Lesson 14, Ethics Issues From Science Fiction

Joyce Birnbaum, Sharon Borakove and Phyllis Satz 
Antonia Martin and Theresa Soltiz
Cold Spring Harbor High School, Cold Spring Harbor.

Overview of Lesson

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended
The particular science fiction story that this lesson is based on Letter to Ellen by Chan Davis is intended for use in standard or advanced high school biology classes, during or following a following the study of genetics. Other science fiction stories that illustrate interesting ethical issues can of course be chosen for use in other science courses
Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson
Students are given a science fiction story and questions to respond to as a two-day homework assignment. The class is divided into cooperative learning groups of three or four students each, which are given tasks based on the story. The entire class views the results of each group, which have been recorded on overhead transparency masters. The teacher leads a discussion designed to probe the ethical issues and student responses revealed in the work of the groups. The groups are given a follow-up exercise, the results of which are discussed in the following class session. Note-This lesson works best if two or three class periods are devoted to it. It can readily accommodate a role-playing exercise based on either a dramatic presentation of the short story or some format involving questions by reporters directed at the characters in the story.
Category that Best Describes this Lesson
Social issues, behavior of scientists.
Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson
Informed consent as a requirement for research involving human subjects; other issues related to research on human subjects; secrecy and deception in research; the sanctity of human life.

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Lesson Plan

The classroom activities described below will require two or three class periods. If only a single period is available the work of the cooperative learning groups in item 4 can be restricted to activity c, and the lesson can be terminated after item 6e.

Instructions for the Teacher

Many students enjoy reading science fiction. There are many well-written science fiction stories that are based on technically sound scientific principles and incorporate vivid examples of ethics and values issues that are associated with the actual practice or use of science. One such story is Letter to Ellen, by Chan Davis (This story first appeared in the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It has been include in several science fiction anthologies including Golden Years of SF 5th Series, Isaac Asimov, Ed., {Bonanza Books, 1985}). This tale is particularly relevant because what was futuristic speculation in 1947 is now not so far-fetched in view of the capabilities of modern biotechnology. Indeed, several of the ethical issues raised by the characters in Davis' story are those that society is currently grappling with. (Two other science fiction stories that the authors of this lesson suggest as being suitable for teaching ethics in biological science are The Winnowing, by Isaac Asimov and Samson and the Temple of Science, by Harry Harrison. Teachers of other science courses should have little trouble finding suitable stories.)

  1. Two class meetings before the this lesson is to begin in class, give the students the first student assignment. (See below.)
  2. The next session give students the second assignment. (It is strongly recommended that students be given at least two days to read and reread the story to allow time for them to absorb and understanding the issues presented.)
  3. Divide the class into cooperative learning groups of three or four students each.
  4. Working among themselves each group should:
  1. construct an outline of the events that take place in the story,
  2. share and discuss briefly the written answers of each group member to questions 2 and 3 of the assignment,
  3. compile a list of questions they would like to ask the main characters in the story and record these on an overhead transparency master.
  4. The entire class should then view and discuss each group's transparency.

The teacher should then lead a class discuss focused on the following questions:

  1. What common concerns are revealed by the questions framed by the groups?
  2. What ethical problems and other ethics and values issues do the questions raise?
  3. What are the possible alternative responses to each of the ethical problems?
  4. What are the ethical implications of each of these choices?
  5. What regulations or other actions might be taken to safeguard against future unethical practices at Pierne Labs?
  6. Scientific research benefits from a free exchange of information among research scientists. (Why?) Yet, in many cases government or corporate laboratories impose restrictions on such information exchange, often demanding the type of secrecy of scientists that Dr. Hartwell tried to maintain. Under what circumstances is secret research an ethically acceptable practice?
  7. Even after a scientist leaves a particular research group, he/she is often required to honor secrecy restrictions. This can mean that the scientist can no longer continue the type of research he/she had been doing. Are such restrictions on a scientist's professional freedom ethically justified?
  1. Students should then reconvene in their cooperative learning groups to formulate a code of conduct for research involving human subjects, recording the result on an overhead transparency master.
  2. After reviewing and discussing each group's proposed code of conduct, the class should come up with a code incorporating the best suggestions of the individual groups.
  3. The teacher should then hand out the Belmont Report(54) and discuss how the recommendations of that committee differed from those that the class produced.

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Student Assignments- Assignemnt

  • Carefully read the science fiction story Letter to Ellen, by Chan Davis. While reading this story (which was written in 1947), make written notes of the principal actions that occur and controversial issues that are confronted by the characters.

Assignment 2

  • Reread Letter to Ellen, adding to your notes. Write a description of the emotions expressed by the main characters in response to their experiences. Write down your own reactions to the behavior of the scientists, the nature of the research they are doing and the possible consequences.

Discussion

One potential problem with the use of science fiction as a vehicle for ethics education is that most readers of fantasy don't generally expect the characters to be guided by the same ethical principles that they would expect of characters in a work of non-fiction or in real life. It is easier to get students to apply real-world ethical considerations if the events and technology in the story are not so far out as to be inconceivable in the foreseeable future. For this reason a story like Letter to Ellen, written many years ago when it was clearly futuristic, but which describes events that are no longer so far beyond the reach of present-day technology, is particularly suitable.

In this, as in other ethics lessons, it is important to get students to recognize that ethics issues raise questions about which reasonable people can have legitimate differences of opinion. Although there are a few ethical statements like genocide is always immoral with which there is almost universal agreement, this is the exception rather than the rule.

The task of trying to write a general code of conduct for research on human subjects should prove to be a good illustration of the difficulty in constructing ethical guidelines that will win wide approval. Most students will probably include some type of requirement that the subject should consent to the research he or she is a subject in. Framing this requirement in a way that assures that the subject truly understands the research and all of its potential ramifications is no easy task!

Return to Part 2 - Model Classroom Lessons

Return to Ethics in the Science Classroom: An Instructional Guide for Secondary School Science Teachers

Cite this page: "Lesson 14, Ethics Issues From Science Fiction" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 7/14/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Friday, August 22, 2014 <www.onlineethics.org/Education/precollege/scienceclass/lessonplans/part2intro/lesson14.aspx>