Bazell says “quit whining”

NBC’s science and health correspondent, Robert Bazell, has an opinion piece today on MSNBC: Stop whining about intelligent design.

Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution and spend more time discussing values.

I should note here that most of the piece is strongly supportive of teaching evolution. Bazell presents a very brief overview of the history of anti-evolutionism in America, and notes that “serious efforts in biology and medicine can no more ignore evolution than airplane designers can ignore gravity.” So, he’s not messing around or giving any credence to evolution-deniers. Overall, I think it’s a really good piece–but I still think he’s off-base with his central thesis.

(Continued after the jump)

As mentioned in the first line of the article, Bazell thinks more time should be devoted to discussing values, and less on “whining” (obviously not a term I’d agree with, but I digress…) about intelligent design and other political challenges to evolution. He says:

For example, what are the life-saving limits of expensive high-technology treatments? When have they accepted too many promotional gifts from pharmaceutical companies? Should an experiment be done on humans just because researchers have the tools to try it?

Teaching evolution properly in secondary school will have little impact on these difficult issues.

And I agree–it won’t. It probably won’t bring about world peace either; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend time focusing on it. The problem is that Bazell is way too narrowly focused, and is much more likely to draw the ire of scientists than to get them to sympathize with his views by writing this piece.

First, note that it’s his son’s medical school graduation that made him think of this, and that what he says scientists should be discussing are ethical questions largely revolving around biomedicine–questions that, largely, are irrelevant to many scientists because it’s simply not something that many of us will ever have to deal with. While it may be interesting for an evolutionary biologist out in the field studying, say, a particular species of birds to muse about the “life-saving limits of high-technology treatments,” it’s highly unlikely that they’ll have the experience or knowledge base to pontificate intelligently on the topic. Similarly, what are the odds that they’ll ever have to worry about whether taking gifts from pharmaceutical companies may affect their judgement? We’re not generally their targets–I even have my office in a hospital, and rarely get more than the occasional free pen.

Of course, these are real ethical issues that physicians (and scientists involved in clinical research) can, and should, discuss, learn about, think over, and come to their own decisions regarding, but it’s not a topic where many basic scientists can–or, perhaps, even should–be leading the discussion. It goes back, again, to expertise. Surely there are many scientists who’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the issues Bazell brings up, and may be qualified to discuss them with a good deal of expertise. Many of us, I think, are not, and it would be a mistake for us to wander out too far into such an area.

This medicine-centric approach is really the downfall of the whole article. Though of course, I’ve mentioned several times on here how important I think an understanding of evolution is to medicine, there’s much more to biology than just health applications. Evolution, on the contrary, is essential to biology–and that’s why so many of us focus on teaching that correctly (and teaching good science in general) in our schools. Sure, that foundation in evolutionary biology won’t teach the future physicians in the bunch “what moral values should guide [their] decisions,” but that’s not an appropriate topic for a 9th grade science class, either.

The bottom line is that scientists aren’t here just to train med students. Indeed, at many schools medical students can be considered a bit of an annoyance. I remember my first day of intro chemistry my freshman year of college. We were very clearly told it was a “weed-out” class for the pre-meds, and that if we were just there because “mommy and daddy said, ‘You Be Doctor!'”, we should head right out the door. Chad’s also written on his experience teaching pre-meds physics. I did my Ph.D. at a medical school, so my TA’ing consisted of teaching microbiology labs for the medical and nursing students. Teaching these students–many of whom are more concerned with memorization and grades than with actual investigation–can be frustrating, and I know some people who’d rather have their eye poked out with a sharp stick than be responsible for teaching pre-meds (or medical students) basic science. So Bazell is missing the mark when he says scientists should “stop whining about threats to evolution” and instead, “spend more time teaching new MDs the values they’ll need.” Bad, bad trade-off, as the threats to evolution are really threats to science education in general, and therefore something that affects all scientists–while the values that physicians do (or don’t) learn simply does not.

What I think there could be more discussion of on the part of scientists are some of Janet’s frequent writing topics, that are more relevant to scientists in general than the medicine-centric issues Bazell brings up: scientific misconduct, professional ethics, etc. Even if scientists may not have formal training in these areas, certainly we can relate personal stories, or think about what we’d do if put in some kind of difficult situation (or give advice on how to stay out of one!). This, I think, would be more attractive to scientists–most of whom are not MDs–than the examples Bazell cites, which are more likely to tick off the very audience he’s trying to reach.

19 Replies to “Bazell says “quit whining””

  1. And if you think the creationists are getting uppity now, imagine what they’d do if atheist secular humanist socialist scientists weren’t just indoctrinating their children, but their children’s doctors too!

    Seriously, though, shouldn’t ethicists be teaching ethics?

  2. Teaching these students–many of whom are more concerned with memorization and grades than with actual investigation–can be frustrating…

    In fact, this attitude by students is an ethical disaster waiting to happen, and in fairness, it doesn’t come entirely from within.

    A relative of mine is a family-practice physician who is a terrific diagnostician precisely because he has tremendous curiosity and strong problem-solving skills — exactly the kind of combination that also produces a good scientist or engineer. (Interestingly, he wasn’t a science major as an undergrad, though he had to take all the pre-medical science prerequisites.) In his case, the combination is also matched by great compassion and a strong sense of responsibility — also a combination that’s excellent in a scientist or engineer, because they’re driving forces behind ethical behavior.

    I think it’s important to have formal discussion of, and training in, in professional ethics, but none of it will really “take” in a person who doesn’t have a sense of the bigger picture. For example, a person who inflates a publication record by stealing or faking data may have a strong sense of personal entitlement, but either lacks or ignores any consciousness of the scientific process itself having intrinsic importance. At the other extreme, someone who combines a strong ethical sense with profound curiosity may actually revel in being wrong sometimes — when you didn’t get the explanation right the first time, that means there’s a whole new interesting problem to solve!

  3. In arguing about the relative merits of talking about intelligent design versus moral values, I think the author overlooked an important point: creationism (ID or otherwise) is, by and large, about lying, be it Walt Brown’s rattlesnakes (, the Dover Board members perjuring themselves about where the copies of ‘Of Pandas and People’ came from or the myriad misrepresentations of scientists’ statements and work by ID advocates. Opposing ID is about the moral value of honesty and truthfulness.

  4. By high school graduation one should have certain skills. That would be reading, writing, math through algebra and geometry. One should also have a developed world view: Newtonian physics, chemistry, biology – including evolution, geology, astronomy – including an introduction to cosmology. There may be time for music, sports, etc. Is Bazell saying ethics should be taught in high school?

    I really, really, hate weed-out courses. As a mechanical engineer, i wanted some exposure to electrical engineering. You know, take EE101. But EE101 was a weed-out course, with no alternative. On the first day it was clear that the home work alone would take at least three times longer than the work load of any other course. I didn’t see how to get through it without cheating – so i dropped the course. My department didn’t have any weed-out courses. It isn’t like we graduated idiots.

  5. Science as a discipline depends critically on integrity and honesty. Compromise that integrity for one instance–e.g., ID–and the entire process comes into question along with the benefits that science brings to humanity’s ability to cope with the world about us. ID is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent. If it gets in, it will soon be followed by the rest of the camel and we all know what that would be like.

  6. I’m a basic scientist and I teach medical students. I don’t teach them a lot of basic science–just what they need to understand material. Medical school, is fundamentally a trade school, and it no more makes sense to teach medical students the subtleties of evolutionary theory than to teach auto mechanics ballistics. They have as much as they can handle just learning the practical aspects of medicine, and those who want to be basic scientists as well take a few years off for a PhD so that they can do it properly.

    However, my view of medical students has changed quite a bit over the years. I’ve gone from being impatient with them to being appreciative. I thought at first that I was going soft in my old age, but now I think that the medical students have gotten better–not necessarily smarter, but better nonetheless. When I began my scientific career, physicians had become an American aristocracy. Medical school was a way to get rich, and it was clear that for a lot of students, that was their primary motivation, whatever they put on their entrance essay. Now, those guys are going into law or business, because much of the profit in medicine has been bled off by the insurance companies. The students I see today are undertaking crippling educational debt, and they have only a vague idea of how much money they will be making when they finish their training. These are guys with a calling, and while they may not be interested in exactly the same stuff that I’m interested in, we have definite points of overlap. They are struggling with their coursework, and they are worried first and foremost about passing the exam. But if I can show them how learning some basic science will help them better treat their patients, then by God, they’ll do it.

  7. Maintaining ethics of a profession should be a responsibility of a guild. It would be in their interest to cooperate with schools and the rest of society. I don’t see how it could be the teachers obligation.

  8. Medical school, is fundamentally a trade school, and it no more makes sense to teach medical students the subtleties of evolutionary theory than to teach auto mechanics ballistics. They have as much as they can handle just learning the practical aspects of medicine, and those who want to be basic scientists as well take a few years off for a PhD so that they can do it properly.

  9. Frankly, I think the use of the term “whining” in this context is offensive. Tara, you alluded to that, but chose not to digress, so I’ll bring it up. Referring the the campaign against ID as “whining” is dismissive; it is disrespectful of the seriousness of the matter. The ID movement is, in fact, part of a broader war on science. It is particularly nasty because its proponents have pretended to take the moral high ground, and some uninformed persons have been taken it by that.

    It is true that scientists need to be concerned about other ethical issues, but that has nothing to do with the need to assiduously refute ID proponents.

  10. I agree Joseph j7uy5. To say “Scientists should stop whining about threats to the teaching of evolution …”, is rather like saying “Scientists should stop whining about students getting a proper education”.

    Of course ID is no scientific threat to evolution, as its nothing more than a series of bad arguments against evolution with no positive content whatsoever and no theory upon which to construct any such content. It’s just Creationism with the Creator renamed with the generic Designer. More vague, but no less religious. But it is a social, political and educational threat. But as any ignorance which tries to inflict itself on society as the truth, it needs to have the light shone on it so people can see it for what it really is. We need to see that the emperor has no clothes, and nary a clothing store in sight.

  11. Yawn. Values? That’s an MT word. It has a thousand meaning based on the individual. Most scientist don’t cry about science education. Most are not involve at all in the process after graduation.

  12. This is what happens when a writer has a deadline and drafts on two topics, but neither one has enough words to be sold as is.

    answer: Graft them together and act like there is a dicotomy involved.

  13. If he’s going to suggest that something of grave importance to doctors should be taught more, maybe it should be taught in some kind of “doctor school”… too bad there aren’t any of those, huh?

    High school and college are better places to teach basic sciences that will be useful across a range of future specializations (as well as just to comprehend issues of public importance like climate change or stem-cell research). Ethics specific to the medical profession should be taught in a forum specific to the medical profession.

    Now, that’s not to say that a general course in ethical or moral philosophy might not be a good idea to add to college, or even high school, graduation requirements; but it probably wouldn’t reach the kind of specialized points that Bazell mentions.

  14. Tara, great post. I read the Bazell piece and had a nearly exact response as your post. I started to fire off a letter, but decided against it. This trade-off issue is stupid. I don’t see how promoting evolution education takes away from ethics at all. I think that Bazell is trying to win favor with his audience by taking a cheap shot at scientists who promote evolution (easy target since the general public loves to hear about scientists with misplaced values). Thank you for starting this conversation.

  15. One more comment, regarding medical education. It is common for those involved in medical education to hear statements in the form: “medical school should teach more of X,” where X is some topic pertinent to medical practice. The thing is, the preclinical years already have a courseload that is the equivalent of 25 undergraduate credit hours, per term. (At least at the University of Michgan; I assume others are comparable.) It is difficult to see how they could possibly fit in more of any substance. If anything more is added, then something will have to be cut.

  16. I’m not sure what Joseph is saying, so hopefully he’ll clarify this comment “It is difficult to see how they could possibly fit in more of any substance. If anything more is added, then something will have to be cut.” I’m not sure this is relevant to the thread at hand. Med students don’t need to take a course on evolution, but when biological prinicples are taught, it would be helpful if evolution isn’t stripped from the lesson. I have taken pathobiology and physiology in graduate school, and it doesn’t take any longer to include an evolutionary perspective than it does to teach the concepts without an evolutionary perspective. In fact, it is probably quicker and easier to use an evolutionary perspective, since it adds important context for why the body works or fails as it does. Not all of medical education is taught from a biological perspective, but the parts that are should include biological evolution.

  17. Ethics & science. Let me see if I get this straight. God is non existant so all values come from where? The humanist? ( If it feels good to me I’l do it. Even if I’m a seriel killer. ) The atheist. Stalin did that. Hitler did that. Mao Tse Tung did that. Pol Pot did that. Kim Jung Ill still doing it. Multiple millions died and that was just the last century. The evolutionists. We are all advanced slime from a mud hole way back when. Survival of the fittest. Human life has no value. Just ask the 28 million aborted babies since Roe v. Wade. And you guys are afraid of us creationists? Back off or I’ll kneal down and pray for you. Even if evolution is true 100% and God does not exist I’ll take the ethics of the Biblical God over anything you have to offer. The fact that you argue about ethics means none of you have an immutable position. At least with the God of the Bible I’m told He does not change. Keep debating this issue and it really does prove the end result of evolution is a dismal society with no absolutes on which to base any law. Dark ages here we come.

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