Science - Exploring ethical issues

11th November 2011 at 00:00

What's it about?

How do you tackle controversial issues in science? You could challenge pupils' views on climate change or human cloning, or suggest stem-cell research should use artificially created embryos. Whatever the topic, controversy engages children, writes James Williams.

Blasts from the past

Looking at the history of science can help pupils understand how it deals with controversy and how the results of experiments do not always give definitive answers. We often teach that vaccination came from the work of Edward Jenner, who deliberately infected a boy, James Phipps, with cowpox in 1796 and then gave him smallpox - a deadly disease. Today Jenner would have been struck off the medical register for such an action; luckily, Phipps survived and vaccination was born.

Some 80 years earlier, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed women injecting their children with small samples of pus from smallpox victims in Constantinople. The children fell ill, but survived and afterwards seemed immune to the full-blown disease. She published an anonymous article on the practice, but her work was not recognised.

We could compare Jenner's work with the work of the supposed link between MMR and autism by Andrew Wakefield, who was condemned for taking blood samples from children at a birthday party. Or investigate why Lady Mary's observations were not taken seriously by the medical profession. Did doctors have a vested interest in not curing and preventing the disease?

What else?

Visit TES Resources to see a Teachers TV video about moral and ethical dilemmas in stem-cell therapy. See the TES forums for discussions on using conspiracy theories and creationism in science lessons.

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