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.
William Leacock, W.C. Mepham High School, Bellemore, Long Island, NY
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Questions such as the following could be asked: There was a discrepancy in this experiment. Is it unethical to alter your data in order to accommodate a discrepancy like this? Why or why not?What about scientists engaged in large scale research projects? Is it unethical for them to alter their data in order to make the results match their expectations? Why or why not?What kinds of factors might lead science students and scientists to alter their original answers? Are these simply excuses, or rationalizations? Or do you think that sometimes they actually justify altering data? What do you think is most needed in order to minimize unjustified data alteration by science students? By scientists?
This lesson clearly raises issues about honesty in interpreting and reporting data acquired in experimental procedures. Although there may be cases in which there is some uncertainty about how one's data can be reasonably and fairly presented, this is not such a case; and there should be little doubt in student's minds that altering the data to conform with what they would expect from a 10 ohm resistor is dishonest reporting. What may be less certain to them is whether it is ethically wrong for them to alter the data. Most students realize that cheating commonly occurs, and they may wonder why they shouldn't cheat if cheating is so common. Discussing what happens when scientists cheat can help stimulate a discussion of the seriousness of cheating in a science lab.
Some students may reply that scientists cheating is different than students cheating. The consequences of scientists cheating can be very serious for others (e.g., resulting in doctors and their patients assuming that prescription drugs are safe when the data supporting this has actually been altered). But, students might say, at most, students hurt only themselves when they cheat; besides there are special pressures to do well as students in order to get into good colleges: once the pressure is off, and when the stakes for others are higher, they won't cheat.
Time permitting, the class could be shown the NOVA program Do Scientists Cheat? or the PBS program Why do People Cheat? in order to cast some doubt on the idea that there will be a time when there will be little pressure to cheat--and to cast some doubt on the idea that there is no connection between how one behaves as a student and how one will behave as a scientist, professional, or ordinary citizen. For an excellent resource on the extent to which lying can directly and indirectly cause harms to liars, those to whom lies are told, third parties who are affected by lies, and social practices and institutions we value, teachers might consult Sissela Bok's Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York: Random House, 1978). A very useful resource for both teachers and students is Honor in Science, published by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society (North Carolina: Research Triangle Park, 1991). This clearly written 41 page publication concentrates on the importance of honesty in scientific research.
There is another ethical issue this lesson raises. This has to do with a deceptive feature of the lesson itself. It is the teacher who introduces the discrepancy between data and expectation by deliberately mislabeling the resistor. The irony of a teacher using deceptive tactics in order to make a point about honesty in scientific practice is not likely to be lost on thoughtful students. They may not bring this to the attention of the teacher, as they may feel uneasy about challenging the ethics of their teacher. However, this does not mean they won't be thinking about this (and discussing it outside of class). But if the ethics of the teacher's tactic is raised, how should the teacher respond? Not only has the teacher deceived the students, he or she used this deception in order to tempt students to engage in unethical behavior themselves (viz., to falsify data). This, too, is bound to be noticed by the students. In fact, since some of them have been "caught with their hands in he cookie jar," they might be highly motivated to point their fingers back at what they take to be equally culpable behavior on the part of their teacher.
So, there is a substantial risk that this lesson, as presently designed, will backfire. It could generate some distrust of the teacher--who, after all, has lied to the students in a way that they might perceive as manipulative. If students can say to their teacher, See, you behave unethically, too, much of the force of the lesson may well be lost. In any case, the teacher risks losing ethical credibility with the students--a very heavy price to pay for an ethics lesson!
Is there any alternative way of getting students to deal effectively with the ethical issues this lesson is designed to raise? One way would be for the teacher to describe this lesson to the students without asking the students to conduct the experiment themselves. This puts matters in the third person (since they will be talking about what others have done rather than themselves). Shifting the focus in this way will take some of the dramatic excitement from the lesson, but it does not change the basic ethical issues, which are inherently interesting in any case. Furthermore, students can still draw on their own experience of witnessing or engaging in cheating themselves in order to enliven their discussion of the issues this lesson raises. Not having their backs against the wall (as they would if caught in the act), students might well be in a better position to deal with the ethical issues more fairly and dispassionately.
Objective -To create a series circuit and to determine if the rules for a series circuit are valid: VT= V1 + V2IT = I1=I2 RT= R1 + R2
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