Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values.
I should note here that most of the piece is strongly supportive of teaching evolution. Bazell presents a very brief overview of the history of anti-evolutionism in America, and notes that “serious efforts in biology and medicine can no more ignore evolution than airplane designers can ignore gravity.” So, he’s not messing around or giving any credence to evolution-deniers. Overall, I think it’s a really good piece–but I still think he’s off-base with his central thesis.
(Continued after the jump)
As mentioned in the first line of the article, Bazell thinks more time should be devoted to discussing values, and less on “whining” (obviously not a term I’d agree with, but I digress…) about intelligent design and other political challenges to evolution. He says:
For example, what are the life-saving limits of expensive high-technology treatments? When have they accepted too many promotional gifts from pharmaceutical companies? Should an experiment be done on humans just because researchers have the tools to try it?
Teaching evolution properly in secondary school will have little impact on these difficult issues.
And I agree–it won’t. It probably won’t bring about world peace either; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend time focusing on it. The problem is that Bazell is way too narrowly focused, and is much more likely to draw the ire of scientists than to get them to sympathize with his views by writing this piece.
First, note that it’s his son’s medical school graduation that made him think of this, and that what he says scientists should be discussing are ethical questions largely revolving around biomedicine–questions that, largely, are irrelevant to many scientists because it’s simply not something that many of us will ever have to deal with. While it may be interesting for an evolutionary biologist out in the field studying, say, a particular species of birds to muse about the “life-saving limits of high-technology treatments,” it’s highly unlikely that they’ll have the experience or knowledge base to pontificate intelligently on the topic. Similarly, what are the odds that they’ll ever have to worry about whether taking gifts from pharmaceutical companies may affect their judgement? We’re not generally their targets–I even have my office in a hospital, and rarely get more than the occasional free pen.
Of course, these are real ethical issues that physicians (and scientists involved in clinical research) can, and should, discuss, learn about, think over, and come to their own decisions regarding, but it’s not a topic where many basic scientists can–or, perhaps, even should–be leading the discussion. It goes back, again, to expertise. Surely there are many scientists who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the issues Bazell brings up, and may be qualified to discuss them with a good deal of expertise. Many of us, I think, are not, and it would be a mistake for us to wander out too far into such an area.
This medicine-centric approach is really the downfall of the whole article. Though of course, I’ve mentioned several times on here how important I think an understanding of evolution is to medicine, there’s much more to biology than just health applications. Evolution, on the contrary, is essential to biology–and that’s why so many of us focus on teaching that correctly (and teaching good science in general) in our schools. Sure, that foundation in evolutionary biology won’t teach the future physicians in the bunch “what moral values should guide [their] decisions,” but that’s not an appropriate topic for a 9th grade science class, either.
The bottom line is that scientists aren’t here just to train med students. Indeed, at many schools medical students can be considered a bit of an annoyance. I remember my first day of intro chemistry my freshman year of college. We were very clearly told it was a “weed-out” class for the pre-meds, and that if we were just there because “mommy and daddy said, ‘You Be Doctor!’”, we should head right out the door. Chad’s also written on his experience teaching pre-meds physics. I did my Ph.D. at a medical school, so my TA’ing consisted of teaching microbiology labs for the medical and nursing students. Teaching these students–many of whom are more concerned with memorization and grades than with actual investigation–can be frustrating, and I know some people who’d rather have their eye poked out with a sharp stick than be responsible for teaching pre-meds (or medical students) basic science. So Bazell is missing the mark when he says scientists should “stop whining about threats to evolution” and instead, “spend more time teaching new MDs the values they’ll need.” Bad, bad trade-off, as the threats to evolution are really threats to science education in general, and therefore something that affects all scientists–while the values that physicians do (or don’t) learn simply does not.
What I think there could be more discussion of on the part of scientists are some of Janet’s frequent writing topics, that are more relevant to scientists in general than the medicine-centric issues Bazell brings up: scientific misconduct, professional ethics, etc. Even if scientists may not have formal training in these areas, certainly we can relate personal stories, or think about what we’d do if put in some kind of difficult situation (or give advice on how to stay out of one!). This, I think, would be more attractive to scientists–most of whom are not MDs–than the examples Bazell cites, which are more likely to tick off the very audience he’s trying to reach.