Reflections on an Undergraduate Science Education: Part Two

In my previous post, I wrote about how undergraduates in the science stream could be taught more about the philosophy of science in order to enhance and underpin their education. Now we are ready to delve into one of the least discussed areas of science an undergraduate might encounter: that of ethics. I never thought too much about the ethics question until I saw myself staring at pictures of mice with all sorts of limb deformities, generated as part of research into the genetic control of limb development. Sure, I knew about ethics, but only the sort where it boils down into right or wrong, black and white picture, where animal experimentation was concerned and usually in reference to pharmaceutical drug testing. You have to admit that is the least abstract scenario of ethics questions: it would be difficult to deny someone relief from pain and suffering whilst the inner life of the mouse is debated. But what about more abstract scenarios, where the benefits are less tangible and probably far off into the future?

The latter scenario emerged, for me, as part of learning about limb formation and those unfortunate mice which had to be sacrificed as part of what is known basic research; research that has no immediate application. Do not mistake my argument, basic research is a necessary and vital part of science, easily pillared by the ignorant. Think of the MRI machine, the television, the radio, just about everyone wonderful technology out there; they could not have been produced without the basic research which goes into it, often without even knowing what applications the research will lead to. The same applies to limb formation; if we do not allow the experiments on mice, then we would not know most of what we know about how limbs are formed, and who knows what future knowledge we would be denying ourselves? Could it lead to novel treatments for cancer or limb deformities?

It is not only the lack of discussion about ethics, there is the also the danger produced by misinformation. I remember visiting an animal rights stall set up on campus one week, replete with a woman in a bizarre bunny costume. Previous to the visit I had thought that I had heard most of the arguments for stopping research using animals; however I was not prepared for what the two women at the stall had to say. In no uncertain terms, I was told that we do not need to use animals for drug testing as computer simulations are better at predicting possible side effects, and that research using animals harms people. What? Harms people? How could that be?

Before we continue, a word on misinformation. It is very easy to give false information, but much much harder to show that it is indeed untrue. I could claim that, for example, every novel ever written has a reference to Genghis Khan. Evidently not true, though it would be extremely time consuming to debunk my claim.

The women gave an example of harm done; that of a microbicide gel used before heterosexual intercourse as part of research into reducing HIV transmission. To be honest, that was completely new to me and if I had not done a subsequent Biochemistry course then I would have been left with completely the wrong understanding. There, a lecturer discussed the supposedly barbaric practices involving the microbicide gel; far from an implication of wrong-doing, researchers asked HIV-mismatched couples to participate in their studies and gave counselling on reducing transmission chances (such as using condoms), but of course, as the lecturer pointed out, the study is based on the fact that the participants would ignore the advice.

As for computer simulations, I would not have known how implausible that is until I did an internship using simulations of a different nature. To make a long story short: you cannot code what you do not know. What if I had not come across the information with respect to what the women talked about? And even though some of the issues were addressed, there does not seem to be enough time to give weight to them. Is it alright to use HIV-mismatched couples in research, even if counselling has been given? Should animal use only be restricted to certain research, even if important discoveries in the future are curtailed?

There does not seem to be enough time and space in the lecture theatre to give enough thought to these issues. Perhaps a workshop type theme is needed as I suggested in the previous post. I think that undergraduates need to know that ethics is more complex than to be simply reduced to right or wrong answers. We live in an age ripe with contradictions, as when rat poison is readily available on any supermarket shelf yet it seems fit that the machinations by scientists on the same beasts must be scrutinised by ethics committees. As Christopher Hitchens writes in ‘Political Animals’ published in The Atlantic:

“The decryption of DNA is not only useful in putting a merciful but overdue end to theories of creationism and racism but also enlightening in instructing us that we are ourselves animals. We share chromosomal material, often to a striking degree of overlap, not just with the higher primates but with quite humble life forms. Among those scholars who ridicule the claim of “animal rights”, the irreplaceable propaganda keyword is “anthropomorphism”- that laughable combination of heresy and fallacy that uses human structure and human response for analogy. In fact the laugh is at the expense of those who deploy the word. The morphology of the anthropos is itself animalistic. This is a much better starting point than the burblings of Bronze Age Palestine and Mesopotamia, because it permits us to see fellow creatures as just that, and because it allows us to trace our filiations and solidarities with them, as well as our conflicts of interest.”

When deciding our futures, a few of my friends interested in studying Pharmacology expressed ambivalence when they learned that mice and rats would be involved. It is no good simply saying that ‘it feels right/wrong’, or it is ‘right/wrong because of x ideology’, or because ‘it has always been done this way’. As Hitchens points out, there is a lot more nuance so it is about time that the conversation among science undergraduates is started.

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