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Friday, July 27, 2012

What Do Scientists Know about Ethics?

Rosie Redfield doesn't like the way genetics is taught in most university courses. She thinks we should re-design genetics courses (Redfield, 2012).
As a first step, geneticists need to step back from the current curriculum and decide what 21st century students really need to know about genes and inheritance. These decisions should be based on how students will use what they learn, and not on what we as geneticists value.
She proposes that modern genetics courses should concentrate on subjects that really interest students. Subjects like ...
Is genetic testing a wise thing to do? Is it a sound financial investment? Should I have full access to my genetic information? Should my insurer and my employer? Should athletes be tested for genetic modifications (“gene doping”)? Is it ethical to DNA-fingerprint all convicted criminals? All suspects? Did my genes make me gay? Are genetically modified foods safe? Are cloned animals ethical? How different are human races, and how different are we all from chimpanzees and gorillas?
I explained in an earlier posting why I think this is wrong: Questions for Genetics Students. My main concern was that we might be sacrificing fundamental concepts and principles of genetics (i.e. science) in an attempt to appeal to students.

Rosie's goals sound like noble goals but is it even realistic to address these issues in a genetics course? That's the question that Heather Zeiger asks in her post on Genetics Class 2.0.
Many of these questions are ones bioethicists have been contending with for years. Bioethics is a multi-disciplinary field that is usually occupied by philosophers and healthcare professionals, but in the last twenty years it has seen an influx of lawyers, scientists, and people from many other disciplines.

Redfield suggests that it is the role of the scientist to address ethical questions. However, something that Redfield does not state in her paper, is that scientists are rarely trained in anything that would be helpful in assessing ethical issues, such as moral philosophy or rhetoric, and most programs do not include history and philosophy of science.
Now, I rarely agree with anything posted on The Best Schools but this is a legitimate concern.

My position is that philosophers and healthcare professionals have been spectacularly unsuccessful at clarifying bioethical questions. I cringe just about every time I see a "professional" bioethicist on television. Most of them can't separate science from ethics and most of them are more concerned about appeasing religion than getting to the bottom of a difficult issue.

Scientists often make much more sense but that doesn't mean that all scientists are good at dealing with ethical issues. I teach a course that deals with ethical issues (cloning, reproductive technology, immunization) and I find that it's an excellent way to get students to think critically. However, I've learned a lot from my colleagues about ethics and philosophy over the years and I don't think I would be very effective without this background1.

I doubt very much that the average genetics teacher or TA can really be effective at handling ethical debates in their classrooms. I don't think you should build a course around such issues no matter how much the students want it.

My friend, Rob Allore, taught with me for several years. He's a scientist and a Jesuit priest. This year I'll be teaching with another friend, Chris DiCarlo, a philosopher and author of How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions.

Redfield, R. (2012) "Why Do We Have to Learn This Stuff?"—A New Genetics for 21st Century Students. PLoS Biol 10(7): e1001356. [doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001356]


  1. Have you backed off from your claim that one is ethically obligated to have the consent of their family members before they make their genome public?

    1. Nope. That's a clear example of a real ethical issue and, as we have seen on the blogs, it's a difficult one to deal with. How many average genetics teachers could handle it tactfully?

  2. The Zeiger quote seems out of place. Redfield is simply listing a few questions that spawn from genetic technology that might be addressed in a classroom setting--she's not claiming to be a bioethicist. Students should learn the nuts-n-bolts of genetic technology, theory, and methods, and they certainly should learn it well; however, nothing is lost by also having students entertain the wider social issues of genetic technology. I doubt Redfield proclaims the she's a qualified bioethicist to the students, and I didn't take away from her paper Zeiger's attribution that "Redfield suggests that it is the role of the scientist to address ethical questions." Redfield's paper concerns a third year genetics course. Why shouldn't the students be exposed to these questions early on? Zeiger is barking up the wrong tree in my opinion. It's not too difficult to mediate an ethical debate among a bunch of 19 year-olds--I'm not saying I could do it better than a philosopher, but it doesn't mean we should teach the subject matter with sociological blinders on either.

    1. "It's not too difficult to mediate an ethical debate among a bunch of 19 year-olds ..."

      I find it very difficult. In my class we even struggle with trying to define an ethical issue and that's after reading some papers. This year the students will have to read Chris DiCarlo's book and even then it won't be easy.

      I guess you're a lot smarter than me.

    2. With responses such as the one you provided to my comment, I now see how you'd have trouble handling student discussions.

    3. The problem, Larry, is quite possibly that you just suck at teaching*.

      *See how easy it is to name a problem with someone else. While naming a problem without an accompanying solution is not necessarily problematic in itself, when it becomes a pattern of behavior as it has most with your critique of Rosie's curriculum and is also more generally apparent in you gripe about "pure" science and "applied" techonology, mentioning to you offer not solution, only criticism (which is neither constructive nor terribly insightful) becomes relevant. There is a fine line between being Socratic and being childish, and you seem to have the latter down pat.

  3. Another problem with appeasing students on this particular issue is there is an obvious reason that students would want to discuss ethical issues more so than the fundamentals of genetics and that reason is that they perceive that it would make the course much easier. They are likely correct in this assumption.

  4. I'm not proposing that we teach bioethics, or claim to know the answers to ethical questions. But our students will have to deal with these issues in their real lives, whether or not anyone teaches them formal ethics, so I think they deserve to be taught the relevant science.

    1. You mean Larry is deliberately misrepresenting you, Rosie?

      He would neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeever do that.

    2. There is clearly a need to convey to students a functional knowledge of genetics science and how genetics impacts their everyday life. Who better to teach this than a genetics department? Have a different course for the pre-meds and professional biochemists.

    3. Rosie, I not saying that you should "teach bioethics." What I'm saying is that if discussion of these issues is gong to be a productive experience in a genetics course then it's wise to make sure the instructors have some knowledge and experience.

      It's true that students will have to deal with those issues in their "real lives." How do you propose to help them other than just giving them a chance to voice their opinions in a tutorial? Your article doesn't just say that you wiil teach them the science.

    4. Larry, what exactly would you teach in a upper-level undergraduate genetics course?

      I'm not claiming that there is a paucity of "hard" genetics curriculum at that level, but you seem like you enjoy to indulge in this apparent false dichotomy between "pure" (or "basic") research or "applied" (or "technological") industry. You want university biology departments to teach the former and Rosie as advocating teaching the latter. How do you make the distinction? Why shouldn't (yes, notice the prescriptive content of your statements) university biology departments being teaching the latter?

    5. ... what exactly would you teach in a upper-level undergraduate genetics course?

      We're not talking about upper level courses. We're talking about introductory genetics courses for the masses.

      I would teach the fundamental concepts and principles of genetics including transmission genetics. And, yes, I would describe Mendel's experiments including his Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment.

      I would describe and explain the biochemistry behind several of Mendel's mutants: stem length, seed color, and wrinkled. This would relate simple transmission genetics to genes and genes to phenotype. It would also explain recessive and dominant traits.

      There are lots of other basic concepts that I would cover, including population genetics.

      We would explore sex-linked genes, sex determination, and the reasons for having sex (evolution).

      I would definitely cover the fundamentals of repair and recombination from a biochemistry perspective.

      Mutations would be a big topic. I would make sure students understood what causes most mutations and how frequent they are. This would lead to a discussion of genetic load and then genomes and junk DNA.

  5. Larry, thank you so much for stimulating discussion of my proposals. Please keep disagreeing with me!

    1. I wish the discussion were more productive.

    2. Perhaps, the discussion's lack of productivity has something to do with your ability as a discussant. You seem to have a penchant for dismissing and insulting variant viewpoints.

    3. Pot, kettle, Michael. Do you ever read your own responses?

      On the subject overall, I wonder if Rosie's position is more trying to interest students in trying to learn more about the basic subject by pointing out how it applies to interesting and really difficult to figure questions that arise from the science.

      If that's the case it could be analogous to my position in Jr. high vis a vis geometry and algebra; I liked geometry but they taught algebra first, and pre-calculator I found it both difficult and uninteresting. Once I saw how geometry and later trig used that basic knowledge I became more interested in algebra, but too late for the basic classes the way it was taught at my schools at that time. That was too bad.

      But then there's the time element; is there really enough time to cover these areas, or would it eat into time needed for learning basic knowledge?

    4. The course that Rosie outlined in PLOS Biology is, in fact, not the first time that students will have been exposed to the principles of genetics during their tenure at UBC. Had either you or Larry actually bothered to examine the UBC biology curriculum, both of you would know that Rosie's proposed curriculum does not need to address the basics of genetics in great detail, as that is simply not where it lies in the curriculum. The place of Rosie's proposed curriculum should have been obvious, given that the PLOS article referred to second- and third-year courses.

      Are the introductory biology courses at UT simply so improverished that they fail to cover Mendelian genetics at all?

  6. Oh, PLOS articles are open-access. If one wants to know what Rosie's position is, one don't the article.