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Resistance to ethics is different from resistance to other required courses.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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For academic types like myself, the end of the semester can be a weird juxtaposition of projects that are ending and new projects that are on the horizon, a juxtaposition that can be an opportunity for reflexion.

I’ve just seen another offering of my “Ethics in Science” course to a (mostly successful) conclusion. Despite the fact that the class was huge (more than 100 students) for a course that is heavy on discussion, its students were significantly more active and engaged than those in the much smaller class I taught right after it. The students thought hard and well, and regularly floored me with their razor-sharp insights. All the evidence suggests that these students were pretty into it.

Meanwhile, I’m getting set for a new project that will involve developing ethics units for required courses offered in another college at my university — and one of the things I’ve been told is that the students required to take these courses (as well as some non-zero number of the professors in their disciplines) are very resistant to the inclusion of ethics coursework in courses otherwise focused on their major subjects.

I find this resistance interesting, especially given that the majority of the students in my “Ethics in Science” class were taking it because it was required for their majors.

I recognize that part of what’s going on may be a blanket resistance to required courses. Requirements can feel like an attack on one’s autonomy and individuality — rather than being able to choose what you will to study, you’re told what you must study to major in a particular subject or to earn a degree from a particular university. A course that a student might have been open to enjoying were it freely chosen can become a loathed burden merely by virtue of being required. I’ve seen the effect often enough that it no longer surprises me.

However, requirements aren’t usually imposed solely to constrain students’ autonomy. There’s almost always a reason that the course, or subject-matter, or problem-solving area that’s required is being required. The students may not know that reason (or judge it to be a compelling reason if they do know it), but that doesn’t meant that there’s not a reason.

In some ways, ethics is really not much different here from other major requirements or subject matter that students bemoan, including calculus, thermodynamics, writing in the major, and significant figures. On the other hand, the moaning for some of those other requirements tends to take the form of “When am I ever going to use that?”

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a science or engineering student say, “When am I ever going to use ethics?”

In other words, they generally accept that they should be ethical, but they also sometimes voice resistance to the idea that a course (or workshop, or online training module) about how to be ethical will be anything but a massive waste of their time.

My sense is that at least part of what’s going on here is that scientists and engineers and their ilk feel like ethics are being imposed on them from without, by university administrators or funding agencies or accrediting organizations. Worse, the people exhorting scientists, engineers, et alia to take ethics seriously often seem to take a finger-wagging approach. And this, I suspect, makes it harder to get what those business types call “buy-in” from the scientists.

The typical story I’ve heard about ethics sessions in industry (and some university settings) goes something like this:

You get a big packet with the regulations you have to follow — to get your protocols approved by the IRB and/or the IACUC, to disclose potential conflicts of interest, to protect the company’s or university’s patent rights, to fill out the appropriate paperwork for hazardous waste disposal, etc., etc. You are admonished against committing the “big three” of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. Sometimes, you are also admonished against sexually harassing those with whom you are working. The whole thing has the feel of being driven by the legal department’s concerns: for goodness sake, don’t do anything that will embarrass the organization or get us into hot water with regulators or funders!


Listening to the litany of things you ought not to do, it’s really easy to think: Very bad people do things like this. But I’m not a very bad person. So I can tune this out, and I can kind of ignore ethics.


The decision to tune out ethics is enabled by the fact that the people wagging the fingers at the scientists are generally outsiders (from the legal department, or the philosophy department, or wherever). These outsiders are coming in telling us how to do our jobs! And, the upshot of what they’re telling us seems to be “Don’t be evil,” and we’re not evil! Besides, these outsiders clearly don’t care about (let alone understand) the science so much as avoiding scandals or legal problems. And they don’t really trust us not to be evil.


So just nod earnestly and let’s get this over with.

One hurdle here is the need to get past the idea that being ethical is somehow innate, a mere matter of not being evil, rather than a problem-solving practice that gets better with concrete strategies and repeated use. Another hurdle is the feeling that ethics instruction is the result of meddling by outsiders.


If ethics is seen as something imposed upon scientists by a group from the outside — one that neither understands science, nor values it, nor trusts that scientists are generally not evil — then scientists will resist ethics. To get “buy-in” from the scientists, they need to see how ethics are intimately connected to the job they’re trying to get done. In other words, scientists need to understand how ethical conduct is essential to the project of doing science. Once scientists make that connection, they will be ethical — not because someone else is telling them to be ethical, but because being ethical is required to make progress on the job of building scientific knowledge.
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This post is an updated version of an ancestor post on my other blog, and was prompted by the Virtually Speaking Science discussion of philosophy in and of science scheduled for Wednesday, May 28, 2014 (starting 8 PM EDT/8 PM PDT). Watch the hashtags #VSpeak and #AskVS for more details.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. ThomasB 10:12 pm 05/28/2014

    Certainly scientists, like everyone else in our society, must behave ethically. But what makes this a college-level class? From the description, it covers the basic do not lie-cheat-steal along with some anti-bullying and possibly a reminder to cite one’s references. All of which should have been instilled long before college.

    So what is there to teach at this point? The only thing I can think of specific to science is the “publish or perish” pressure to keep the research dollars flowing in. Or possibly the psychological studies showing that highly intelligent and creative people are more inclined to be dishonest than ordinary people. Possibly because they are better at rationalizing doing what they want to do. Which is why I used the word “instilled” earlier: it seems to me that ethics comes more from the emotional centers of the brain than the conscious analytical part. As soon as we start consciously thinking about ethics, they seem to go out the window. Such as the study from one of the Ivy League schools where the students did worse at the ethics test at the end of the class than at the beginning.

    So I guess the bottom line is whether the science shows that ethics classes at this point in a person’s life actually show an improvement in the person’s behavior. As Far as I know, there has been no such study done.

    Link to this
  2. 2. phalaris 4:20 am 05/29/2014

    Thomas B :
    ..as for doing worse after the class, perhaps they think they now know how to avoid getting caught!

    Link to this
  3. 3. tuneone 2:58 pm 05/29/2014

    We are never to old to learn, If you can reach one student who may have slipped through the cracks, Change one life you may change the world!

    Link to this

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