Berger
  1. Harvard Medical School.


    The hypothermia experiments performed on humans during the Second World War at the German concentration camp in Dachau have been regarded as crimes against humanity, disguised as medical research. For almost 50 years, scientists maintained that the study produced valuable, even if not totally reliable, information. In recent years, the results from the Dachau hypothermia project were glamorized with life-saving potential and a heated ethical dialogue was activated about the use of life-saving but tainted scientific information. In the wake of the debate, an in-depth examination of the scientific rigour of the project was performed and revealed that neither the science nor the scientists from Dachau could be trusted and that the data were worthless. The body of medical opinion accepted the unfavourable determination but a few scientists and ethicists have continued to endorse the validity, of at least parts, of the Dachau hypothermia data. The conduct of the scientific communications about the Dachau hypothermia experiments by the scientific and ethical communities invites serious consideration of a possible ethical misadventure. It appears that for almost 50 years, the results of the study had been endorsed without careful examination of the scientific base of the experiments and that secondary citation of relevant original material may have been commonly employed. These infractions contributed to a myth that good science was practised by the Nazis at Dachau. The more recent emphasis on the life-saving potential of the Dachau data, without citation of credible supporting evidence, has also been misleading. Similarly, acceptance of a determination by an in-depth examination that the 'whole' Dachau project if flawed with simultaneous endorsement of the validity of 'parts' of the results, poses an ethical problem. It is advisable that before seeking ethical consultation about the use of unethically obtained data, scientists should examine the quality of science behind the controversial information and ethicists should verify the integrity of the material prior to engaging in a dialogue.

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