Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Teaching Ethics in Science: Science v Technology

 
Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science has posted a response to my questions about teaching "ethics" in science courses. My original posting is [Ethical Issues in Science] and Janet's response is [Teaching about ethics and other sources of controversy in science class].

When we met at the 2007 North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, Janet said she was going to try and kick-start a debate. That's why I took the picture.

There are several different issues, so in order to keep the discussion focused, I'm going to limit myself to only one topic per posting. This one's about the relationship between science and technology and where "ethics" fits in.

Here's what concerns me about teaching "ethics" in science classes. I wrote this in my first posting ....
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.

I prefer to spend my time trying to convince students that knowledge for its own sake is valuable. It's hard to do that if the fun part of the course has to do with the application of genetic technology in the creation of genetically modified foods.

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.
Let's make sure everyone understands my concern. Part of what we need to do as science teachers is to make sure our students understand the difference between science and technology—between the uses of science and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. This is a very important task in today's society since the confusion about the difference between science and technology is widespread. How many "science" fair projects have you been to where there are dozens of engineering projects but not a single pure science project?

The goal, as far as I am concerned, is to convince students that knowledge for its own sake is a valuable commodity regardless of whether or not the knowledge can be applied to the betterment (or destruction) of Homo sapiens. For example, genetics is a science that will help you understand how life works at the molecular level. It will also help you understand evolution. That knowledge will enrich your life. Genetics is not just a bunch of tools that will lead to better medicine or better food crops. Students need to learn that the vast majority of geneticists in universities are not directly motivated by a desire to cure diseases or compete with Monsanto.

Whenever we introduce so-called "ethical" discussion into genetics classes, we invariably use examples where it's genetic technology, not the science itself, that generates the controversy. Surely nobody sees an ethical problem with generating knowledge about how genes work? It's how you use that knowledge to manipulate organisms that causes the problem.

Thus, for those of us who are trying hard to raise the consciousness of students, the introduction of such "ethical" debates wipes out all the effort we have made to get them excited about knowledge itself.

Here's Janet's response,
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".
I do make that claim. Knowledge of how genes work is "value-neutral"—it does not generate any ethical problems unless you want to argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge.

I do not claim that the uses of genetic knowledge (i.e., technology) are value-neutral.
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?"
This is, unfortunately, true, My goal is to change students' minds so the question doesn't always pop into their heads whenever they learn something new about the natural world. I want them to appreciate the value of curiosity-motivated research and the value of knowledege for its own sake.
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.
But that's the problem! I do not want to encourage students to always be thinking about relevance. I want them to learn about evolution, for example, even if you don't use it directly to make a new drug.
(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.)
My long-term goal is to educate society, including politicians, so they will fund basic science for the sake of knowledge and not for the sake of "relevance." I start with my students. If I succeed, then at some point in the distant future scientists won't have to bullshit their way through a grant proposal in order to cater to the false notions of what science is all about.
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.
Let me emphasize that I am reluctant to bring up these "ethical" issues because the downside is worse than the upside. However, I agree with you that most scientists could do an acceptable job of moderating the debate without extensive training in philosophy. It's mostly just a fun way to let off steam while pretending that it's relevant to genetics.

On the other hand, I disagree with some of my colleagues who think this is a way to teach "ethics." If you really want to teach ethical reasoning then you need training in ethics. This probably means a degree in philosophy or at least hanging out with philosophers for several years.

5 comments:

  1. Without disagreeing with you about the value of "knowledge for its own sake," I think you need to make a case for what that value is.

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  2. It's a hell of a lot better than ignorance.

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  3. An old but good topic.

    "I do make that claim. Knowledge of how genes work is value-neutral"—it does not generate any ethical problems unless you want to argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge. I do not claim that the uses of genetic knowledge (i.e., technology) are value-neutral."

    That is how I would partition it. The question for me is how to map that to the real world.

    I am used to see laws and/or ethical committees that guide development (for example, animal tests), and ethical statements that suggest practice (for example, the engineer union statement on fair practice). But no courses (not many anyway) for students. Seems like the above maps well where I live.

    "My long-term goal is to educate society, including politicians, so they will fund basic science for the sake of knowledge and not for the sake of "relevance.""

    Yes, we would need a more elaborate answer to Jeff's question here. Why value science knowledge and use above technology knowledge and use, and what are these values? Science and technology are codependent, and the society values the later most (and see more of it) since it is what generates the most economical value. But I feel most of this should be besides the ethical debate.

    "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."

    Interesting. Yes, a survey of values like time, cost, quality and ethical concerns could improve research practice and future outcome - ethical committees should only frame issues to avoid misuse. But it can't be terribly important - research or predicted use is unfortunately not often big industry.

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  4. Again, I'm not trying to disagree, but without going all practical on us can you explain how/why "knowledge for its own sake" is "a lot better than ignorance?"

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  5. Ah, now you're getting into the applied vs. pure/basic science argument. I'm not sure you can change someone's interests in one side or the other just by exposing them to pure science without the justification of application. I'm a scientist, I love knowledge for knowledge's sake, but my degree is in fisheries instead of biology because I was interested in applied research, not basic research. Granted I'm only a sample size of one, but still...

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