07 March 2011

Questioning Science

Last weekend, I read an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It profiled a UCLA faculty member, J. David Jentsch, and his resolve to continue live-animal research in the face of escalating, violent tactics from extremist animal rights groups. Dr. Jentsch’s story – which includes having his car fire bombed in his driveway – was juxtaposed with the experience of others who left animal research after their homes were vandalized and their children frightened in the dead of night. I could go on at length about how outrageous these acts are, the dilemma of animal research, or the complexities of using university resources for contentious research. But these topics seem best left for another time.

At the moment, I am most intrigued by an issue raised toward the end of the article:

"You're called upon to defend what is a completely legitimate, ethical thing to do," Mr. Jentsch says of his own work. "Society has grappled with these issues and thinks using animals is legitimate. But we are constantly called upon to redefend it."

Part of the reason for that, some say, is that universities—fearful of alienating students and donors—have shirked their role in educating the public about the benefits of animal research. And scientists are so busy doing their work that they either assume that the public shares their views or will simply trust that scientists know best.

In an earlier post, I raised the question of how well higher education prepares students for the “teachable moments” that arise every day. But, at the time, I did not explore the question of opportunity verses responsibility in the face of such moments. I won’t presume to know exactly how Dr. Jentsch feels on this issue, but this quote (and the author’s additional observations) seems to suggest that there are some very definite assumptions within the higher education, research, and STEM communities about how much should be expected of those who undertake advanced education.

If STEM education and work in the STEM fields is understood as an on-going effort to establish, transmit, and add to a collection of scientific truths, it makes perfect sense that someone in Dr. Jentsch’s position would be frustrated by continued calls to “redefend” accepted conclusions. This, however, seems an over-simplified view of meaningful discovery and learning. It overlooks the inconvenient truth that not everyone in our society has an equal level of experience and familiarity with the STEM world. Not everyone is aware of the previous process of “grappling with” issues and not everyone shares the same conclusions that a relatively small segment of the population has reached.

When scientists, engineers, and mathematicians encounter a lack of shared understandings with the broader community, whose problem is it? Who has the best opportunity to reconcile, or at least try to reconcile, that discord? Who, if anyone, has the responsibility to make an effort?

Additionally, as Holly Tucker recently discussed, scientific understandings change over time. So, is it really such a problem that our foundational conclusions might be challenged and that our highly trained, experienced researchers might be expected to examine and explain – repeatedly – what they do, how they do it, and why? I am not referring to peer reviews within the STEM world or well-developed proposals to funding agencies. I am talking about seriously engaging with anyone who wants to know, wants to understand, wants to partake in the process of questioning, testing, and retesting.

Am I suggesting that all scientists be subject to a summons, at any time, to stand before a tribunal of popular opinion? Of course not. I am simply wondering if researchers ought to be surprised or, worse, annoyed and insulted when serious people expect serious answers to genuine questions.

Part of Dr. Jentsch’s story is his (rather frustrated and somewhat begrudging) decision to be an advocate for fellow scientists and to stand up to the challenges raised by those who disagree with him. And what makes his story worth telling is the fact that he seems to be an exception. I applaud his efforts at dialogue, advocacy, and better understanding. But, somewhere between the emotionally charged tales of violent harassment and the researcher who chooses to carry on, I am left wondering: Why is this man more-or-less alone? Do STEM professionals actually believe they enjoy, or should enjoy, scientific immunity from having to explain their work and its relevance outside the lab or university? If so, is this as it should be? If not, how might our current system of preparing STEM students – undergraduate and graduate alike – be made to include the skills and sense of responsibility necessary for making a career in science one that embodies both research and education in all its forms?

Image: Adult Male Vervet Monkey by Nevit Dilmen


  1. It is very difficult to find scientists who will stand up publicly for animal research. They're afraid of being targeted, and understandably so. But in doing so they mostly cede the discussion to animal activists and the result is that the public's understanding of research with animals is largely shaped by its opponents.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Deborah. I couldn't agree more.

    I think another effect of ceding or avoiding the discussion is scientists' taking harder positions than they might normally take as individuals.

    A very good friend of mine works in research that leads to the destruction of hundreds of barely visible baby squid every day. She can be very flippant about it -- 'They're just animals.' Yet, she's an avid animal lover and has often shaped major choices around what is best for the dogs, cat, and fish that share her life.

    I don't believe that *she* believes they are "just animals." But, knowing that someone out there wants to scream and yell at her or worse, and that her P.I. and her colleagues wouldn't approve of her engaging in serious public debate anyway, she reverts to a hardened, dismissive position.

    So, not only are public understandings shaped by one side but the entire attitude may contribute to entrenchment and escalation.

    Ya know... kinda like Wisconsin politics.