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Nat Sci 26: Human Values in Science Education

By Prentiss Taylor

Some years ago, a French biologist commented that science was giving us the ability to become gods before we had learned to be men. Studying the matter today, one might find that the distance between scientific knowledge and human needs is greater than it was yesterday, and that this distance is increasing with every tick of the atomic clock.

Natural Sciences 26 is unusual; it is one of the very few courses offered here that deals with the social impact of modern science. In a biology course offered last spring, several topics in plant physiology received considerable attention--one of which was the role of plant hormones in leaf abscission. The instructor spent a few minutes of the very last lecture of the term telling his students that the plant hormones whose effects they had so diligently studied were the same ones used as defoliants in the ravaging of the Vietnamese countryside. He was one of the university scientists who did the bulk of basic research on these hormones. Others applied the results.

In this professor's stated opinion, a scientist's proper concern should be to do the best research he can; if someone else misuses the results of his work, that is not his business. After the class, the students filed out of the hall, glad that the lectures had ended and reading period was to begin, yet some felt rather uneasy about their position in the shelter of academic ivy. Would they be as dispassionate as their gentle professor if it were their land and food supply that was being ruined by an intruder's technology? And what of these chemicals' ability to induce birth defects even in the very low concentrations found in affected drinking water? (Refer to The Destruction of Indochina, available at the Biology Library.) But, being far from Vietnam, the young science students did not dwell long on such thoughts. Exams were coming up, and one does not get graded on concern. And besides, it was really good weather for frisbee flying...

College students in the sciences need to do more thinking about the nature (or the artificiality, perhaps) of their education. For what purpose do we learn all of these techniques? Do we make this choice purely out of a love for intellectual stimulation? Do we undertake these careers for financial security, or for the status of being a member of what is fast developing into a new priesthood? Or do we activate ourselves as scientists out of an altruism, out of a desire to improve the quality of human life by reducing suffering and exhaustive labor? Chances are, we go this way for all of these reasons... but how often and how deeply do we ask ourselves why each of us, as an individual, goes, and where we, as a group, are supposed to be going?

Many students feel college is a time for satisfying prerequisites, for building a solid quantitative base on which their later advanced work will stand or fall. This is certainly a valid concern, but what becomes disturbing is our habit of mastering one set of techniques, then hungrily setting about to learn as many others as we possibly can. General education requirements are often viewed as an impediment to one's progress toward specialization in a small, though highly exciting, area of research. Other students say there should be more of a balance between our scientific consciousness and our consciousness of the world about us. On the one hand we would want to avoid being utter generalists, with no specific contribution to make. But we must always be watchful against the alternate imbalance: we can be immensely competent technicians, yet narrow and poorly developed as people.

Some students have remarked that now is the time for true devotion to basic science; they say they will take time to ponder their science's applications after they enter graduate school. However, many graduate students in the sciences wish they had taken more time to consider the interface between technology and society when they were younger, with less established opinions, and had more free time. This has been particularly true for medical students of the past few years. At universities all across the country they have begun to voice a desire to have more of their coursework address the wider implications of biomedical advances.

These sentiments have touched some older members of the profession as well. Dr. John Knowles, outgoing director of Mass. General Hospital recently wrote.

"...the medical school curriculum accelerates the constricting effect of premedical education by its complete emphasis on a foundation of biological science in the first two years of medical school. The opportunity still exists to study medicine from the viewpoint of the social sciences, but few seize it. We neglect the history of medicine, its people, its institutions, and its social setting, as well as its political science, cultural anthropology, and economics. The student is relentlessly forced to focus on the individual doctor-patient relation and the science of disease, and his subjective understanding of himself and the world around him flags... The primary purpose of medical education--that is, to understand disease and to be able to comprehend and manage the problems of sick people from the perspective of biological science--has been fulfilled. But the broader issues of the physician's (as well as the patient's) place and problems in the world at large has been neglected."

The problem of the separation between science education and the society it is to serve is not limited to the life sciences alone. Sometimes physical sciences can cause new problems in the process of solving older ones. Not long ago, the Dean of Berkeley's College of Engineering was overheard speaking with pride of the development of a mechanical tomato-picking machine. This development and other researches would eventually eliminate the need to pick delicate fruits and vegetables by hand.

What he neglected to mention to the group of young engineering majors who lingered on his words was that jobs would be displaced by this bit of technological progress. Urbanologists have estimated that in the next several years many thousands of California Chicanos will be driven into already overcrowded and decaying urban ghettoes as part of the economic backwash of this otherwise sterling achievement. If the students had been apprised of the mixed nature of this technological blessing (and many others), perhaps they would become more careful thinkers in their later careers. Such awareness would certainly be no instant solution to these multifaceted problems, but it would be a great place to begin.


Talk of air and water pollution problems has already made many of us aware that our physical environment is in danger. Yet how is it decided what are satisfactory solutions to the problems, and who are to be the decision-makers? If a group of experts decides that the East Side of Middletown would be a great site for a nuclear reactor, do the inhabitants of the area have any informed role in this decision? What is the probability of an accident in which there is emission of radioactivity to the inhabited surroundings?

Let us look at other areas of our technology that have, or will have, great impact on our daily lives: What are we to say about the proposals of some geneticists that sexual reproduction be replaced by the banking of the sperm and eggs of men and women "of proven genetic worth?" Fertilization could be guided artificially, then the zygote could be implanted in a host mother. Who is to decide what are "desirable" genes, and by what method?

Most of us do not consider eating a problem, unless overindulgence is our difficulty. Yet in many other areas of the world, people are lucky if they get to eat at all. Our agricultural expertise can be of much use in eliminating world hunger and nutrional deficiency diseases. However, the use of inorganic fertilizers to bolster crop quality creates other problems in the ecological web that make the prophesy of a "Green Revolution" something of a mixed blessing. Does food production have anything to do with population control? What do the people of these countries have to say about it?

The delivery of health care to the poor has always been a problem though not a recognized one. Some observers have commented that medicine in large public hospitals has been inefficient, sometimes second-class, and often dehumanizingly undignified. Does polities have any identifiable relationship to health care? Does politics have anything to do with medical research? Why has research on Sickle Cell Disease been so poorly funded?

These questions and others are considered in Nat. Sci. 26. Students usually undertake an independent field or library project of interest to them. Several guest lectures are presented, in addition to topics ranging from the effects of smoking to the use of science in penal institutions. The overlay of the specific with the general made the course even more rewarding. Some students who took the course last year were therefore disturbed by these comments in the Confi Guide:

"Nat. Sci. 26 can be a pleasant and relaxed way to get out of your Nat. Sci. requirement or to spend the spring of your senior really don't have to go to lectures or do much reading, and it is nice to get some idea where science and humanism intersect."

Whoever wrote these words completely missed the sentiment of the course. This statement is at the very center of what is wrong with much of our educational experience; we often see our classes as a perverse form of entertainment. Quality education should be exciting as a mutual process of interaction, not only between student and teacher, but between student and student especially. If a teaching mechanism is unsatisfactory, let us criticize it openly, and not mutter under our breath way back in the 22nd row, We've got to get on to deal with the issues.

Most students who have taken the course have not done so to find an easy way to get past their Nat. Sci. Gen. Ed. requirement. As evidenced by informal student comments, and from questionnaires returned at the end of last year, most people found the course to be intensely rewarding not for the intellectual stimulation alone, but also because they had the opportunity to interact with problems in health care, food additive safety, energy production, government control of industrial pollution, and other areas, by first-hand experience in the wider community. Those who wished to do library projects did them--and they too had a hell of a lot to contribute to the discussion.

Natural Sciences 26 touches upon science as it affects us now and will affect us even more in the future. These social matters are of concern to non-science concentrators also. Many myths in and about the world of "pure science" need to be debunked, though we must be careful not to reject science as a method for improving the quality of human existence. Science and human values can, indeed, work in symbiosis. Putting social responsibility in science is an immense reform and cannot be accomplished by mere administrative fiat at the professional level. We must start now by making some changes in our educational system. Students of science should never be separated from consciousness of the social consequences their work entails.

This course is a small beginning and can only accomodate a little more than a hundred students. The Departments need to be approached about further course offerings, perhaps at a more advanced level. Each of us must, as a member of the human community, begin to look beyond individual courses, take a hard look at our education, and start asking some very serious questions. An unhappy junior once remarked that he couldn't solve all the world's problems by himself (true), and besides, what with his math and chem courses he had scarcely enough time to keep his social life in order, much less get involved with any kind of health care or water pollution project. For him--and us--there is only one conscientious reply: Seize the time.

(The Author is a member of the Student Advisory Group to Nat. Sci. 26)

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