What Do Scientists Know about Ethics?

Rosie Redfield doesn't like the way genetics is taught in most university courses. She thinks we should re-design genetics courses (Redfield, 2012).
As a first step, geneticists need to step back from the current curriculum and decide what 21st century students really need to know about genes and inheritance. These decisions should be based on how students will use what they learn, and not on what we as geneticists value.
She proposes that modern genetics courses should concentrate on subjects that really interest students. Subjects like ...
Is genetic testing a wise thing to do? Is it a sound financial investment? Should I have full access to my genetic information? Should my insurer and my employer? Should athletes be tested for genetic modifications (“gene doping”)? Is it ethical to DNA-fingerprint all convicted criminals? All suspects? Did my genes make me gay? Are genetically modified foods safe? Are cloned animals ethical? How different are human races, and how different are we all from chimpanzees and gorillas?
I explained in an earlier posting why I think this is wrong: Questions for Genetics Students. My main concern was that we might be sacrificing fundamental concepts and principles of genetics (i.e. science) in an attempt to appeal to students.

Rosie's goals sound like noble goals but is it even realistic to address these issues in a genetics course? That's the question that Heather Zeiger asks in her post on Genetics Class 2.0.
Many of these questions are ones bioethicists have been contending with for years. Bioethics is a multi-disciplinary field that is usually occupied by philosophers and healthcare professionals, but in the last twenty years it has seen an influx of lawyers, scientists, and people from many other disciplines.

Redfield suggests that it is the role of the scientist to address ethical questions. However, something that Redfield does not state in her paper, is that scientists are rarely trained in anything that would be helpful in assessing ethical issues, such as moral philosophy or rhetoric, and most programs do not include history and philosophy of science.
Now, I rarely agree with anything posted on The Best Schools but this is a legitimate concern.

My position is that philosophers and healthcare professionals have been spectacularly unsuccessful at clarifying bioethical questions. I cringe just about every time I see a "professional" bioethicist on television. Most of them can't separate science from ethics and most of them are more concerned about appeasing religion than getting to the bottom of a difficult issue.

Scientists often make much more sense but that doesn't mean that all scientists are good at dealing with ethical issues. I teach a course that deals with ethical issues (cloning, reproductive technology, immunization) and I find that it's an excellent way to get students to think critically. However, I've learned a lot from my colleagues about ethics and philosophy over the years and I don't think I would be very effective without this background1.

I doubt very much that the average genetics teacher or TA can really be effective at handling ethical debates in their classrooms. I don't think you should build a course around such issues no matter how much the students want it.

My friend, Rob Delore, taught with me for several years. He's a scientist and a Jesuit priest. This year I'll be teaching with another friend, Chris DiCarlo, a philosopher and author of How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions.

Redfield, R. (2012) "Why Do We Have to Learn This Stuff?"—A New Genetics for 21st Century Students. PLoS Biol 10(7): e1001356. [doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001356]
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