Alas, All Human


This is a revised version of a classroom lesson initially developed by:

Solomon Buchman, Elwood John H. Glenn High School, East Northport, Long Island, NY

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended:

This lesson is suitable for use in any high school science class.

Types of Teaching/Learning Activities Employed in this Lesson:

Students are told to write a description of the traits of character and behavioral characteristics that they associate with someone who is a scientist. The teacher then lists on the board the characteristics that students thought of. This leads to a discussion about the stereotypical view of a scientist as honest and objective. For homework, students are required to read and answer questions about an essay by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in which he gives many examples that show that scientists, being human, don't always live up to the stereotypical ideal. A classroom discussion is then conducted to explore and clarify the ethics and values issues in the examples given by Asimov.

Categories that Best Describe this Lesson:

The behavior of scientists.


Ethics/Values Issues Raised by this Lesson:

Issues related to credit for discoveries, citing of authority, excessive pride in one's own ideas, overeagerness, and various degrees of manipulation or fraudulent reporting of data.


Lesson Plan


The idealized view of a scientist is of a scrupulously honest, objective, highly ethical individual. The point of this lesson is to emphasize that science is a human endeavor and as such it is unrealistic to expect its practitioners to be exempt from the influence of social and personal values that make all of us fallible. The lesson makes use of an essay by the very popular science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. Asimov is well known as an ardent advocate of science. He wrote his persuasive essay in response to his own awakening to the reality that, no matter how hard the scientific community strives to live up to its idealistic stereotype, it is necessary to be mindful that scientists are mere mortals, not infallible icons.

    As written, this lesson requires 1 1/2class periods and an intervening homework assignment.

    1.  During the latter half of a class period instruct students to spend ten minutes listing all of the characteristics and behaviors, which they would attribute to a professional scientist.

    2.  Invite students to read what they have written and compile on the chalk board a comprehensive list of the traits of character and behaviors the students associate with scientists.

    3.  From the traits that are mentioned most often, create the class's stereotypical view of the scientist. In all likelihood the stereotype will picture the scientist as a dedicated seeker of the truth who is honest, objective and who maintains high ethical standards.

    4.  At the end of the discussion students should be given for homework the assignment of reading the essay "Alas, All Human," by Isaac Asimov. [This essay is included in A 30 Year Retrospective: 1959-1989, by Isaac Asimov (Doubleday: New York, 1989). This book is available in many libraries.] Students should be instructed to bring to the next class session written responses to the following questions about the essays:

    a.  What do you think Asimov meant by the title of the essay and what was the principal point he was trying to make?

    b.  Do you think that Asimov believes that most scientists are dishonest or unethical?

    c.  Why does Asimov claim that despite "misconceptions due to incomplete or erroneous data" the movement of science "is always from the less true to the more true"?

5.  Begin the next class period by inviting students to read their answers to the homework questions. Make sure that during the discussion of the answers the following points are emphasized:
a.  Asimov's title is intended to point out that scientists are human beings and can't be expected to always resist the pressures and temptations that result in less than completely ethical or honest behavior.
b.  Asimov makes it clear that he is a strong supporter of science and that he considers the types of dishonest activity he describes as the exception and not the rule.

c.  Asimov considers science -- as opposed to scientists -- to be "incorruptible." He makes this assertion on the basis of his claim that no scientific observation (or reported result) is accepted until it has been independently confirmed, presumably by another scientist or team of scientists. Unfortunately if this was ever true, it is becoming less so as scientific research becomes more expensive and sophisticated. Although it is true that all research reports are reviewed by other scientists before being accepted for publication, it is not uncommon for results to enter what Asimov refers to as "the account books of science" without actual independent experimental confirmation. In many cases such confirmation would require the expense of duplicating the original work to be supplied by some funding source. Few agencies that support expensive research are willing to pay to duplicate apparently successful research when the money could be used instead to support a new project. Since most important scientific work will ultimately be the basis for further research, it is likely that erroneous results will ultimately be discovered. But, until this happens a fraudulent report, especially by an established scientist, can cause considerable havoc.

6.  Review each of the types of dishonest or improper behavior by scientists described by Asimov. In each case have the class discuss whether it is an example of: a) inappropriate, but not unethical behavior; b) a case of scientific misconduct, but not truly unethical because it is probably unintentional; or c) a clear case of serious scientific misconduct or fraud.

7.  End the class session with a discussion about what, if anything, the students think should be done by either the scientific community, the government, or the public in response to the issue of occasional, but possibly serious scientific misconduct.


There is no need for concern that students will be turned away from science by a lesson that undermines the heroic model of a scientist as an invariably honest seeker of truth. In fact, those who have used this lesson, or who have otherwise made efforts to portray a more realistic view of scientists have found that students are more sympathetic to scientists when they learn that they are fallible human beings like themselves.

By describing a variety of questionable science behaviors that differ in the degree to which they involve intention on the part of the scientist as well as severity of possible consequences, Asimov provides the opportunity to teach two important lessons about ethics. The first is that judgements about whether an action or behavior is ethical or morally acceptable is not generally an all-or-nothing proposition. Most of us make such evaluations by applying a scale with clearly unethical on one end, highly ethical on the other, and many gradations in between. The second is that there are various obstacles that prevent even those with good intentions from satisfying the ethical demands of good science practice. This latter point is likely to be revealed during the class discussion of Asimov's categories of questionable scientific behavior.

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