Author(s): Michael S. Pritchard, Department of Philosophy, Western Michigan University & Theodore Goldfarb, Department of Chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook
NOTE: This contribution appeared as a featured resource in the online and printed issues of ENC Focus: A Magazine for Classroom Innovators Vol. 8 no.3, published by the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education-ENC.
Elwood John H. Glenn High School, East Northport, Long Island, NY.
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The idealized view of a scientist is of a scrupulously honest, objective, highly ethical individual. The point of this lesson is to emphasize that science is a human endeavor and as such it is unrealistic to expect its practitioners to be exempt from the influence of social and personal values that make all of us fallible. The lesson makes use of an essay by the very popular science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. Asimov is well known as an ardent advocate of science. He wrote his persuasive essay in response to his own awakening to the reality that, no matter how hard the scientific community strives to live up to its idealistic stereotype, it is necessary to be mindful that scientists are mere mortals, not infallible icons. As written, this lesson requires 1 1/2 class periods and an intervening homework assignment.
Students should be instructed to bring to the next class session written responses to the following questions about the essays.
Begin the next class period by inviting students to read their answers to the homework questions. Make sure that during the discussion of the answers the following points are emphasized
Review each of the types of dishonest or improper behavior by scientists described by Asimov. In each case have the class discuss whether it is an example of:
End the class session with a discussion about what, if anything, the students think should be done by either the scientific community, the government, or the public in response to the issue of occasional, but possibly serious scientific misconduct.
There is no need for concern that students will be turned away from science by a lesson that undermines the heroic model of a scientist as an invariably honest seeker of truth. In fact, those who have used this lesson, or who have otherwise made efforts to portray a more realistic view of scientists have found that students are more sympathetic to scientists when they learn that they are fallible human beings like themselves.
By describing a variety of questionable science behaviors that differ in the degree to which they involve intention on the part of the scientist as well as severity of possible consequences, Asimov provides the opportunity to teach two important lessons about ethics. The first is that judgments about whether an action or behavior is ethical or morally acceptable is not generally an all-or-nothing proposition. Most of us make such evaluations by applying a scale with clearly unethical on one end, highly ethical on the other, and many gradations in between. The second is that there are various obstacles that prevent even those with good intentions from satisfying the ethical demands of good science practice. This latter point is likely to be revealed during the class discussion of Asimov's categories of questionable scientific behavior.
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