Virtue theory holds that one becomes a virtuous person in part by learning from and modeling oneself after individuals who themselves exemplify human virtues; someone who embodies the traits that make for human flourishing can serve as an exemplar of their operation and effect. Acquiring the traits that make for exemplary science is much the same. Although role modeling is probably best done in personal mentoring relationships (Bird 2001), it can be approximated in the classroom by what may be thought of as a virtual apprenticeship with exemplary scientists.
Pennock has presented elements of such an exemplar-centered approach in introductory courses, but finds it to be especially effective in upper-division classes after students have already completed a variety of science courses.Footnote 5 Here we will describe implementations in senior seminars at Michigan State University in Lyman Briggs College, MSU’s special residential program for the study of science and society. Most Briggs students major in science and go on to graduate or professional school in science or medicine.
Course Structure and Rationale
As in a theory-centered approach, the goal this course is to have students explore science ethics and the scientific mindset, especially the character virtues of the exemplary scientist that they should try to emulate, and how these relate to traditional RCR topics. The difference is that an exemplar-centered course is organized around consideration of exemplary scientists, carefully selected to allow students to explore the scientific virtues from different points of view in a wide range of contexts.
To allow comparisons across scientific disciplines, it works well to include scientists from fields ranging from physics and biology to computer science. It is also revealing to compare and contrast science to other professions, such as engineering and medicine, which emphasize different virtues (e.g., innovation or compassion) because of their different aims and methods. Such a disciplinary range also helps ensure that students have role models from within their own major fields.
In selecting exemplary scientists, it is valuable to pair historical and more contemporary scientists in a field. There is much to be learned from scientific giants like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, but including less well-known figures such as Barbara McClintock and Richard Feynman helps students see how the scientific virtues are broadly exemplified. Historical sources reveal the roots of the scientific culture, especially in the Scientific Revolution where these values are articulated most self-consciously because natural philosophy is seen as a new movement. It works especially well to start with Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (1916), not only for his historical significance, but also because Franklin explicitly wrote about virtues, their significance, and how he tried to develop and fortify them in himself. As a pioneering scientist, Franklin serves as a model himself of exemplary character traits but he is unusual in also theorizing about the general development of virtues explicitly and systematically.
As with any culture, science mostly takes its own cultural values for granted; even those who are aware of those values rarely have occasion to talk about them directly. Indeed, Franklin’s discussion, like Aristotle’s, is about the virtues of a human being rather than those of the scientist, but it provides a useful introduction to thinking in this way, and one may then ask students to look more closely at Franklin’s (and other scientists’) work to try to discern what specifically scientific virtues might be teased out. Having students do this as an inquiry-based exercise gets them actively involved in thinking about virtues and how they are expressed, and is another advantage of this exemplar-centered approach. The idea is to encourage students to survey the contours of the scientific character on their own by triangulating from different source materials. An exemplar-centered approach allows a wide range of materials beyond the usual textbooks and articles, which as noted above still remain few and far between in this area. On this model, the primary texts are biographies and autobiographies of exemplary scientists, but may also include eulogies, obituaries, commencement addresses, documentaries, and even fictional depictions of scientists.
Both biographies and autobiographies have their own advantages. For Charles Darwin, for instance, one has a wealth of biographies to choose from. Nothing matches Janet Browne’s magisterial biography (1996, 2003) to give the fullest picture of Darwin’s life, work, and times, and Desmond and Moore’s nuanced biography (1992) is another excellent choice. In practice, however, students are more engaged and get a better sense of Darwin’s character from reading his Autobiography (1958). Although autobiographies provide less historical context and miss the measured judgment of a third person account, this is made up for by the immediacy of first person narrative, which can be more important for our purposes. One way that students absorb virtues is when the intellectual is linked to the emotional. Autobiographies at their best are personal and even intimate—both Franklin and Darwin were writing primarily for their family—so a reader can feel the character of the writer. They make it easier for readers to identify with the scientist. It allows them to think “I could be like that”, which is a key intellectual step in becoming virtuous, followed closely by “I want to be like that,” which is the critical motivational step.
Richard Feynman’s autobiographical books are also excellent (1985, 1988) for just this reason. That Feynman was a genius and Nobel laureate gave him license to be eccentric, but the overwhelming perception one gets is of someone who just lived and breathed science and who could not help but share that passion. Feynman is an engaging and likable character who personifies scientific curiosity. Even better than the books are the filmed interviews with Feynman, which have been broadcast in various forms over the years (BBC/PBS 1981). Indeed, these interviews have such a high value from an SV perspective that they should be at the core of any exemplar-centered SV course. Feynman is the modern epitome of the scientist role model. He is a rare case of a scientist who not only embodied the core scientific virtues, but also had thought about them explicitly and deeply and could articulate them both directly and through anecdotes. He was a scientific storyteller and saw himself as such. It is also easy to use Feynman’s discussions, for instance about honesty in science or about the causes of the Challenger disaster, to highlight how scientific virtues can help avoid some common RCR problems.
Whether one uses biographies, autobiographies or some other source material, it pays to be pedagogically transparent about the process of triangulation one expects students to do. Each time one introduces a new kind of source material it is useful to devote up to half a period to consideration of its value and limitations, and how it fits with an SV approach and illuminates our understanding of community norms. There are a variety of excellent documentaries and docudramas about important scientists, for instance, which can occasion fruitful discussion about how scientists’ character traits are portrayed in each.Footnote 6 Virtue theory holds that character is akin to a dramatic role, and that “stock characters” in plays often are the way that particular virtues are displayed (MacIntyre 1981, pp. 27–31), so docudramas can sometimes be as revealing as documentaries once students are given the theoretical framework to understand how to analyze them. Looking at the same scientist through different source materials gives students a much richer appreciation of their character.
An exemplar-centered SV approach permits an eclectic range of modes and methods. Because learning is especially effective when students can uncover and explore the scientific virtues on their own through the lives of exemplary scientists, student-guided discussion works well, punctuated by short lectures that introduce philosophical concepts and theory as they become salient. Virtue theory holds that one learns to embody the virtues in part by practice and habituation, so the challenge is to structure the class accordingly. Instructors can encourage this in a variety of ways, such as by asking students to intentionally practice one or other scientific virtue for a day and then report upon the experience. It works well to have them write daily blogs to reflect on their reading and discussion, and then have them work in pairs to digest and present their understanding of the readings. Another novel approach is to give students the option of putting on a dramatic performance as an alternative to a formal class presentation. Not every student is equally at home with such role-playing scenarios, but those who are play their parts with relish and the exercise gives them a chance to try the characters on for size. One ambitious group of students dramatized scenes from the life of Ada Lovelace. Another did skits drawn from a novel about a scientist and followed it up, still in character, with a full class discussion about some of the elements of the piece with the rest of the class being asked to play along as though members of a debating society that had been depicted.
As these novel-based skits illustrate, an exemplar-centered SV approach can fruitfully draw from fictional as well as historical sources. Because our interest is in the normative structure of science and character ideals, fictional narratives—plays, novels, films and so on—can often be as informative as non-fiction. Brecht’s Life of Galileo (2015), Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), and even Sagan’s Contact in book (1985) or movie (Zemeckis 1997) form, can be shapers of scientific community norms in part because the fictional form allows character traits to be exaggerated for effect or exemplified in contexts that highlight their significance.
In addition, a few more unusual kinds of source materials turn out to be useful in an exemplar-centered SV approach. As noted above, the deepest values of a culture are often unarticulated precisely because they are taken for granted—one doesn’t talk about them; one just lives them. However, cultures typically have special occasions when it is deemed appropriate to speak directly about these deep values and one may profitably look there to find them articulated. Not surprisingly, these regularly occur as one enters or leaves some important life or professional stage, and they often involve public addresses of some sort, because they are occasions whose point is in part to affirm the values of the community involved. In disciplinary contexts, these may take the form of initiation ceremonies of some sort, as well as award speeches or memorial services. Phi Beta Kappa initiations always include a “charge to initiates” which admonishes them to follow the ideals of companionship and zealous research. The initiation ceremony for Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science always includes a speech from a notable scientist who talks about their research career. But unlike a talk at a professional conference where one simply presents one’s data and findings, these are occasions where the scientist typically tells the story of their career and reflects upon setbacks, highlights, collaborations, and lessons learned along the way. University graduation/commencement ceremonies participate in both, with the completion of one’s college training and the beginning of one’s post-graduate career, and here too the expectation is that the guest speaker will speak to the ideals that graduates have learned and are expected to exemplify going forward. It is easy to be cynical about such speeches, filled as they often are with clichés and platitudes, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them. In part because they speak to what everyone is already expected to know, addresses at such occasions can provide a rich source of information about the values that a community holds to be important and constitutive, in ways that are broader than RCR training typically covers.
Probably the most significant occasion is at the end of life, as this is the point at which individuals are presented in their best light; their qualities are named and their life and character is celebrated. For this reason, obituaries and eulogies are also interesting materials to examine. Although the practice has become less common in recent years, in the past scientific journals regularly published scientists’ obituaries, sometimes quite lengthy ones, that went beyond a summary of their research and also spoke of their scientific lives and character. It works well, for example, to have students to read one or more of the long obituaries that were published on Darwin’s death and then have them find the obituary of some other scientist they are curious about. Having students compare these makes for a lively discussion about what is or isn’t highlighted by the scientific community as it reflects on the lives of departed scientists. Again, for our purposes, it does not matter whether such accounts are completely accurate from a descriptive point of view—perhaps the scientist did not quite live up to the ideals as presented. For our normative investigation we do not care so much about that as what those ideals are thought to be. A discussion of scientific obituaries also provides an opportunity to talk about how to judge success or failure in virtue terms. Solon said that one cannot judge whether a person is truly happy until they are dead and one can see the full sweep of their lives. This long-term perspective provides a useful vantage point from which to think about broader notions of scientific integrity.
Another area that goes beyond traditional RCR topics is how scientists should deal with broader social issues, such as religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, and race. Our general heading of science ethics also makes room for consideration of scientists’ social responsibilities and other topics that relate to what the National Science Foundation calls the “broader impacts” of scientific research. An advantage of the exemplar-centered approach is that it allows such issues to be examined concretely rather than abstractly, through the experiences of real individuals. In this way, to give just one example, social prejudices may be seen as objectively real and also may be judged with more subtlety rather than simply in terms of stereotypes.
As the son of a prominent physician, Darwin’s social position provided him with important advantages for someone who was proposing such a revolutionary view, but other scientists had to overcome class barriers. Michael Faraday, a bookbinder whose scientific mindset led him to the highest levels of scientific achievement and recognition in his period, is a useful exemplar for examining these issues. For a closer comparison, one could refer to Alfred Russel Wallace, who needed to sell exotic beetles to collectors to help to fund his research. Darwin’s class and connections also helped buffer him from the religious fallout of his discovery (Desmond and Moore 1992), but the conflicts between scientific and religious values and virtues are not easily overcome. One could examine many of these issues using Galileo as the exemplar. Moving to the 20th century allows one to look at more recent examples where scientific values met religious and other social challenges. Einstein was only the most famous of physicists in his time who faced anti-Semitism and had his “Jewish science” dismissed out of hand. Lise Meitner’s scientific research was abruptly interrupted because of such prejudice.
Meitner’s life also serves as a way to explore scientific virtue and gender issues, as does that of Marie Curie, whose two Nobel prizes put her in the most rarified of scientific company, but there are plenty of other female scientists who could also serve this purpose. Barbara McClintock is a particularly useful exemplar for such discussions as she clearly articulated how her virtues as a scientist ought to dominate any biases she faced because of her gender (Keller 1983).
Alan Turing works well as an exemplar to highlight pioneering work in computer science. Sitting as he does at the border between basic and applied science, Turing’s scientific life provides a way to examine the different goals and thus different virtues of a scientific versus an engineering perspective. He also serves as another point of reference in considering scientific values in the broader societal landscape; Turing’s science was only a temporary refuge against the social prejudice he faced as a gay man. Similar issues have arisen for scientists who have had to deal with racism, and an exemplar-centered SV approach allows students to think about interpersonal and institutional biases that might hinder scientists who are members of under-represented groups and thereby hinder the progress of science.
Such cases show the value of an expanded notion of science ethics that goes beyond traditional RCR topics and incorporates a scientific virtue-based perspective. Especially illuminating is how such cases highlight common scientific values, such as truth-seeking and objectivity, that hold steady even in the face of different social challenges, and supply a useful antidote to philosophical views that discount these values. Power analysis as an explanation of dynamics in science tends to overlook and underappreciate basic scientific values such as these, which function as explanatory factors that are reflective of scientific practice more generally. Science is not exempt from the usual cultural prejudices, but such examples show how scientists have a value system based on curiosity and other distinctive virtues that provides a counter to those biases. In the end scientists do have a moral compass, based in their shared purposes, that should return them to the path of evidence and help them follow where it leads.
An exemplar-centered approach works well when an instructor has both the luxury of time to allow students to slowly come to see the virtues through their own exploration of the lives of exemplary scientists and the expertise required to facilitate this exploration. Some majors require a professional ethics course, but others do not. In the latter case, even students with a deep interest in the subject may find it hard to fit a whole class in their schedule and seek to fulfill their RCR requirement in extra-curricular workshops. But time is at a premium in a workshop setting, and one must cut to the chase more quickly, especially with an audience of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. For such a workshop setting, we now turn to a third approach that is centered around direct exploration of scientific virtue concepts.