Adventures in Ethics and Science

In a post about curricular issues in genetics and biochemistry courses, Larry Moran raises some good questions:

It’s almost a requirement these days that introductory genetics courses include a section on genetically modified crops. This invariably leads to tutorials, or labs, or essays, about whether GM-foods are a good thing or not. These discussions are usually lots of fun and the students enjoy this part of the course. Professors are convinced they are teaching ethics and that it’s a good thing to show students that ethics is an important part of science.

In introductory biochemistry courses we often have a section on fuel metabolism. That’s the part of biochemistry that deals specifically with how your food is converted to energy. It’s human biochemistry. In that section of the course the Professor often raises the question of proper diet. Is it okay to eat meat? Are trans fatty acids bad for you? Should you be eating carbohydrates? Our experience is that Professors who teach this section often have very strong opinions and their personal ethical stance is portrayed as scientific fact.

These are two different cases. In the first one, the question is whether the value of debating controversial “ethical” issues outweighs the disadvantages. The biggest downside, in my opinion, is the emphasis on technology as opposed to pure basic science. By giving prominence to “ethical” issues we are emphasizing the consequences of genetic knowledge as it relates to the human condition. …

Part of the problem arises from a desire to please the students. How often do we hear the complaint that students aren’t interested in biochemistry and genetics? The students are bored by science so we have to add sections on genetically modified foods and genetic screening to our introductory genetics courses. Isn’t this strange? Rather than concentrate on making the basic science as interesting and exciting as possible, we cater to the students by giving them the topics they think are interesting. That’s no way to educate.

There’s another problem; what is ethics? Sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between simple controversy and ethics. Sometimes it’s hard to define exactly what “ethics” is all about in spite of the fact that “bioethics” is one of the biggest growth industries in science. Here’s where a philosopher or two could weigh in.

Hey, I’m a philosopher! Here’s my take:

1. Discussions about how scientific knowledge and technologies are used get into ethical territory.
I think a lot of people draw the lines rather more starkly than they ought to be drawn — claiming that scientific knowledge and technologies are value-neutral and it is only the ways that they are used that make them “good” or “bad”. However, when students learn a particular bit of knowledge or a particular analytic technique, it’s natural for them to wonder, “What do you do with this?” To the extent that people teaching science want to encourage their students to see it as something with relevance beyond the course in which they’re learning it, talking about real-life applications of science can be a good thing. (Don’t forget, the students who see the beauty of the scientific knowledge itself are probably the ones who will, in the not so distant future, have to motivate the larger significance of the research they want to undertake in order to secure grants to fund that research.)

So, people teaching about genetics, for example, might want to talk about different ways genetic knowledge and technologies could be used, the potential outcomes of various uses, and who has a stake in what happens — who could be helped, who could be hurt, what the costs are for the benefits that might be brought about, etc. Is this a discussion that teaches students everything they need to know about the ethical practice or application of science? Of course not. However, neither is it a discussion that requires detailed technical discussions about different ethical theories — which is to say, it’s the kind of discussion a trained scientist who is reasonably reflective about various stakeholders in society ought to be able to lead.

2. Not every controversial matter that comes up in a science course is an ethical controversy.
Much of what scientists try to figure out about their objects of study is how they work — if I set things up this way instead of that way, what will happen next? The systems scientists work with, though, can be interestingly tricky, which is probably part of why scientists are interested in them. The information you have about the various moving parts of your system is usually limited. To get further information often requires cooking up clever new ways to measure things that haven’t been easy to measure. So, the scientist works to draw reasonable inferences from what she recognizes as incomplete information that will need to be updated and augmented.

Part of what’s cool about science is how scientists put together a reasonable story about a system from a limited set of puzzle-pieces — and how scientists adjudicate disputes between different scientists who, working with the same limited set of puzzle-pieces, see different pictures emerging. Examining these controversies is a great way to grab students and help them understand the process in which scientists engage to build knowledge. These kinds of discussions are what makes basic science exciting.

3. Not talking about the connection between how scientific knowledge is made and how it is used short-changes students on both the science and the ethics.
Larry expresses concerns that instructors of biochemistry sections may be presenting their “personal ethical stance” as if it were scientific fact — for example, in discussions of fuel metabolism, presenting the Atkins diet as the best thing since slide bread. (OK, not bread.) There are lots of reasons to worry if this is what’s happening. First off, going right to “the answer” is never as useful for students as looking at how the question (here, what balance of macronutrients is optimal for human health) is framed or how scientists try to get the data to answer it. Indeed, coming up with a good way to specify precisely what “human health” amounts to in this question, or what the best proxies for it to follow in experiments or clinical studies could be, is an interestingly complicated question. Lifting the hood to let the students see the complications is one good way to get them interested in the science. Second, acknowledging other well-reasoned and well-supported views scientists have come to from the available data — and looking at the merits and weaknesses of the various “live” scientific views — lets students see, vividly, the scientific reasoning that eventually gets us to consensus. Scientists don’t find the answers washed up on beaches; that knowledge comes from the scientific community’s thrashing about with it. Finally, the hidden ethical issue: how do we recognize and deal with uncertainty as we’re building scientific knowledge? This isn’t just an issue of what scientists tell their non-scientist friends to eat. It’s also an issue about how scientists acknowledge the limits of what they can infer from the data already in evidence, as well as the strengths (given the data already in evidence) of the views held by other scientists — even if your best guess from the current state of the evidence is that they’re wrong. Sure, eventually you’d like to run the study that settles the matter once and for all, but in the meantime, being up front about the assumptions on which your inferences rest — and the ways those assumption could go wrong — is more intellectually honest than turning what you see as the best supported available option into something more inferentially solid than it really is.

I suspect Larry and I could have an interesting back and forth about the advisability of scientists teaching ethics in science classes compared to, say, a trained philosopher being in charge of the ethical instruction of future scientists. I’m ambivalent about that myself!


  1. #1 rjb
    January 22, 2007

    I have started to teach “ethics” in a developmental biology class. Since I am not a trained ethicist, I try to stay away from making any conclusions, but I do address questions such as human cloning, stem cell research, beginnings of human individual life, etc. The way that I have dealt with it is to have students understand the science that underlies the ethical questions, and then have them use that knowledge to inform their ethical stance. One of the exercises that I have them do is to choose one issue (ie embryonic stem cell research), find popular articles, or websites, or other info on the topic both pro and con, and then have them critically evaluate the science that is used in these articles. Is it sound? How are they using the scientific ideas? Are they correct or are they manipulating the information to support their point of view? Do people on opposite sides of an argument agree on the science at least? I find this to be the most productive use of my skills and knowledge in this arena.

  2. #2 NJ
    January 22, 2007

    Scientists don’t find the answers washed up on beaches

    Don’t tell that to Orrin Pilkey… ;>

  3. #3 Larry Petcovic
    January 22, 2007

    At the risk of being another “Larry” response, this one is from a behavioral point of view.

    Science has two distinct behavioral communications components when framed in social terms:non-advocate and advocate. Science as a non-advocate activity is the seeking of knowledge so as to systematically better understand and predict our world. Non-advocacy is about generating correlations, laws, data and does not include judging the social value of applying science. The instant science is applied to a social setting at the individual or collective level, science advocacy is now a reality and the scientist has changed roles from doing science to advocating a social solution (which is politics etc… – not science).

    The term “Science” in common language has evolved to a complexity where scientist confuse their roles. There are those who actually believe science owns the ultimate truth about social solutions. In behavioral communications terms, such behavior is advocacy science and always politicized.

    Let me say it this way. Non-advocacy science asked the questions, “how can I help you make a confident decision? What data can science provide to assist in your social decision about the application of science?” Non-advocacy science is not vested in the social outcome but is vested in the quality of the decision process. Advocacy science is simply selling an applied science solution to a social setting.

    I’m not saying advocacy science is bad in any way. I’m saying call it what it is. When you have to communicate science in a advocacy situation the rules are different then in the non-advocacy environment. Perhaps we should be teaching, coaching, mentoring students to know the difference between advocacy and advocacy science and how to communicate in both worlds. A lack of communication skill will default the scientist to a public perception of advocacy science which will continue to dilute the trust of non-advocacy scientist.

  4. #4 Natalie
    January 22, 2007

    I take umbrage with Larry’s implications that it’s a waste of time to teach the current issues in genetics like GMOs. This is an issue that has the potential to effect the students, and it has to do with genetics, so why not teach it? in fact, I think it improves the genetics course by showing that this is not just something Mendel worked on back in the 19th century. Instead, we’re still dealing with the issues. Besides, it’s amazing how little people understand some of these science/technology issues that we’re dealing with like stem cells and GMOs.

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