The University Record, April 11, 1994

Smith: Students need to develop the habits of wonder, honesty

By Mary Jo Frank

Scientists need to teach their students ethics for two reasons, says philosopher and ethicist David H. Smith:

  • Education alters character.

  • Science as a collective enterprise is built on honesty and trust.

    Smith, director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University, spoke last Monday at what Vice President for Research Homer A. Neal described as the first of a series of University programs on research integrity and professional responsibility.

    Speaking on the topic of “Research and the Teaching of Ethics,” Smith noted that a number of scandals within the scientific community have led to the erosion of the public’s trust in science. He said scientists, particularly those in research universities such as the U-M, must do something to regain that trust.

    Stressing the importance of character development, Smith said, “Character is inseparable from the way we perceive the world. The way someone understands the world is inseparable from the kind of person he or she is.”

    It is a mistake to ignore the impact of knowledge on students and their characters, he said, adding that all education is inevitably a moral enterprise.

    Teachers need to strive to develop in their students the habits of wonder and of honesty, Smith said.

    Smith compared dishonesty in university life to infidelity in marriage—both betrayals.

    The second reason the teaching of ethics in science is so important, Smith said, is related to the collective responsibility of the scientific community.

    Two levels of ethics teaching—identifying the moral dimension of events and things, and encouraging self-reflection and self-discovery on the part of students—can be taught in almost any teaching context, Smith said.

    To engage students in moral argument requires a larger block of time, he added.

    Acknowledging the great power of example and habit in moral education, Smith said mentoring alone is not enough. “Not all scientists are saints or saintly mentors.”

    New issues pop up, too, he said, citing intellectual property relating to computer data.

    To be effective, classes on ethics in science should be taught by scientists, Smith added.

    Nicholas H. Steneck, director of the Historical Center for the Health Sciences and one of four panelists who responded to Smith’s presentation, said although faculty may have high hopes that students are basically honest when they enter the University, the evidence is that they aren’t. It is estimated that 40 percent to 80 percent of college students cheat in some way, Steneck said.

    Universities aren’t teaching students to behave ethically, Steneck said. To do so will take time and energy, he predicted.