Thursday, January 25, 2007

Teaching Ethics in Science: Science v Technology (Part 2)

[Larry Moran: Part 1] [Janet Stemwedel: Part 1, Part 2]

The issue is whether we should be teaching "ethics" in science classes. The particular examples that we've mentioned are debating whether GM food is good or bad and discussing the consequences of the human genome project.

My concern is not so much whether these issues are topical or fun—they certainly are. I'm worried about the fact that they detract from my main purpose, which is to get students to appreciate science for it's own sake and not just because of some application it might have.

Janet Stemwedel responds,
I'm very sympathetic to Larry's worry here -- as a philosopher, how could I not be? -- that students aren't grasping the beauty inherent in a coherent model of a piece of the world, in a piece of knowledge that is valuable primarily because it satisfies our curiosity. Teachers get burnt out on the "What are we ever going to use this for?" question almost as rapidly as the even more discouraging "Is this going to be on the test?" For us, knowledge scratches a particular kind of itch. It distresses us to think that our students might not have that itch. Thus, maybe our teaching ought to be directed at making our students feel itchy -- helping them see what's cool about the knowledge we're trying to convey even if we table all questions of how the knowledge might be applied to solving various practical problems in the real world.
Yes, I think we ought to pay more attention to making our students feel itchy rather than pandering to their pre-conceived notions that technology is more important than science. If we don't make the attempt then the current situation will never change. As adults, the students will still demand that scientific research be directed toward betterment of the human species.
On the other hand, even if the discussion is restricted to the science content, the "What is this good for?" questions are already part of the storyline in many courses. We teach students about the more refined models that came to replace the earlier and clunkier ones, models that are good because they make better predictions or have clearer connections to empirical data or other useful models. We teach students about particular experimental techniques that are good for answering particular questions or adjudicating between different accounts of what's going on in a system. Organic chemistry students have to learn a truckload of reactions that are good for producing this kind of compound from this kind of starting material in this set of conditions.
I'm not opposed to teaching the technology of scientific research. That's part of learning about science. I think it's overdone in many cases but it's still useful for students to do some experiments in the lab.
A laundry list of isolated facts is not the kind of thing the students want to learn, nor the kind of thing the science teachers want to teach. What keeps the facts from being isolated -- what imposes a coherent structure where they're connected to each other -- almost always involves a storyline about what various bits of the knowledge are good for.

The trick, I suppose, is to keep the students focused on that question within the bounds of the discourse about the knowledge and its production -- at least as long as the students are taking a biochemistry class, rather than a biochemical ethics class.
Yes, that's the trick. You avoid overwhelming students with irrelevant facts and concentrate on the basic concepts of science. The emphasis is on the big picture idea of how cells work and not the nit-picky details that nobody cares about.

Introducing "ethics" debates about the application of technology makes the job more difficult. The problem is that not all science teachers share my goal of trying to interest students in how nature works rather than what it it good for. And even among those that do, there's a lack of appreciation of the downside of "ethics" debates.
One little response to Larry's comments on my grant-writing claim: I'm inclined to agree that B.S. is not something we want to be a necessary part of requesting and securing funds to support scientific research -- whether research aimed at solving a well-defined practical problem or research on the basic questions about which scientists are most curious. However, there's a difference between overselling the likely applications of a piece of research and pointing out its relevance to things non-scientists might take to be important as well. And, pointing out the relevance of a line of research is important for the simple reason that scientists come to non-scientists asking for money. It would be lovely if the people controlling the research funds (and the tax payers whose money provides those funds) were already sold on the idea that building scientific knowledge is a good thing in its own right. Surely, getting more people to come around to this way of thinking seems to be part of what Larry would like to accomplish. However, even if everyone agreed that scientific knowledge is to be cultivated, the research that makes this happen wouldn't always get prioritized ahead of the other practical things for which tax dollars must pay. Pointing out relevance isn't so much admitting that knowledge can't be good just to have as it is showing additional ways our society benefits from having that knowledge beyond just getting smarter.
I agree that it would be lovely if the people controlling the money appreciated science for its own sake. Everyone I know agrees. But nobody is trying very hard to change this when we teach our science classes. It's like they've given up the fight because it's hopeless.

Well I'm not yet ready to give up. I try to get my students to stop thinking about "relevance" every time they learn a new concept. I long for the day when the general public prioritizes knowledge over relevance. Maybe that will mean more money for philosophers.
Finally, Larry closes with these comments:
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.
I don't want to chase away the scientists who might want to hang out with the likes of me, but is it really the case that scientists who are themselves ethical practitioners of science are unable to teach their students anything useful about the ethical use and conduct of science? To the extent that this is true, what's up will all the scientific training programs where there isn't a formal ethics component at all, let alone one overseen by a credentialed philosopher? Are you folks in need of more help than you let on?
Here's a question. Notice how I've put "ethics" in quotation marks. That's because I'm not sure whether some of these so-called ethical questions are really ethical questions. What about the debate over genetically-modified food?

To me that seems to be a straightforward debate about safety. That's not ethics. What's the ethical problem? Are there some people who are ethically opposed to the genetic manipulation of plants? We've been doing it for 5000 years.

After hanging out with philosophers for ten years or so, I realize they have special training in logic and reasoning. They usually know things like how to present a correct argument and they usually know the proper meanings of terms like "ethics" and "morality."

I've seen science teachers try to explain the difference between ethical relativism and absolutism. I've seen them get confused about the difference between religion and morality. I've seen them mistaking their personal biases for logical arguments.

So, in answer to your question, yes we need help.


  1. "it would be lovely if the people controlling the money appreciated science for its own sake."

    I would be happy if all people appreciated science for its own sake, whether as knowledge or as cultural artifact. That some of the same people that can point to works of art or architecture for cultural worth scorn scientific results bugs me.

    And ideally they should appreciate the beauty of the process as much as they appreciate the painter at work. As always, public knowledge is somehow often missing. Which is of course where blogging may come in.

    "I try to get my students to stop thinking about "relevance" every time they learn a new concept."

    They should definitely not be distracted by it; as you say, it is the big picture that is most important. (But IMHO relevance is important too. For example, the best scientists manage to work on enough relevant stuff, whether "relevant" internally or for external applications.)

    And I tend to agree that ethics is not part of it. Perhaps I'm partial since there where no ethics courses in my areas at the university. And for all I know it went well anyway - or at least I would like to think so.

    Instead I think scientists and engineers should be able to participate in ethics committees for science and technology, and be more active in the public debate. (Again, blogs et cetera. All kinds of participation should definitely be a merit.) Also in controlling grant money, of course.

  2. LM: Your question about what "ethics" means is a good one. I've been debating it professionally in another context for several years ("police ethics"). It seems to have become a buzzword, but for exactly what I don't know. Lots of things seem to presented as "ethics" that would not have fit comfortably into the courses with that name which I studied back when I was an apprentice philosopher.