18 May 2018

All scholarship is hard

Nicholas Evans wrote:

The solution levied by synthetic biologists is to get more biologists doing ethics. That this is always the suggestion tells me a) you think it’s easier to think about ethics than synbio; b) you want to keep the analysis in house. Neither are good.

Seconded, confirmed, and oh my God yes. I’ve been through several iterations of this in biology curriculum meetings, where I or others have suggested incorporating some non-biology class into a degree program, or even just an elective students funded by a training grant have to take. And the reaction is just what Nicholas describes:

“Why don’t we just do it ourselves?”

The single exception seemed to be chemistry. Maybe there was less suspicion because of the blurry line between molecular biology and biochemistry. Or maybe it was because their department was right above ours and we knew the people better. But when it was ethics or writing or statistics: nope, we’ll develop out own class taught by our own faculty in our own department.

I get a lot of variations of “Is is easier to do this or that in academia?” questions on Quora, too.

In an institution, this attitude of “We know best” is made worse by administrative measurements. Departments are evaluated by how many credit hours they generate. So when I suggest students might take a course taught by the Philosophy or Math or Communications or Psychology department, the response is, “We’re just giving credit hours away.” Since credit hours are one thing that are looked at to determine resources, it’s an understandable reaction. It’s Goodheart’s law in action. The measure becomes a target and changes what the measure does.

Nicholas notes:

The vast majority of people talking synbio ethics have almost no training in ethics. You wouldn’t accept that in the technical side of synbio, so don’t accept it in ethics.

Exactly. We often complain about how people don’t respect expertise on many controversial subjects, like evolution, climate change, or vaccination. But we see the same disrespect within universities for scholarship in different fields. Scholarship in every field is hard, and “My field is better than your field” is a shitty game.

Hat tip to Janet Stemwedel.

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