Archive for the 'Scientist/layperson relations' category

The #scimom project: We are here!

This post is a contribution to the #scimom blog project, which its originator David Wescott describes as follows:

Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. They're the boss. The problem is a lot of online moms feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

Science bloggers push the boundaries of ideas. They give us facts, and theories, and great stories about discovery. They celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and help us understand all kinds of important things. The problem is a lot of science bloggers also feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

I think if moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place. And I think if science bloggers understand the perspectives of the REAL influential people in our society, they can help make sure their work has an even bigger impact than it already does.

Of course I know there are plenty of people who are scientists AND moms. But even those mom/science bloggers tend to stick to one community or the other. In my observations over a few years now, these two online communities remain fairly isolated from each other. So I've been working on an idea to get the two communities talking. Here it is, plain and simple.

1) if you're a mom blogger, write a post this month that has something to do about science or science blogging. It could be anything -your love (or hatred) of science or a particular scientist, a hope you have for your child, an appropriate role model, whatever you like. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

2) if you're a science blogger, write a post this month that has something to do with parenting or parent blogging. Maybe it's something your parent did to get you interested in science. Maybe it's on the science of parenting. Maybe it's your love (or skepticism) of something in the mom-o-sphere. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

3) if you're a mom AND a scientist, then just write a post this month about how awesome it is to be a mom and a scientist or something like that. Maybe suggest a role model, or a story about why both roles are important to you. Just make it personal and relevant to your life. As far as I'm concerned you make an awesome role model and people should know about you.

4) ask another blogger in your online community to participate. You can call them out in your post like it's a blog meme or you can ask them any way you like.

5) tag your post #scimom and I will keep track of the posts and link to them at Science for Citizens and here as well. If you want to tweet a link to your post, just add the hashtag #sci-mom and we'll keep a tally so people can find relevant posts to read.

6) read a post from a blogger in the OTHER community (i.e. if you're a mom blogger read a participating science blogger's post and vice versa) and leave a comment.

I can remember the moment that I realized there was a presumptive rift between science bloggers and mommy bloggers. It was at ScienceOnline 2010, during an Ignite talk in which some dude was carrying on about how powerful (yet how sadly ill-informed about science) mommy bloggers were as a group.

I believe it was Dr. Isis, who was also in attendance for this jaw-dropping proclamation, who let fly the first profanity (sotto voce, of course -- do not doubt that Dr. Isis has manners). But I had a profanity of my own at the ready, for verily, eye contact with the domestic and laboratory goddess confirmed that I had heard what I thought I had heard -- the dude at the podium had essentially just asserted that we didn't exist.

Because, see, we had thought that we were science bloggers, what with blogging about cool scientific findings and strategies for teaching science, learning science, navigating a scientific career, and living as a scientist in a society populated by lots of non-scientists, and that we were mommy bloggers, what with blogging about the joys and challenges of juggling the young humans we were raising with our careers. But apparently, we either didn't count as mommy bloggers (because of all that science content) or as science bloggers (because of the encroachment of all that kid stuff). No true science blogger or mommy blogger would do it like we were doing it.

Actually, the problem as I see it was that the guy on the podium, trying to make the world a better place by encouraging the science bloggers to reach out and educate the mommy bloggers, was operating from an overly narrow picture of each of these groups. Sadly, experience suggests that he is not the only one.

I have had my status as a "real" science blogger questioned because I don't just blog about scientific research (particularly as reported in the peer reviewed scientific literature). In particular, my "Friday Sprog Blogging" posts have been singled out as "fluff" that doesn't belong on a proper science blog. It is true that these anecdotes and transcripts of conversations of my offspring do not undergo rigorous peer review before I post them, but I suspect that the real worry is that having conversations with kids about science is viewed as less important than making new scientific knowledge, or than reporting on such new knowledge in a blog post. Talking to children, after all, is still mostly seen as women's work. How important could it be?

This is a good question to ask oneself when bemoaning the public's lack of interest in or engagement with science. Those members of the public used to be somebody's kids.

At the same time, I will confess that there have been moments when I have not felt entirely welcome in the mommy precincts of blogtopia. Perhaps part of this comes from having a blog with a mostly professional focus on days that are not Friday. But part of it may be connected to the "mommy wars" that the mainstream media gin up on a regular basis. There is a presumption that factions of mommies are engaged in heated battle over The Right Way To Do It. This imagines that each choice a mommy makes is simultaneously a criticism of those who chose otherwise -- whether those choices have to do with taking on primary responsibility for child rearing and housework in the home or going out to a job, choosing public school or private school or homeschooling or unschooling, feeling torn about daycare or deliriously happy when we drop off our little darlings.

I would like to inform the mainstream media and my fellow mothers that my choices are my choices, not judgments of anyone else's choices. Heck, I'm as likely to judge my own choices harshly as anyone else's. But what can you do when you're operating with less than perfect information (as we all are, all the time)? The best that you can.

This is not to say that there aren't moments when I share a strong point of view. In particular, a post I wrote about the ethics of not vaccinating one's kids provoked a vigorous response -- from science bloggers and mommy bloggers alike. (The science bloggers seemed to agree that I was being too nice, while at least some mommy bloggers seemed to think I was either in the bag for big pharma or thoroughly brainwashed by the medical establishment.)

But here's the thing: I've found that my own parenting has required thinking hard, finding reliable sources of information, being willing to step away from sources of information that haven't stood up to scrutiny, figuring out how to balance long-term and short-term considerations, ... really, what we're talking about here is critical thinking. I reckon that women are no worse at critical thinking than your average member of the general public, and I reckon that women with kids have serious incentive to be better than average at critical thinking, since someone else's welfare may depend on it. (I'm not the only one who thinks critical thinking ought to be part of parenting.)

Mommy bloggers have to wade through the gender smog of our culture that tells them that women in general and mommies in particular are presumed to be silly, frivolous creatures, lacking in intelligence and objectivity (not to mention a sense of humor), a special interest that normal human beings can marginalize as necessary to get stuff done.

Women blogging about science often face similar presumptions.

None of this is to say that there are no mommy bloggers, or woman science bloggers, who aren't always on top of their critical thinking game, or who are mistaken about the facts, or who are mean, or what have you. But I submit to you that these failings are not gender based -- that there are plenty of male bloggers who fail at critical thinking, fact-checking, and human kindness.

Having kids and caring about science are not mutually incompatiblestates of being. And either (or both) of these states can be combined with being a woman, and with blogging.

We are far too diverse for any stereotype of science bloggers or of mommy bloggers to describe us all with any fidelity.

And, despite suggestions that mommy bloggers and science bloggers are two distinct groups, many of us are both. We are here. If science bloggers want to reach mommy bloggers, the first step may be to see us as we really are, rather than trying to communicate with who you imagine mommy bloggers to be.

* * * * *
As with all meme-like things, if you want to be tagged, you are. In the meantime, let me point out a few other mommy/science bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading:


PhD Mom

Kate Clancy


13 responses so far

Autism Awareness Month: some links.

Since April is Autism Awareness Month, here are some links to relevant posts worth reading:

At Shakesville, a guest post from LydiaEncyclopedia: Autism Acceptance For Autism Awareness Month:

Autism Awareness Month has been a thorn in my side for as long as I've been an adult. I am at heart an attention-seeker, so you would think having an entire month devoted to people like me would be a joy to behold. But that's the problem behind Autism Awareness Month. It isn't about me. It's not about me—the autistic person. The entire conception of Autism Awareness Month doesn't even revolve around autism, not the kind I have or the kind that anyone I know lives with. The ‘autism' of Autism Awareness Month is a mysterious, esoteric, silent force, which magically swoops into the homes of unsuspecting families, and replaces regular, darling children with empty husks, ala the Changelings of ancient myths.

It's not even entirely about the children who are these so-called "empty shells." The entire focus of Autism Awareness Month seems to be divided between what sad, pathetic existences they must lead, and the potential for a real, neurotypical, normal child that lies just around the corner in the next type of chelation, cure, or therapy. Rather than shedding light on what autism is, Autism Awareness Month has served to cloud autism further in lies, half-truths, pity, and the tyranny of low expectations.

Also, a couple of the links dropped by the excellent Shakesville commenters on that post:

At Square 8, The ever-expanding list of neurotypical privilege.
(H/T codeman38)

At ballastexistenz, Hey, watch it, that’s attached!:

I am going to take cure to refer to removal of all things that have been defined by the medical profession, about my body, as disabilities, in the individual, medical sense that medical people make it. Some of the things I am about to describe may not sound like they are out of the ordinary. They aren’t. But at some point along the line, they have, in my life, become medicalized. For instance, certain particular genes generate things considered (in the medical/individual model of disability) disabling, but also a number of other things that taken alone would be ordinary. Since all those traits stem from the same genes, I have to conclude that they’d have to go as well, even the harmless or relatively ordinary bits. Cure, after all, does not pick and choose, it’s about removing all traces of the thing regarded as “a disability” medically. ...

Cure means rearranging me on everything from the obvious physical level to the genetic level. Rearranging at the genetic level always entails surprises. Pull on one thing and you find it’s attached to ten other things you didn’t even notice and would never have predicted, because you didn’t know that gene dealt with all of those things at once instead of one tidy little thing at a time. Similarly, rearranging the brain and other parts of the body will always have effects you didn’t count on. This is what happens when you mess with systems that are complex and interconnected.

(H/T: KA101)

Finally, some interesting discussions of research:

At Cracking the enigma, How do siblings influence theory of mind development in children with autism?:

Research conducted in the past 15 years or so has consistently shown that children with siblings of a similar age tend to pass tests of "theory of mind" at a younger age than those without siblings. The implication is that the experience of interacting with siblings helps children to develop the concept that other people have minds and that their thoughts and beliefs are sometimes different from their own.

Children with autism typically struggle on tests of theory of mind. An interesting question, then, is what effect siblings have on theory of mind development in autism. Based on the literature on typically developing kids, we might expect siblings of autistic children to have a beneficial effect. We could even make a case that, because autistic kids may have fewer interactions with non-family members, siblings may be even more important than normal. Counterintuitively, however, a new study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests that having older siblings can have a detrimental effect on autistic children's theory of mind development. ...

The authors speculate that well-meaning older siblings may over-compensate for the autistic child's difficulties. By treating them with kid gloves, they may somehow limit their development. Younger siblings might be less likely to do this and so have a more benign influence. However, it's not clear why having older siblings would be worse than having none at all.

At The Autism Crisis, Are autistic people lost in space?:

In one short paper, Elizabeth Pellicano and colleagues claim to demolish Simon Baron Cohen's systemizing account of autism. They also conclude that autistics' strong visual search and probabilistic learning abilities fail in large-scale space, ergo in the real world. ...

Well first, it's an interesting task, even if it's not a visual search task.

But even if autistics totally failed (they didn't, and search all you want again, but you will find no rationale in this paper for the drop-off-a-cliff thresholds pushed by the authors), this task doesn't map easily onto the authors' sensational claims. These include that autistics can't find "shoes in the bedroom, apples in a supermarket, or a favourite animal at the zoo" ergo can't achieve independence.

Of course I want a whole lot more data, or an excellent rationale (none is provided) for not reporting most of it. And numerous possibilities were overlooked. ...

No one knows how autistics would have performed if given accurate task instructions (to take the shortest path, as measured by the authors, to the target). Maybe someone else can bring up motor differences, which plausibly are relevant to this "true-to-life" task. And I wonder how clear, for autistics, the task instructions were with respect to revisits.

Autistics should be notorious by now for noticing aspects of tasks that nonautistics don't (fantastic example at IMFAR last year), and for exploring more possibilities than nonautistics (examples here and here). Writing this off as a bad thing, as autistics being lost in space or some dire equivalent, is shortsighted to say the least.

3 responses so far

On the targeting of undergraduates by animal rights extremists (and the dangers of victim-blaming).

This morning, the Speaking of Research blog brings news of an undergraduate science major targeted for daring to give voice to her commitments:

Earlier this week, the animal rights extremist group at posted an email they received from Alena – an undergraduate student at Florida Atlantic University – in response to their attempts to solicit local activists to attend an animal rights event:

Actually, I’m an undergrad researcher aiming to work at Scripps [Research Institute]! I currently test on animals and think that it is perfectly fine. In fact, it is the one of the only ways that we, scientists, can test drugs in order to treat human diseases. I’m sure someone in your family or even a friend you know has suffered from a disease or pathology that was treated (or cured) by medicines THAT ONLY CAME INTO EXISTENCE BECAUSE OF ANIMAL TESTING.

First off, we applaud Alena for standing up for what she believes in and for expressing support for the humane use of animals in research aimed at addressing the health and welfare of humans and animals alike. Not surprisingly, however, NIO launched an offensive of degrading and hateful emotional abuse that caused Alena to plead for them to:

…please stop saying such horrible, untrue things about me. It’s hurtful.

In response, they no doubt ratcheted up the threats, causing Alena to:

…denounc[e] animal testing and my involvement in it…. I will be looking for other career choices.

Not unlike perpetrators of child and spouse abuse who use fear of further attacks to ensure silence in their victims, NIO hopes that flooding the email boxes of young people with obscenities and rabid missives will ensure that the voices of scientists of tomorrow are suppressed. Even for NIO, this is a new low, and Speaking of Research sharply condemns those who chose to act like shameless bullies when harassing, threatening and intimidating any student, researcher or faculty member.

I'm guessing at least some readers, reading this, are thinking to themselves (or hollering at the computer screen), "Well, what did she expect? You can't engage rationally with animal rights extremists! Sending that email to the extremist website was a rookie mistake, and now she'll know better."

Undergraduates may well be "rookies" in certain respects, but damned if I'm going to encourage my undergraduate students to give up hopes of rational engagement with the other people with whom they have to share a world. Giving up on rational engagement is how you end up with the current state of politics and "governance" in the United States. We can do better.

Anyway, I hope that a moment's reflection will persuade you that blaming the victim of the harassment here is just as inappropriate as blaming victims of bullying or rape. "If she had just done X, Y, or Z differently, this wouldn't have happened to her!" Coming at it this way may convince you that you are safe from such harassment because of how you are doing X, Y, and Z. You aren't. The extremists can decide to target you regardless of what you do or don't do.


The undergraduate targeted here by extremists was involved in research with fruit flies. And extremists have targeted scientists who no longer perform animal research (and their children). Indeed, they have targeted people who don't do scientific research at all (like me) who have dared to express the view that animal research might be the most ethical of our options.

The extremists are not choosing targets because of what they do or how they do it. Rather, just existing in the public square with a view different from theirs seems to be enough.

Indeed, the extremist website Negotiation is Over offers its readers step by step advice on how to target undergraduate students in the life sciences:

How to Shut Down Vivisectors-In-Training in Three Easy Steps

  1. By and large, students pursuing careers in research science truly want to help people, not victimize animals. Their indoctrination into the world of laboratory torture is slow, methodical, and deliberate. While they are being groomed, we are obligated to intercede and educate these young scientists with truth. As Alena admitted, “I was naive…I really just did not know about all this stuff.” And she is not unique.
  2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.
  3. Like all young adults, college students are acutely concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. They need to maintain a certain persona if they wish to continue to enjoy the acceptance of their community. This makes them infinitely more susceptible to negative and inflammatory publicity than their veteran-mutilator counterparts. When education fails, smear campaigns can be highly effective. Abusers have forfeited all rights to privacy and peace of mind and, if an abuser-to-be should fail to make the correct choice now, NIO is here to broadcast all of their personal information. Remember, young people document every facet of their personal lives online. In about 30 minutes, we were able to compile an impressive and comprehensive profile for Elena.

We need to begin to actively identify those enrolled in scientific disciplines and isolate the students preparing for or involved in biological research. We need to get into the universities and speak to classes. This poses a minor, but not insurmountable, obstacle for many activists that have been trespassed, banned, or TROed. We need to team up with other aggressive campaigners who excel at engaging and educating. We need to implement a “good cop, bad cop” approach to keep our targets off balance and maximize our effectiveness.

Let's take this point by point.

1. By and large, students pursuing careers in research science truly want to help people, not victimize animals. Their indoctrination into the world of laboratory torture is slow, methodical, and deliberate. While they are being groomed, we are obligated to intercede and educate these young scientists with truth. As Alena admitted, “I was naive…I really just did not know about all this stuff.” And she is not unique.

We start with a recognition that the undergraduates being targeted want to help people. But in the very next sentence, we get a picture of the established researchers deliberately indoctrinating these young do-gooders to transform them into gleeful animal torturers. (There's no explanation here of how the grown-up researchers -- themselves presumably once dewy-eyed undergraduates who wanted to save humanity -- became evil.)

For the good of these young people, the extremists must intervene and "educate these young scientists with truth".

It would be one thing if this were just a matter of dueling fact-sheets. Of course, one of the things we hope we're teaching our undergraduates is how to be critical consumers of information. Among other things, we want them to recognize that the facts are not determined by who shouts the loudest.* So whatever claims the extremists -- or their professors -- make about animal research are only as good as the evidence that backs them up, and finding that evidence may require the student to do some legwork.

I'm OK with that. Moreover, I trust my students to reflect on the best information they can find, to reflect on their own values, and to make the best choices they can.

The extremists, though, want to influence those choices with more than just "the facts" as they see them:

2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.

Please note that these threats are not tied to any particular kind of animal research -- to research that causes especially high pain and distress, or to research with nonhuman primates, or to research that violates the prevailing regulations. Rather, the bombs, home demonstrations, and targeting of family members are being threatened for any involvement in animal research at all.

The extremists do not have a nuanced view. Merely existing with a view of animal research that differs from theirs is provocation enough for them.

And, they are happy to make their case with threats and intimidation -- which suggests that maybe they can't make that case on the basis of the fact.

3. Like all young adults, college students are acutely concerned with how they are perceived by their peers. They need to maintain a certain persona if they wish to continue to enjoy the acceptance of their community. This makes them infinitely more susceptible to negative and inflammatory publicity than their veteran-mutilator counterparts. When education fails, smear campaigns can be highly effective. Abusers have forfeited all rights to privacy and peace of mind and, if an abuser-to-be should fail to make the correct choice now, NIO is here to broadcast all of their personal information. Remember, young people document every facet of their personal lives online. In about 30 minutes, we were able to compile an impressive and comprehensive profile for Elena.

Who needs facts when you have cyber-bullying?

Indeed, the extremists are pretty clear in advocating "smear campaigns" that they are happy to lie to get their way, and that "abusers-to-be" (that is, anyone who doesn't already agree with the extremist position, or who hasn't decided to totally disengage) have no right to privacy or peace of mind.

Again, I suspect a reader or two in my age group may be thinking, "Well, if those whippersnappers didn't post so much information about themselves on the Facebooks and the MySpaces and the Tumblrs, they wouldn't get into this trouble, dagnabit!" But note again the willingness of the extremists to engage in smear campaigns. They don't need to find embarrassing pictures, videos, or posts, because they can make stuff up about you.

And, regardless of how much online time undergraduates spend in what I (or you) would judge "overshare" mode, I am not willing to tell them that the best way to deal with extremists is to go into actual or virtual hiding. I am not prepared to cede the public square, the marketplace of ideas, or the classroom discussion to the extremists.

Disagreement is not a crime, nor a sin.

Threatening and harassing people because they disagree with you, on the other hand, is a pretty lousy way to be part of the human community. Calling this behavior out when we see it is part of what we grown-ups ought to be doing, not just to set an example for the grown-ups-in-training, but also to do our part in creating the world those grown-ups-in-training deserve.

* The one obvious exception here: the fact of which side is shouting the loudest is determined by which side is shouting the loudest.


31 responses so far

Dispatch from PSA 2010: Symposium session on ClimateGate.

The Philosophy of Science Association Biennial Meeting included a symposium session on the release of hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Given that we've had occasion to discuss ClimateGate here before, i thought I'd share my notes from this session.

Symposium: The CRU E-mails: Perspectives from Philosophy of Science.

Naomi Oreskes (UC San Diego), gave a talk called "Why We Resist the Results of Climate Science."

She mentioned the attention brought to the discovery of errors in the IPCC report, noting that while mistakes are obviously to be avoided, it would be amazing for there to be a report that ran thousands of pages that did not have some mistakes. (Try to find a bound dissertation -- generally only in the low hundreds of pages -- without at least one typo.) The public's assumption, though, was that these mistakes, once revealed, were smoking guns -- a sign that something improper must have occurred.

Oreskes noted the boundary scientists of all sorts (including climate scientists) have tried to maintain between the policy-relevant and the policy-prescriptive. This is a difficult boundary to police, though, as climate science has an inescapable moral dimension. To the extent that climate change is driven by consumption (especially but not exclusively the burning of fossil fuels), we have a situation where the people reaping the benefits are not the ones who will be paying for that benefit (since people in the developed world will have the means to respond to the effects of climate change and those in the developing world will not). The situation seems to violate our expectations of intergenerational equity (since future generations will have to cope with the consequences of the consumption of past and current generations), as well as of inter-specific equity (since the species likely to go extinct in response to climate change are not the ones contributing the most to climate change).

The moral dimension of climate change, though, doesn't make this a scientific issue about which the public feels a sense of clarity. Rather, the moral issues are such that Americans feel like their way of life is on trial. Those creating the harmful effects have done something wrong, even if it was accidental.

And this is where the collision occurs: Americans believe they are good; climate science seems to be telling them that they are bad. (To the extent that people strongly equate capitalism with democracy and the American way of life, that's an issue too, given that consumption and growth are part of the problem.)

The big question Oreskes left us with, then, is how else to frame the need for changes in behavior, so that such a need would not make Americans so defensive that they would reflexively reject the science. I'm not sure the session ended with a clear answer to that question.

* * * * *

Wendy S. Parker (Ohio University) gave a talk titled "The Context of Climate Science: Norms, Pressures, and Progress." A particular issue she took up was the ideal of transparency and how it came up in the context of climate scientists interactions with each other and with the public.

Parker noted that there had been numerous requests for access to raw data by people climate scientists did not recognize as part of the climate science community. The CRU denied many such requests, and the ClimateGate emails made it clear that the scientists generally didn't want to cooperate with these requests.

Here, Parker observed that while we tend to look favorably on transparency, we probably need to say more about what transparency should amount to. Are we talking about making something available and open to scrutiny (i.e., making "transparency" roughly the opposite of "secrecy")? Are we talking about making something understandable or usable, perhaps by providing fully explained nontechnical accounts of scientific methods and findings for the media (i.e., making "transparency" roughly the opposite of "opacity")?

What exactly do we imagine ought to be made available? Research methods? Raw and/or processed data? Computer code? Lab notebooks? E-mail correspondence?

To whom ought the materials to be made available? Other members of one's scientific community seems like a good bet, but how about members of the public at large? (Or, for that matter, members of industry or of political lobbying groups?)

And, for that matter, why do we value transparency? What makes it important? Is it primarily a matter of ensuring the quality of the shared body of scientific knowledge, and of improving the rate of scientific progress? Or, do we care about transparency as a matter of democratic accountability? As Parker noted, these values might be in conflict. (As well, she mentioned, transparency might conflict with other social values, like the privacy of human subjects.)

Here, if the public imputed nefarious motives to the climate researchers, the scientists themselves viewed some of the requests for access to their raw data as attempts by people with political motivations to obstruct the progress (or acceptance) of their research. It was not that the scientists feared that bad science would be revealed if the data were shared, but rather that they worried that yahoos from outside the scientific community were going to waste their time, or worse to cherry pick the shared data to make allegations that the scientists to which would then have to respond, wasting even more time.

In the numerous investigations that followed on the heels of the leak of stolen CRU e-mails, about the strongest charge against the involved climate scientists that stood was that they failed to display "the proper degree of openness", and that they seemed to have a ethos of minimal compliance (or occasionally non-compliance) with regard to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They were chided that the requirements of FOIA must not be seen as impositions, but as part of their social contract with the public (and something likely to make their scientific knowledge better).

Compliance, of course, takes resources (one of the most important of these being time), so it's not free. Indeed, it's hard not to imagine that at least some FOIA requests to climate scientists had "unintended consequences" (in terms of the expenditure of tim and other resources) on climate scientists that were precisely what the requesters intended.

However, as Parker noted, FOIA originated with the intent of giving citizens access to the workings of their government -- imposing it on science and scientists is a relatively new move. It is true that many scientists (although not all) conduct publicly funded research, and thereby incur some obligations to the public. But there's a question of how far this should go -- ought every bit of data generated with the aid of any government grant to be FOIA-able?

Parker discussed the ways that FOIA seems to demand an openness that doesn't quite fit with the career reward structures currently operating within science. Yet ClimateGate and its aftermath, and the heightened public scrutiny of, and demands for openness from, climate scientists in particular, seem to be driving (or at least putting significant pressure upon) the standards for data and code sharing in climate science.

I got to ask one of the questions right after Parker's talk. I wondered whether the level of public scrutiny on climate scientists might be enough to drive them into the arms of the "open science" camp -- which would, of course, require some serious rethinking of the scientific reward structures and the valorization of competition over cooperation. As we've discussed on this blog on many occasions, institutional and cultural change is hard. If openness from climate scientists is important enough to the public, though, could the public decide that it's worthwhile to put up the resources necessary to support this kind of change in climate science?

I guess it would require a public willing to pay for the goodies it demands.

* * * * *

The next talk, by Kristin Shrader-Frechette (University of Notre Dame), was titled "Scientifically Legitimate Ways to Cook and Trim Data: The Hacked and Leaked Climate Emails."

Shrader-Frechette discussed what statisticians (among others) have to say about conditions in which it is acceptable to leave out some of your data (and indeed, arguably misleading to leave it in rather than omitting it). There was maybe not as much unanimity here as one might like.

There's general agreement that data trimming in order to make your results fit some predetermined theory is unacceptable. There's less agreement about how to deal with outliers. Some say that deleting them is probably OK (although you'd want to be open that you have done so). On the other hand, many of the low probability/high consequence events that science would like to get a handle on are themselves outliers.

So when and how to trim data is one of those topics where it looks like scientists are well advised to keep talking to their scientific peers, the better not to mess it up.

Of the details in the leaked CRU e-mails, one that was frequently identified as a smoking gun indicating scientific shenanigans was the discussion of the "trick" to "hide the decline" in the reconstruction of climatic temperatures using proxy data from tree-rings. Shrader-Frechette noted that what was being "hidden" was not a decline in temperatures (as measured instrumentally) but rather in the temperatures reconstructed from one particular proxy -- and that other proxies the climate scientists were using didn't show this decline.

The particular incident raises a more general methodological question: scientifically speaking, is it better to include the data from proxies (once you have reason to believe it's bad data) in your graphs? Is including it (or leaving it out) best seen as scrupulous honesty or as dishonesty?

And, does the answer differ if the graph is intended for use in an academic, bench-science presentation or a policy presentation (where it would be a very bad thing to confuse your non-expert audience)?

As she closed her talk, Shrader-Frechette noted that welfare-affecting science cannot be treated merely as pure science. She also mentioned that while FOIA applies to government-funded science, it does not apply to industry-funded science -- which means that the "transparency" available to the public is pretty asymmetrical (and that industry scientists are unlikely to have to devote their time to responding to requests from yahoos for their raw data).

* * * * *

Finally, James McAllister (University of Leiden) gave a talk titled "Errors, Blunders, and the Construction of Climate Change Facts." He spoke of four epistemic gaps climate scientists have to bridge: between distinct proxy data sources, between proxy and instrumental data, between historical time series (constructed of instrumental and proxy data) and predictive scenarios, and between predictive scenarios and reality. These epistemic gaps can be understood in the context of the two broad projects climate science undertakes: the reconstruction of past climate variation, and the forecast of the future.

As you might expect, various climate scientists have had different views about which kinds of proxy data are most reliable, and about how the different sorts of proxies ought to be used in reconstructions of past climate variation. The leaked CRU e-mails include discussions where climate scientists dedicate themselves to finding the "common denominator" in this diversity of expert opinion -- not just because such a common denominator might be expected to be closer to the objective reality of things, but also because finding common ground in the diversity of opinion could be expected to enhance the core group's credibility. Another effect, of course, is that the common denominator is also denied to outsiders, undermining their credibility (and effectively excluding them as outliers).

McAllister noted that the emails simultaneously revealed signs of internal disagreement, and of a reaching for balance. Some of the scientists argued for "wise use" of proxies and voiced judgments about how to use various types of data.

The data, of course, cannot actually speak for themselves.

As the climate scientists worked to formulate scenario-based forecasts that public policy makers would be able to use, they needed to grapple with the problems of how to handle the link between their reconstructions of past climate trends and their forecasts. They also had to figure out how to handle the link between their forecasts and reality. The e-mails indicate that some of the scientists were pretty resistant to this latter linkage -- one asserted that they were "NOT supposed to be working with the assumption that these scenarios are realistic," rather using them as internally consistent "what if?" storylines.

One thing the e-mails don't seem to contain is any explicit discussion of what would count as an ad hoc hypothesis and why avoiding ad hoc hypotheses would be a good thing. This doesn't mean that the climate scientists didn't avoid them, just that it was not a methodological issue they felt they needed to be discussing with each other.

This was a really interesting set of talks, and I'm still mulling over some of the issues they raised for me. When those ideas are more than half-baked, I'll probably write something about them here.

52 responses so far

What do cancer researchers owe cancer patients?

As promised, today I'm returning to this essay (PDF) by Scott E. Kern about the sorry state of cancer researchers at Johns Hopkins to consider the assumptions he seems to be making about what cancer patients can demand from researchers (or any other members of society), and on what basis.

Let's review the paragraph of Kern's essay that dropped his framing of the ethical issue like an anvil:

During the survey period, off-site laypersons offer comments on my observations. “Don’t the people with families have a right to a career in cancer research also?” I choose not to answer. How would I? Do the patients have a duty to provide this “right”, perhaps by entering suspended animation? Should I note that examining other measures of passion, such as breadth of reading and fund of knowledge, may raise the same concern and that “time” is likely only a surrogate measure? Should I note that productive scientists with adorable family lives may have “earned” their positions rather than acquiring them as a “right”? Which of the other professions can adopt a country-club mentality, restricting their activities largely to a 35–40 hour week? Don’t people with families have a right to be police? Lawyers? Astronauts? Entrepreneurs?

There's a bit of weirdness here that I will note and then set aside, namely formulating the question as one of whether people with families have a right to a career in cancer research, rather than whether cancer researchers have a right to have families (or any other parts of their lives that exist beyond their careers).

Framing it this way, it's hard not to suspect that Kern is the guy on the search committee who is poised to torpedo the job application of any researcher with the temerity to show any evidence of a life that might need balancing with work -- the guy on the search committee who is open about wanting to hire workaholics who have no place else to go but the lab and thus can be expected to yield a higher research output for the same salary. Talented applicants with families (or aspirations to have them), or even hobbies, are a bad risk to a guy like this. And besides, if they need that other stuff too, how serious can they be about research?

If Hopkins has a policy of screening out applicants for research positions on the basis that they have families, or hobbies, or interests that they intend to pursue beyond their work duties, I'm sure that they make this policy clear in their job advertisements. Surely, this would be the sort of information a university would want to share with job seekers.

For our discussion here, let's start with what I take to be the less odd formulation of the question: Do cancer researchers have a right to a life outside of work?

Kern's suggestion is that this "right," when exercised by researchers, is something that cancer patients end up paying for with their lives (unless they go into suspended animation while cancer researchers are spending time with their families or puttering around their gardens).

The big question, then, is what the researcher's obligations are to the cancer patient -- or to society in general.

For that matter, what are society's obligations to the cancer patient? What are society's obligations to researchers? And what are the cancer patient's obligations in all of this?

I've written before about the assertion that scientists are morally obligated to practice science (including conducting research). I'll quote some of the big reasons offered to bolster this assertion from my earlier post:

  • society has paid for the training the scientists have received (through federal funding of research projects, training programs, etc.)
  • society has pressing needs that can best (only?) be addressed if scientific research is conducted
  • those few members of society who have specialized skills that are needed to address particular societal needs have a duty to use those skills to address those needs (i.e., if you can do research and most other people can’t, then to the extent that society as a whole needs the research that you can do, you ought to do it)

Needless to say, finding cures and treatments for cancer would be among those societal needs.

This is the whole Spider Man thing: with great power comes great responsibility, and scientific researchers have great power. If cancer researchers won't help find cures and treatments for cancer, who else can?

Here, I think we should pause to note that there may well be an ethically relevant difference between offering help and doing everything you possibly can. It's one thing to donate a hundred bucks to charity and quite another to give all your money and sell all your worldly goods in order to donate the proceeds. It's a different thing for a healthy person to donate one kidney than to donate both kidneys plus the heart and lungs.

In other words, there is help you can provide, but there seems also to be a level of help that it would be wrong for anyone else to demand of you.*

And once we recognize that such a line exists, I think we have to recognize that the needs of cancer patients do not -- and should not -- trump every other interest of other individuals or of society as a whole. If a cancer patient cannot lay claim to the heart and lungs of a cancer researcher, then neither can that cancer patient lay claim to every moment of a cancer researcher's time.

Indeed, in this argument of duties that spring from ability, it seems fair to ask why it is not the responsibility of everyone who might get cancer to train as a cancer researcher and contribute to the search for a cure. Why should tuning out in high school science classes, or deciding to pursue a degree in engineering or business or literature, excuse one from responsibility here? (And imagine how hard it's going to be to get kids to study for their AP Chemistry or AP Biology classes when word gets out that their success is setting them up for a career where they ought never to take a day off, go to the beach, or cultivate friendships outside the workplace. Nerds can connect the dots.)

Surely anyone willing to argue that cancer researchers owe it to cancer patients to work the kind of hours Kern seems to think would be appropriate ought to be asking what cancer patients -- and the precancerous -- owe here.

Does Kern think researchers owe all their waking hours to the task because there are so few of them who can do this research? Reports from job seekers over the past several years suggest that there are plenty of other trained scientists who could do this research but have not secured employment as cancer researchers. Some may be employed in other research fields. Others, despite their best efforts, may not have secured research positions at all. What are their obligations here? Ought those employed in other research areas to abandon their current research to work on cancer, departments and funders be damned? Ought those who are not employed in a research field to be conducting their own cancer research anyway, without benefit of institution or facilities, research funding or remuneration?

Why would we feel scientific research skills, in particular, should make the individuals who have them so subject to the needs of others, even to the exclusion of their own needs?

Verily, if scientific researchers and the special skills they have are so very vital to providing for the needs of other members of society -- vital enough that people like Kern feel it's appropriate to harangue them for wanting any time out of the lab -- doesn't society owe it to its members to give researchers every resource they need for the task? Maybe even to create conditions in which everyone with the talent and skills to solve the scientific problems society wants solved can apply those skills and talents -- and live a reasonably satisfying life while doing so?

My hunch is that most cancer patients would actually be less likely than Kern to regard cancer researchers as of merely instrumental value. I'm inclined to think that someone fighting a potentially life-threatening disease would be reluctant to deny someone else the opportunity to spend time with loved ones or to savor an experience that makes life worth living. To the extent that cancer researchers do sacrifice some aspects of the rest of their life to make progress on their work, I reckon most cancer patients appreciate these sacrifices. If more is needed for cancer patients, it seems reasonable to place this burden on society as a whole -- teeming with potential cancer patients and their relatives and friends -- to enable more (and more effective) cancer research to go on without enslaving the people qualified to conduct it, or writing off their interests in their own human flourishing.

Kern might spend some time talking with cancer patients about what they value in their lives -- maybe even using this to help him extrapolate some of the things his fellow researchers might value in their lives -- rather than just using them to prop up his appeal to pity.

*Possibly there is also a level of help that it would be wrong for you to provide because it harms you in a fundamental and/or irreparable way.

12 responses so far

Are ethical principles optional?

At White Coat Underground, PalMD ponders what to make of members of the same professional community with divergent views of the ethical principles that ought to guide them:

As I thought a bit more about the doctor who wrote the letter to the editor we discussed yesterday, I wondered how two similarly-trained doctors (he and I) could come to such different conclusions about ethical behavior.

The generally agreed upon set of medical ethics we work with has developed over centuries. Patient confidentiality, for example, was demanded by Hippocrates of Kos. But many of the medical ethics we work with are fairly modern developments that reflect the thinking of our surrounding society. The changing weight of patient dignity and autonomy vs. physician paternalism is such an example.

The very fact that our views (individually and collectively) or what is or is not ethical change over time is important to notice. The folks who believe there are "moral facts" in the world for us to discover might account for this in terms of improvements in our ability to perceive such moral facts (or maybe an improvement in our willingness to look for them). Myself, I'm not sure you need to be committed to the existence of objective moral facts to grant that the project of sharing a world with others may change in important and interesting ways as our societies do. And, I don't think we can rule out the possibility that in some respects, earlier generations may have been jerks, and that we can do better ethically, or at least try to.

"Justice" makes its official entry into the list of essential ethical principles that need to guide research with human subjects (whether biomedical or not) in the Belmont Report, which was convened to respond to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. That 30 year long study was notable for how unequally risks of the research and the benefits from the knowledge it produced were distributed, and the public outcry when the study was exposed in the newspapers (while it was still ongoing) made it clear that the behavior of the researchers was ethically abhorrent in the eyes of a significant segment of the American public.

In Belmont, it's worth noting, justice is one of three guiding principles (the other two being beneficence and respect for persons). The authors of Belmont acknowledge that the tensions that sometimes arise between these three principles can make it difficult to work out the best thing (ethically speaking) to do. However, attention to these three principles can help us rule certain courses of action right out (because they wouldn't fit with any of the principles, or only kind of fit with one while violating the other two, etc.). It's not a matter of throwing one of the three principles overboard when the tensions arise, but rather of finding a way to do the best you ca by each of them.

On the matter of someone who might say, "I don't believe justice is an essential ethical principle, so I'm going to opt out of being guided by it," here's my take on things:

Ethics do not begin and end with our personal commitments. Ethics are all about sharing a world with other people whose interests and needs may be quite different from our own. Ethical principles are meant to help up remember that other people's interests and needs have value, too, and that we can't just trash them because it's inconvenient for us to take those interests and needs seriously. In other words, in ethics IT IS NEVER ALL ABOUT YOU.

This is not to say that there aren't struggles (especially in a pluralistic society) about the extent of our ethical obligations to others. But you can't opt out without opting out of that society.

And here's where we get to the researcher or physician (my expertise is in the ethical standards guiding communities of researchers, but PalMD notes that the current position of medical ethics now embraces justice as a guiding principle). He's free to say, "I'll have no truck with justice," if he is prepared as well to opt out of membership in that professional community. Alternatively, he can stay and try to make a persuasive case to his professional community that justice ought not to be one of the community's shared ethical values; if he changes enough minds, so goes the community. (This could have implications for how willing the broader society is to tolerate this professional community, but that's a separable issue.*)

But, he cannot claim to be part of the community while simultaneously making a unilateral decision that one of the community's explicitly stated shared values does not apply to him.

I think Pal nicely captures why physicians (among others) should take the community standards seriously:

Why should physician’s adhere to any code of ethics? Can’t we just each rely on ourselves as individuals to do what’s right?

As doctors we are given extraordinary privileges and responsibilities. Physicians have always recognized that this demands high standards of behavior. The way we act professionally must take into account not just what we each believe, but what our patients and our society believes. Ethics are easy if we all have the same values. Ethics get hard when we don’t share beliefs. And when we don’t share beliefs, we must at the very least remember our core principles, those of helping our patients, and not causing them harm; of granting them autonomy and privacy; of treating them with basic human dignity.

Even physicians have to share a world with the rest of us. Our ethics, whether as members of professional communities or or society at large, are a framework to help us share that world. Maybe you can make a case for opting out of an ethical principle you don't care for if you are the supreme leader of your world, or have a world of your very own with no world-mates. Otherwise, it behooves you to figure out how to play well with others, even if sometimes that's hard..
*While it's a separable issue, it's worth noting, as I have before, that the codes of conduct, ethical principles, and such adopted by professional communities exist in part to reassure the broader public that these professional communities mean the public well and don't plan to prey on them.

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Data release, ethics, and professional survival.

In recent days, there have been signs on the horizon of an impending blogwar. Prof-like Substance fired the first volley:

[A]lmost all major genomics centers are going to a zero-embargo data release policy. Essentially, once the sequencing is done and the annotation has been run, the data is on the web in a searchable and downloadable format.


How many other fields put their data directly on the web before those who produced it have the opportunity to analyze it? Now, obviously no one is going to yank a genome paper right out from under the group working on it, but what about comparative studies? What about searching out specific genes for multi-gene phylogenetics? Where is the line for what is permissible to use before the genome is published? How much of a grace period do people get with data that has gone public, but that they* paid for?

*Obviously we are talking about grant-funded projects, so the money is tax payer money not any one person’s. Nevertheless, someone came up with the idea and got it funded, so there is some ownership there.

Then, Mike the Mad Biologist fired off this reply:

Several of the large centers, including the one I work at, are funded by NIAID to sequence microorganisms related to human health and disease (analogous programs for human biology are supported by NHGRI). There's a reason why NIH is hard-assed about data release:

Funding agencies learned this the hard way, as too many early sequencing centers resembled 'genomic roach motels': DNA checks in, but sequence doesn't check out.

The funding agencies' mission is to improve human health (or some other laudable goal), not to improve someone's tenure package. This might seem harsh unless we remember how many of these center-based genome projects are funded. The investigator's grant is not paying for the sequencing. In the case of NIAID, there is a white paper process. Before NIAID will approve the project, several goals have to be met in the white paper (Note: while I'm discussing NIAID, other agencies have a similar process, if different scientific objectives).

Obviously, the organism and collection of strains to be sequenced have to be relevant to human health. But the project also must have significant community input. NIAID absolutely does not want this to be an end-run around R01 grants. Consequently, these sequencing projects should not be a project that belongs to a single lab, and which lacks involvement by others in the subdiscipline ("this looks like an R01" is a pejorative). It also has to provide a community resource. In other words, data from a successful project should be used rapidly by other groups: that's the whole point (otherwise, write an R01 proposal). The white paper should also contain a general description of the analysis goals of the project (and, ideally, who in the collaborative group will address them). If you get 'scooped', that's, in part, a project planning issue.

NIAID, along with other agencies and institutes, is pushing hard for rapid public release. Why does NIAID get to call the shots? Because it's their money.

Which brings me to the issue of 'whose' genomes these are. The answer is very simple: NIH's (and by extension, the American people's). As I mentioned above, NIH doesn't care about your tenure package, or your dissertation (given that many dissertations and research programs are funded in part or in their entirely by NIH and other agencies, they're already being generous†). What they want is high-quality data that are accessible to as many researchers as possible as quickly as possible. To put this (very) bluntly, medically important data should not be held hostage by career notions. That is the ethical position.

Prof-like substance hurled back a hefty latex pillow of a rejoinder:

People feel like anything that is public is free to use, and maybe they should. But how would you feel as the researcher who assembled a group of researchers from the community, put a proposal together, drummed up support from the community outside of your research team, produced and purified the sample to be sequenced (which is not exactly just using a Sigma kit in a LOT of cases), dealt with the administration issues that crop up along the way, pushed the project through (another aspect woefully under appreciated) the center, got your research community together once they data were in hand to make sense of it all and herded the cats to get the paper together? Would you feel some ownership, even if it was public dollars that funded the project?

Now what if you submitted the manuscript and then opened your copy of Science and saw the major finding that you centered the genome paper around has been plucked out by another group and publish in isolation? Would you say, “well, the data’s publicly available, what’s unscrupulous about using it?” ...

[L]et’s couch this in the reality of the changing technology. If your choice is to have the sequencing done for free, but risk losing it right off the machine, OR to do it with your own funds (>$40,000) and have exclusive right to it until the paper is published, what are you going to choose? You can draw the line regarding big and small centers or projects all you want, but it is becoming increasingly fuzzy.

This is all to get back to my point that if major sequencing centers want to stay ahead of the curve, they have to have policies that are going to encourage, not discourage, investigators to use them.

It's fair to say that I don't know from genomics. However, I think the ethical landscape of this disagreement bears closer examination.

Continue Reading »

11 responses so far

Professionalism, pragmatism, and the Hippocratic Oath.

In a recent post about a study of plagiarism in the personal statements of applicants for medical residency programs, the issue of professionalism reared its head. The authors of that study identified plagiarism in these application essays as a breach of professionalism, and one likely to be a harbinger of more such breaches as the applicant’s medical career progressed. Moreover, the authors noted that:

increasing public scrutiny of physicians’ ethical behavior is likely to put pressure on training programs to enforce strict rules of conduct, beginning with the application process.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what “professionalism” encompasses and at why it would be important to a professional community (like the professional community of physicians). To do this, let’s go way back to an era where physicians were working very hard to distinguish themselves from some of the other thinkers and purveyors of services in the public square – the time when the physicians known as the Hippocratics were flourishing in ancient Greece.

These physicians were working to make medicine a more scientific practice. They sought not just ways to heal, but an understanding of why these treatments were effective (and of how the bodies they were treating worked). But another big part of what the Hippocratics were trying to do involved establishing standards to professionalize their healing practices – and trying to establish a public reputation that would leave the public with a good opinion of learned medicine. After all, they weren’t necessarily pursuing medical knowledge for its own sake, but because they wanted to use it to help patients (and to make a living from providing these services). However, getting patients depended on being judged trustworthy by the people who might need treatment.

Professionalism, in other words, had to do not only with the relationship between members of the professional community but also with the relationship between that professional community and the larger society in which it was embedded.

The physicians in this group we’re calling the Hippocratics left a number of writings, including a statement of their responsibilities called “The Oath”. It’s worth noting that the Hippocratic corpus contains a diversity of works that reflect some significant differences of opinion among the physicians in this community – including some works (on abortion and surgery, for example) that seem to contradict some of the specific claims of “The Oath”. Still, “The Oath” gives us pretty good insight into the kind of concerns that would motivate a community of practitioners who were trying to professionalize.

We’re going to look at “The Oath” in its entirety, with my commentary interspersed. I’m using the translation of by J. Chadwick in Hippocratic Writings, edited by G.E.R. Lloyd.

I swear by Apollo the healer, by Aesculapius, by Health and all the powers of healing, and call to witness all the gods and goddesses that I may keep this Oath and Promise to the best of my ability and judgment.

In other words, it’s a serious oath.

I will pay the same respect to my master in the Science as to my parents and share my life with him and pay all my debts to him. I will regard his sons as my brothers and teach them the Science, if they desire to learn it, without fee or contract.

This is a recognition of the physician’s debt to professional community, those who taught him. It’s also a recognition of his duty to educate next generation of the profession.

I will hand on precepts, lectures and all other learning to my sons, to those of my master and to those pupils duly apprenticed and sworn, and to none other.

This part is all about keeping trade secrets secret. The assumption was that learned medicine involved knowledge that should not be shared with everyone, especially because a lot of people wouldn’t have the wisdom or intelligence or good character to use it appropriately. Also, given that these physicians wanted to be able to earn a living from their healing practices, they needed to keep something of a monopoly on this knowledge.

I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment; I will abstain from harming or wronging any man by it.

Here’s the recognition of the physician’s duty to his patients, the well-known commitment to do no harm. Obviously, this commitment is in the patients’ interests, but it’s also tied to the reputation of the professional community. Maintaining good stats, as it were, by not doing any harm should be expected to raise the community’s opinion of the profession of learned medicine.

I will not give a fatal draught to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion.

These two sentences forbid the physician’s participation in euthanasia or abortion. Note, however, that other writings in the Hippocratic corpus indicate that physicians in this tradition did participate in such procedures. Maybe this was a matter of local variations in what the physicians (and the public they served) found acceptable. Maybe there was a healthy debate among the Hippocratics about these practices.

I will be chaste and religious in my life and in my practice.

This part basically calls upon the physician to conduct himself as a good person. After all, the reputation of whole profession would be connected, at least in the public’s view, to the reputation of individual practitioners.

I will not cut, even for the stone, but I will leave such procedures to the practitioners of that craft.

Cutting was the turf of surgeons, not physicians. Here, too, there are other writings in the Hippocratic corpus that indicate that physicians in this tradition did some surgery. However, before the germ theory of disease or the discovery of antibiotics, you might imagine that performing surgery could lead to a lot of complications, running afoul of the precept to do no harm. Again, that was going to hurt the professional community’s stats, so it seemed reasonable just to leave it to the surgeons and let them worry about maintaining their own reputation.

Whenever I go into a house, I will go to help the sick and never with the intention of doing harm or injury.

This reads as an awareness of the physician’s power and of the responsibilities that come with it. If patients are trusting the physician and giving him this privileged access, for the good of the professional community he had better live up to that trust.

I will not abuse my position to indulge in sexual contacts with the bodies of women or men, whether they be freemen or slaves.

This is more of the same. Having privileged access means you have the opportunity to abuse it, but that kind of abuse could tarnish the reputation of the whole profession, even of physicians whose conduct met the highest standards of integrity.

Whatever I see or hear, professionally or privately, which ought not to be divulged, I will keep secret and tell no one.

To modern eyes, this part might suggest a commitment to maintain patient privacy. It’s more likely, however, that this was another admonition to protect the trade secrets of the professional community.

If, therefore, I observe this Oath and do not violate it, may I prosper both in my life and in my profession, earning good repute among all men for all time. If I transgress and forswear this Oath, may my lot be otherwise.

“Swear to God and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye!” Did we mention that it’s a serious oath?

The main thing I think is worth noticing here is the extent to which professionalism is driven by a need for the professional community to build good relations with the larger society – the source of their clients. Pick any modern code of conduct from a professional society and you will see the emphasis on duties to those clients, and to the larger public those clients inhabit, but this emphasis is at least as important for the professional community as for the people their profession is meant to serve. The code describes the conduct that members should exhibit to earn the trust of the public, without which they won’t get to practice their profession – or, at any rate, they might not be viewed as having special skills worth paying for, or as being the kind of people who could be trusted not to use those special skills against you.

Professionalism is not idealistic, then, but extremely pragmatic.

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Premeds, chemistry professors, pedagogy, and economics.

In comments on my earlier post in which I mused on the wisdom of having chemistry and physics courses serve to weed out an excess of premed students, Peter R. wrote:

1) There would be far fewer chemistry professors (albeit happier) if pre-med students did not take chemistry. Chemistry majors are always, and have always been, the minority of students in general and organic chemistry.

2) The idea that chemistry is a “weed-out” course is misleading, because it is not the chemistry instructor’s job to choose who goes to medical school. Our job is to determine how well our students learn chemistry. It was not the chemistry faculty that made chemistry a requirement, although they certainly benefit from it. The students “weed” themselves out.

These are observations worth discussing, not least because I think discussing them will help us become more aware of some of our assumptions about how colleges and universities ought to work.

Let's start with the second observation first -- that chemistry professors are really only charged with evaluating student performance in the context of the course requirements for the particular chemistry course they're teaching.

I agree that this is what the job description is. You teach the class, you assess the students (with problem sets, exams, lab reports, and the like), and you assign the appropriate grade. As I've discussed before, there are differing philosophies on what it means to assign the appropriate grade -- whether the grade is supposed to reflect something like the student's distance from the Platonic form of "getting" the material, or whether instead it should reflect how many standard deviations the student has scored from the mean for the class, whether that mean is relatively high or relatively low on an absolute scale. But your garden variety chemistry professor shouldn't also be tasked with determining which students are likely to succeed in medical school or to make good physicians* because your garden variety chemistry professor have very little basis for making that determination, having never been a physician or even a medical student.

However, there are a couple of things that complicate this picture.

One is that I cannot help but feel that some chemistry professors end up adopting the grading-on-a-strict-bell-curve model because of the relatively large number of premeds compared to chemistry majors enrolled in the classes they teach. The assumption is that the chemistry majors will make up most of the As and Bs on that curve, while the teeming masses of premeds will make up most of the Cs, Ds, and Fs. (Premeds who end up making As are sometimes actively recruited to consider majoring in chemistry and perhaps even pursuing graduate studies in chemistry rather than medicine>0

This in itself wouldn't necessarily be worrisome -- maybe it would just be a reasonable prediction about the range of competency and motivation in the student population. But sometimes the prediction that premeds won't learn organic chemistry (for example) as well as the chemistry majors seems to manifest itself in a pedagogy that puts less onus on the professor to teach the material and more onus on the students to learn it their own selves.

At which point, the professor in question is pretty much only determining how well the student learn chemistry, but not doing the teaching that you might have assumed was part of the job.

On the other hand, however, I think it's an open question how medical schools would respond if chemistry professors suddenly got very serious about teaching all of their students -- premeds included -- in such a way that the vast majority of them learned the course material, and learned it very well. The anecdotal reports I heard (while I was teaching in an MCAT preparation course to help pay the bills between graduate) suggested that a school where more premed students were getting As and Bs in chemistry was judged "easier" by medical school admission committees, while one where fewer premed students got As and Bs in chemistry was judged "more challenging". If that's true, that would seem to penalize students with professors who take pedagogy more seriously than the bell curve.

And that makes it seem an awful lot like medical school admission really are pushing the weeding out onto chemistry professors.

Myself, I think that the ability to master the basics of general chemistry, or organic chemistry, or physical chemistry, is not the sort of thing that is (or ought to be) perfectly congruent with one's major.** If taught well, the underlying principles of chemistry ought to be intelligible to almost any intelligent person (or at least, to more than not). Assuming up front that a whole class of students one is teaching are constitutionally unable to learn the material is giving up at the very start. And regardless of the instrumental use that medical schools might get out of this stance, I think it rather undermines one's teaching duty to one's home department.

Now, onto the first observation, that there would be fewer chemistry professors if chemistry classes (whether "weeders" or not) were not required for admission to medical school.***

The situation is such that chemistry departments often exist to offer "service courses" to support pre-professional programs. In many universities (including my own), philosophy departments also justify their existence by their service courses (in our case, the large number of courses we offer that fulfill various general education requirements). It's nice to be able to point to a curriculum that needs to be taught, not just by the lights of your own discipline (which, obviously, thinks that core material within that discipline is terribly important), but also by the lights of other disciplines -- especially if those disciplines have multitudes of customers students. This kind of demand means that, when you get the staffing to teach the coursework that is being demanded, you also get colleagues who are doing interesting research, who can add breadth to the courses you offer to your majors, and with whom it is productive (and fun) for you to interact.

But, especially in science departments, and especially at research-focused universities, this increased population of professors also leads to an increased demand for research funding, equipment, and lab space, and an increased demand for graduate students and technicians to keep the professors' research projects moving forward. (Those graduate students are also in demand to do the grading in all those well-populated premed courses.)

Down the road, of course, this will mean more people with Ph.D.s competing for those professorial posts**** (which only exist in the numbers they do on account of the demand generated premeds required to take the courses those departments' professors teach) competing for the posts there are.

This is not a huge incentive for chemistry professors (or chemistry graduate students) to question the common wisdom that general chemistry and organic chemistry (and maybe even biochemistry and physical chemistry) are absolutely essential preparation for medical school.

Perversely, the supply and demand equation also seems to act against reexamining the quality of the teaching in those required premed chemistry courses. After all, if you turn out premeds who are too smart, what are the chances that the senior faculty will die off at a reasonable rate and open up some jobs for the Ph.D. chemists they've trained?

*Despite this, I will confess that the slogan "Save a life: fail a premed!" gained a certain traction with the chemistry TAs in my graduate program.

**If I didn't already think that majors and the subjects that one is good at were separable, my friend the fine arts major who took math courses for fun would have pushed me in that direction.

***The claim that these chemistry professors would be happier depends, I think, on the current state of the transaction between premeds and chemistry professors, in which the students only care instrumentally for what the professors are offering and the professors have already decided that most of those premeds won't be able to learn the material, or that they are diluting the contact between chemistry professors and chemistry majors, or what have you. I'm not saying that the claim is false, but like most counterfactual claims, how we evaluate it depends a lot on our hunches about what other moving parts in the situation might have relevant effects.

****And before that, for postdoctoral appointments.

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Americans for Medical Progress names two Hayre Fellows in Public Outreach.

Today Americans for Medical Progress has announced two recipients for academic year 2010-2011 of the Michael D. Hayre Fellowship in Public Outreach, designed to inspire and motivate the next generation of research advocates. This year, I'm especially wowed by their project.

From the AMP press release:
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