Ethics in teaching science – cyber-cockroaches are not good Christmas presents

I wondered down a rabbit hole with a group of kids the other day and had a long conversation about ethics in teaching science. It put me in mind of an article I wrote a couple of years ago – which I’ll reproduce below.

The people who produced the cyborg cockroach have got a new experiment that comes complete with a kit. This one involves pulling the leg off a cockroach – something the people behind the project say doesn’t hurt the cockroach. The issue of whether an invertebrate can feel pain is contentious and hasn’t been resolved as far as I can see. But regardless of the definition of pain the insect clearly feels something. And in an ethical sense, the problem here is as much about the lack of empathy in the experimenter as it is about what the subject is experiencing as such.

The idea of making animals of any sort into toys under the guise of science is terrible. And, let’s face it, science kits for kids are generally only a small step away from being a toy. Millions of science kits of one sort or another will be given this Christmas: The amount of science actually learnt from them will not be in any proportion to the time spent on them. So the excuse that the cockroach is suffering, or even mildly uncomfortable, for the greater good, simply does not hold water. There is no grater good here, and there is harm – to the person being encouraged to mutilate an insect if not to the insect itself.

While I’m all for giving science, even if only a little is learnt, I’m even more in favour of promoting some ethics as we go.

The ethics of cyborg cockroaches

(First published Nov 11 2013)

Is it OK to turn a cockroach into a cyborg in the interests of childhood education? Oh this topic has proved great fodder round the geeky dinner table.

A company called Backyard Brains has released a kit that does just that. According to Wired:

The roaches’ movements to the right or left are controlled by electrodes that feed into their antennae and receive signals by remote control—via the Bluetooth signals emitted by smartphones. To attach the device to the insect, students are instructed to douse the insect in ice water to “anesthetize” it, sand a patch of shell on its head so that the superglue and electrodes will stick, and then insert a groundwire into the insect’s thorax. Next, they must carefully trim the insect’s antennae, and insert silver electrodes into them. Ultimately, these wires receive electrical impulses from a circuit affixed to the insect’s back.

On its face this just seems unacceptable. But then you start to think. Cockroaches? We spend a great deal of time poisoning them, stamping on them and otherwise waging a genocidal war in our houses. Is making a cockroach cyborg worse than thoughtlessly killing the insect?

Our consensus is ‘yes’ it’s worse. There’s no real justification for it. Backyard Brains argues that having kids as young as 10 perform the operation will encourage interest in neuroscience. I don’t buy it. Kids have been torturing insects for millenia to no great positive impact. In fact, if the books I read are any indicator, kids so lacking in empathy that they’re willing to torture small animals is a pretty good indicator of where the next generation of homicidal maniac is going to come from.

Looking upon a living thing as a plaything can never be a healthy idea. (A puppy, by the way, is an animal you play alongside; that’s a world away from treating it as an object to gain entertainment by experimenting on.)

And make no mistake, all of these educational science kits end up being playthings at one level or another. That doesn’t matter when it’s a rocket bottle or a pretty chemical reaction. It certainly does matter when we’re talking about experimentation which in an adult context would not require approval by an ethical committee but would require thinking twice about.

Backyard Brains is not unaware of the controversy surrounding their product. They devote a lot of words to justifying what they are doing. It seems to me, though, that you have to accept one basic premise if you are to buy into their explanations: That teaching a new generation of scientists is a social good that more than balances any potential negative impacts. I can’t accept that. I particularly can’t accept that creating a generation of scientists that looks upon the treatment of any living animal as a thing to be used and discarded for fun or education is good or even healthy.

Yes we kill cockroaches. We do so with a reason and without, generally, malice or entertainment. You can’t convince me that ‘driving’ a cockroach around from your iPhone doesn’t qualify as entertainment, no matter what it might teach on the way.

What may be needed here is less science and more Shakespeare:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

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