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Science-In-Fiction Ethics Course

September 24, 2007 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 85, ISSUE 39

C &EN's refreshing article "Experiments of Concern" includes a call issued by Roald Hoffmann and by Mary Kirchhoff of the ACS Education Division for courses in ethics in chemistry curricula (July 30, page 51). Permit me to add a historical footnote to this topic.

When I first became interested in offering such a course in the department of chemistry at Stanford University, our then-chairman was sufficiently uninspired by my suggestion that I turned to our Medical School's Biomedical Ethics Program, which immediately entered it in its catalog under "Medicine 256" for the next few years until my retirement.

Entitled "Ethical Discourse through Science-in-Fiction," it required each student to write a short story of up to 10 pages dealing with a "gray" issue in ethical behavior (frequently based on their own experience) that was disguised as fiction. After discussing each story in private with each author for possible improvements (mostly content rather than style), the author's name was removed and the class then discussed in detail during the rest of the quarter each theme contained in this authorless piece of pseudo-fiction.

In 40 years of teaching at Stanford, I had never encountered as engaged a student group and as passionate and open a discourse—primarily because of the anonymous nature of the authorship. The course culminated in a science renga, in which each student wrote one paragraph of a collaborative short story dealing with an ethical problem, where no one knew who had written the preceding paragraphs.

The result was an unprecedented publication in Nature, the first time that this high-prestige journal with its killingly high rejection rate had published a deliberate piece of fiction. It may also have been the first time in literature that a published short story contained the names of 15 authors-not uncommon in science but unheard of among belles lettres.

Since this publication represented collaboration in the purest sense of the word, as the entire work could not have been possible without each coauthor's contribution, and since there could have been no "senior" author among these 14 participants from 12 different departments, the interesting ethical question arose as to which author should be listed first since all but the first would be relegated to "et al." in Nature's semiannual index. The problem was solved by adding a 15th name—full of anagrammatic significance that justified its position as lead author.

The virtue of this course's approach was not only its anonymous authorship component, which eliminated any possible "whistleblower" syndrome, but also the fact that the choice of ethical topics was thus made by the participants rather than the instructor.

Carl Djerassi
Stanford, Calif.



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