High Schoolers and Scientific Controversies

... plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Jean-Baptise Karr's epigram has rung true for me during the past week. On the night of the recent midterm elections, a long-time family friend asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed by several of her AP English high school students. She had assigned a position paper, where pairs of students would textually argue a controversial issue, after having interviewed an "expert" knowledgable on the issue at hand. As any of you with family friends who were around when you were two can attest to, refusal of such a request is impossible, so I agreed to act as the "expert" [read: person with somewhat advanced of science] for students writing essays on the topics of cloning and genetic engineering.

Over a next few days, I exchanged emails with several students, variations on a single theme:

-- Hi, I need an expert on [chosen controversial topic].

-- I'm not an expert, but I do use the basic techniques and would be happy to answer your questions.

-- [email listing questions].

Jean-Baptise's often repeated words came to my mind instantly during the reading of those first emails. During the course of the email exchanges, the phrase often came again into my mind, where it vied with Deforrest Kelley's outraged voice for my internal monologue.

Why such bemused outrage? Because reading the topics chosen by high schoolers as controversial science, I discovered that the public perception of scientific controversy seems remarkably... familiar. One student will write about her opposition for"genetic engineering for human babies". Another, about how "cloning should not be allowed in society". The others write about similar subjects, with different opinions: for versus against. These students are writing about the same controversies as I did in high school (admittedly not *that* long ago), rehashing old arguments that seem to persist even as the scientific fields have moved on.

The disconnect between cutting edge research and scientific controversy was amplified by some of the specific questions I was asked to answer. Some questions (the ones I was glad to answer), merely demonstrated a lack of knowledge regarding current practices in the respective fields of genetics and molecular biology. Although I am slightly alarmed that juniors in high school (who have had at least one, perhaps two years of biology), have an understanding of genetics that is, at best, 10 years out of date, I appreciate the difficulties of updating basic educational scientific curriculum. And, in fact, some of the questions were extremely reasonable ("will reproductive cloning be cost effective", "will cloning lead for a cure for cancer and other incurable diseases", "will clones have a shorter lifespan") although I attained an instant headache after reading multiple questions asking me whether I felt reproductive cloning was "against the laws of nature" or was like "emulating God".

What I am most concerned about are questions such as: "Would clones be considered as actual "people" or machines." I'm not going to respond to this question here, although I'm sure many of you display the same quizzical expression that I think perfectly sums up any response I could possibly write. My point, here, is to wonder whether questions such as these represent a curious problem, one that is in addition to the basic problems of a populace that is woefully ignorant of the scientific knowledge that is currently propelling research forward. The latter needs to be addressed by improving scientific education, and the current generation of scientists are increasingly aware of a need for active researchers to engage in public education (as evidenced by on-campus efforts to send Ph.D students to local schools, requirements by fellowship funding agencies for applicants to demonstrate engagement, blogs such as this one and many others). Many other, much more knowledgable than I, have written about the state of public science education, and I don't want to belabor their point. But I wonder whether the inclusion of these more, off-the-wall questions, reveals a not ignorance, but confusion. Do such questions reflect a pure lack of knowledge, or that these students have enough knowledge to (excuse the hyperbole) make them dangerous. Will throwing more facts at students in classrooms be the solution to scientific literacy? These days I find myself doubtful. Perhaps we need to be considering alternative ways to expose kids and adults alike to scientific concepts and research.

As I talk to these high school students, I plan to leave them with a citation list of videos and books; my favorite examples of non-traditional (read: possibly construable as fun and non-academic) discussions of science and scientific controversies. I'll be starting a list of these resources below, updating as I think of more examples. Readers are encouraged to post their suggestions in the comments.


I've mentioned the Charlie Rose Brain Series a couple of times (1, 2), this series remains an excellent example of having scientists informally talk about their own work. Co-hosted by Charlie Rose and Dr. Eric Kandel, the Brain Series is a fantastic introduction to the field of neuroscience that can be enjoyed by scientists and non-scientists alike. Perhaps not something that your average high school student would watch without prompting, but an excellent resource non-the-less. Full episodes can be watched online.


I'm currently reading a collection of short stories by Nancy Kress (Nano Comes to Clifford Falls). Nancy Kress writes excellent stories that incorporate themes science and technology (in particular genetic engineering and artificial intelligence). As a scientist, I find her descriptions of the effects of advanced science on society to be particularly affecting. Kress' seminal book, Beggars in Spain, follows a group of children genetically engineered to not require sleep and is a must-read for anyone thinking about the impact of science in society.

Although not about the biological sciences, the novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller discusses how societies are impacted by scientific knowledge (and vice-versa), following a group of monks charged with preserving scientific knowledge in a post-apocalyptic world.

[Authors Note: this list will grow over the next few days as I think of more examples. Readers are encouraged to post any suggested additions in the comments. I'm posting this list in a highly unfinished form, as I've got other things to write (sadly, this grant won't write itself).]