Adventures in Ethics and Science

Why I teach.

PZ tagged me with a teaching meme. The question is “Why do you teach and why is academic freedom critical to that effort?”

Unlike PZ, I knew I had a thing for teaching long before I had a clue what discipline I would end up pursuing. (My first official paycheck for a teaching gig was issued in 1985.) But at this stage of my life, my reasons for teaching are a bit more complex than “I like it,” “I’m good at it,” and “It’s a requirement of my job to do so.”

They’re complex enough, in fact, that I’m going to subvert the question a little and talk about why I teach the two main courses I regularly teach, “Philosophy of Science” and “Ethics in Science”.


First, the “Philosophy of Science”:

  • I have an opportunity to help people who think science is scary or boring understand something about how scientists build reliable knowledge. I’ve mentioned before that at my university “Philosophy of Science” fulfills the upper division science general education requirement. Lots of students put this requirement off until the last possible moment, and then they hope that a course that fulfills it in the philosophy department will be all fuzzy kitties and novels and pictures of sunsets, because that’s what the humanities are like (or something). They don’t see science as connected to their lives, and they don’t believe that normal-sized human brains can interact in any meaningful examination of what science is up to or how it works. I may be the last instructor with a shot at changing their minds about this. When I succeed, it’s pretty cool.
  • I also get to expose people to the idea that thinking like a scientist is fun. In class, we do lots of thinking-like-a-scientist problem solving activities. The students get good at them, and they discover to their surprise that they like this kind of problem solving. It scratches a particular intellectual itch they didn’t know they had. (I guess that means part of my job is to make my students itchy.)

Next, “Ethics in Science”:

  • I get to help students across the chasm between learning about science and learning how to be a scientist. Most of my “Ethics in Science” students are junior and senior science majors, and many of them are looking ahead to graduate school and scientific careers. But they’re starting to realize that knowing the material in their science textbooks is not at all the same as knowing how to produce new scientific knowledge — not because they’re unclear on the scientific method, but because they haven’t been given all that much information about what it’s like to be a member of a scientific community or how such communities work. I get to talk to them about the community, the norms, and the complexities of figuring things out as a newish member of the tribe. They seem to find this information — and a reasonable safe place to talk about it — very useful.
  • I get to help students consider other ways things could be in the world of science, not just how things are right here and now. In terms of empowering the scientists of tomorrow to take control of their scientific community and figure out ways to make things better, I feel like this is part of my responsibility as a teacher and a friend of science.
  • I get to remind scientists and non-scientists that our interests and values are connected (and that we have to share a world with each other). I suppose this is the companion piece to reminding the science-phobic that science is part of their world and that they can get right with it. Understanding how we’re connected makes us more likely to actually engage each other in dialogue, something I view as a good thing. I highlight some of the points of contact to get things started.

So, what kind of academic freedom do I need to be effective in my teaching? I need to be able to ask my students to question things they may be really comfortable taking for granted. For example, if I’m going to teach students how scientific reasoning works, I have to have the freedom to examine certain views they might hold and discuss whether they have a good scientific basis. By the same token, I also have to be able to explain why firm evidential support and other scientific virtues don’t guarantee that a scientific theory won’t let us down at some future juncture. Serious philosophy of science has something to rile everyone.

And I can’t even imagine that I could teach ethics to scientists in the way I do now if I didn’t have the freedom to examine the status quo as far as institutional structures, the scientific activities that are rewarded and those that are done grudgingly, the ways people manage collaborations and competitions, and so forth. Were I required to affirm the existing system as just fine, the class would be pretty pointless — a set of guidelines for navigating a particular maze in an never ending rat race.

My students are not rats. Nor do I want them to resign themselves to being cogs in a system of production. They are human beings whose intellects and imaginations I hope to ready for a world where they will steer their own course.

I’m tagging Julie, Jane, SteveG, P.D., and Eric, but if you want to play along, consider yourself tagged.

Comments

  1. #1 JM
    January 25, 2008

    dammit, I’m still in teacher training! but I guess I can write something….

  2. #2 P.D.
    January 26, 2008

    Done.

  3. #3 Natalie
    January 26, 2008

    Would you be willing to share some of your thinking-like-a-scientist problems? I teach a course called “Understanding Science” for non-science majors and I’d love to give them more of a taste of how scientists look at and interact with the world. Thanks!