I have given up on the concept of finding formal classes interesting long ago. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the idea of attending a two day course on 'Values in Science', essentially a meld of all topics that can be broadly classified under the title 'Ethics', with an emphasis on ethics in scientific research.
I was pleasantly surprised by the vigour and logical 'dillemic' nature of the views and concepts in the course, and I have to say that against my expectations (especially from a mandatory course), the class turned out to be one of the most interesting ones I have attended in many years. I found myself enthusiastically participating in the cacophony of about a hundred students in the class. The two day interactive discussion session cut through a wide swathe of topics, some sounding esoteric, others of direct relevance to the mundane existence of student life in a university. These included things like Authorship (division of credit), Sharing of Ideas, Laboratory Records, Peer pressure and compliance, Advisor-student relationship, Intellectual Property, Theory of Ethics...and almost everything else that can be listed under the general title. A high point was a movie called 'And the band played on...' which was an overview of the early government debacle that failed to stop the spread of the AIDS epidemic, initially spread through homosexuals and blood transfusions. The movie recounts the dedicated efforts of the scientists and doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which first detected and documented the AIDS epidemic. The doctors were pleading for blood-banks to identify the list of blood donors who were suspected to carry the virus, so that they could be prevented from donating blood further. For the CDC specialists, the ethical issue was saving lives. For the blood banks, it was preventing discrimination against a particular group of individuals in the community by keeping their identities secret. As for me, I would take the side of the CDC researchers in the end. The reason is that at that point, so many lives were being so rapidly infected, that the social fallout would have been a small price to pay in terms of real human lives. The nature and dilemma of science was also reflected in a conference which the CDC doctors held; the blood bank authorities and government officials asked for 'absolutely irrefutable scientific evidence' that the virus was spreading through blood transfusions. Maybe these officials should have read a bit of the philosophy of science. Very few things in science are absolutely irrefutable, and especially when the scenario is one of life and death, and in general in a 'soft' science like epidemiology, it is a bit naive and even unscrupulous to insist on irrefutable scientific evidence. The CDC doctors maintained a list of the deaths from the virus on their blackboard; they titled it 'The Butcher's Bill'. It was heartrending to see the number go up from a few dozens to finally thousands, and today, to the millions that have made AIDS into one of the costliest, deadliest, and most controversial human problems in history. Narrated also were the intense rivalries between the American and French discoverers of the virus, again bringing big ethical questions into the picture. The movie emphatically shows the American researcher as the unethical character in the act. Today, both the American and the Frenchman are generally considered as co-discoverers of the HIV virus.
As we were debating the ethical implications from the movie, the CDC building which is right next to Emory, clearly loomed in the near distance and we could see it through the window. To think that all these discussions and arguments went on in the same building 25 years ago, when the vicissitudes of human ethics failed to stamp the AIDS epidemic in the bud, elicited a feeling of ominous nostalgia and sadness.
All in all, an enlightening course though.