Dangerous Ideas
The responsibilities of courageous inquiry

Pat Marsteller, Director, Emory College Center for Science Education;
Director, Hughes Science Initiative; Senior Lecturer, Biology

Vol. 8 No. 4
February/March 2006

Return to Contents

The Art and Science of Persuasion
Faculty, fundraising, and Emory's comprehensive campaign

The Development and University Relations Faculty Advisory Council

The Emory College Faculty Committee on Fundraising

"Faculty should know that this train is moving, and if there are suggestions or claims to be made or priorities to be established, this is the time to do it."

"Fundraising is an enormously long process, with hours devoted to stewardship."

Dangerous Ideas
The responsibilities of courageous inquiry

Emory's Living Room
The case for a university faculty club

A Day in the Life
Juggling family and academic science



Our goal as teachers and educators should be to expose our students to the discovery process and to excite them about the challenges at the frontiers of knowledge. We should try to make students understand . . . why a scientist can never be sure that he or she has the final answer to anything.

—Bruce Alberts, President, National Academy of Sciences, 2005

When Harvard President Lawrence Summers implied that the paucity of women scientists at elite institutions might indicate innate differences in
scientific ability, he threw gasoline on the smoldering ashes of debates about the biological basis of human behavior. Understanding individual
differences in human abilities and all the factors (biological, social, political, and environmental) that influence measurable outcomes may potentially benefit the human condition, but without deep understanding and clear explanation this field is fraught with potential for misuse and abuse. Biological explanations are often “dangerous” ideas—susceptible to misuse to justify assumed group differences of gender, class, and ethnicity. Of course, populations do differ in gene frequencies; men are different from women. The danger is not in the difference itself; the danger lies in what is done with the difference.

In June 2005, the FDA approved BiDil as the first drug specifically for self-identified African Americans with heart disease. BiDil combines two generic drugs that have long been used to treat heart failure. The approval of BiDil as a race-specific intervention spawned a controversy that raises provocative questions about the causes of health disparities, and reignited the controversy of the biological basis of race and
ethnicity. Among the questions raised is whether the pharmaceutical industry was using a focus on health disparities to increase
profits by turning generic drugs into costly patented treatments.

Numerous book titles include the phrase “The Perils and Promise of . . .” You can fill in nanotechnology, genetic engineering, cloning, recombinant dna—almost any area of science—and find impassioned concerns about the implications of science and technology. Some are well-reasoned analyses, some inflammatory polemics. The question I want to address is, how can we reshape the education of scientists and science writers to promote thoughtful, civil discussion of “dangerous” ideas? From the use of “science” to support hierarchical classifications of “races” to eugenics, the Tuskegee syphilis study, and the atomic bomb, scientific knowledge has been misused and abused. We must ensure that students and scientists alike study the history of past misuses and abuses of science to prevent future missteps.

Should your ideas be dangerous?

Galileo’s idea that the earth was not at the center of the universe challenged religious and philosophical worldviews. When Charles Darwin proposed descent by natural selection, he challenged the view of special creation of man in the likeness of god, a creature in control of and master of the world and its creatures. Dangerous ideas in this sense are what the academy is about: worldview changing, challenging the dominant paradigm, questioning authority, and sifting evidence. These types of dangerous ideas overturn our comfortable conventional understanding of how the world works and our place in it.

For example, the predictive health and society theme described in Emory’s recently released strategic plan calls for defining and measuring health, discovering biomarkers of health, and determining optimal interventions. Is this a dangerous idea? What are the limits of prediction? Who will have access to the information on “biomarkers”? What does it mean for the preparation and education of future physicians, biomedical scientists, and the general public?

At MIT, one research group fosters creativity and innovation through a “Dangerous Ideas” seminar. As they proclaim, “If your research is daring and visionary it will change views of how the world works.” This is how it should be. Each week one of the graduate students, research associates, or faculty leads a discussion of his or her own research focusing on five questions:

Why should I fear your research?

Why should I rejoice that it’s being done?

What should I tell my mom about it?

What’s your most interesting discovery?

What’s your most recent discovery?

Perhaps we should institute a series of such seminars at Emory, adding to the questions a discussion of social implications, ethical issues, and how to convey results to journalists.

How should the
academy respond?

How can we teach science to prospective scientists and non-science concentrators in ways that foster critical evaluation of both evidence and potential consequences? How can we prepare prospective and practicing scientists to communicate their discoveries more clearly, and to consider short-term and long-term consequences? From the very first course, we can teach students to think like scientists, to evaluate and weigh evidence, to communicate clearly, and to place scientific data in context. Instead of focusing on science as a body of knowledge, we can allow students to inquire, investigate, and communicate.

Inquiry-based approaches such as problem-based learning and investigative case-based learning have documented success in enhancing conceptual understanding and increasing skills in problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and self-assessment. By using complex, authentic problems to trigger investigation in the lab and library, students develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborative skills. These methods allow students to experience science integrated with other disciplines such as mathematics (graphs, statistics), history (social, economic, and political context of the issue), and language arts (conveying research results), and they enhance their capacity for creative and responsible real-world problem solving. Inquiry science courses can integrate ethical dimensions of science. Debates on cloning, DNA testing, limits of prediction, and the potential perils as well as benefits of science deepen understanding for all students. Combining such approaches with practice in communicating science to different audiences creates engaged scholars and a scientifically literate public.

Graduate students and undergraduates would benefit from courses and seminars that directly address the use, misuse, and abuse of science in policy and politics. While the Science and Society program offers opportunities to faculty and students to address controversial issues, we need more such opportunities. Research ethics programs, such as the required Values in Science short course, may need to be expanded so that all scientists and prospective scientists think carefully about the ethical implications of research.

A Science Writing Committee, composed of faculty from journalism, creative writing, the Program in Science and Society, the Center for Science Education, and the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, surveyed interest in science writing at Emory in early 2005. The survey identified demand for two types of instruction: writing that illuminates science for general readers and writing that explains research more effectively to specialists. Instruction in writing about science and technology for the general public could include undergraduate science courses, internships in science journalism, and seminars and certificate programs for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. Courses and seminars focusing on manuscript preparation and grant-writing could be part of the way we prepare prospective scientists to examine the impact of their “dangerous” and revolutionary ideas on society by helping them examine the potential long-term impact.

Perhaps every field in the academy has dangerous ideas with the inherent potential for misuse and misunderstanding, as well as the potential to transform knowledge and understanding. As we discover “where courageous inquiry leads” (the subtitle of the university strategic plan), let us ensure that our inquiry results in positive transformation in the world.