Ethics and Indian Science

Written by  //  October 22, 2010  //  Science & Technology  //  39 Comments

The story is well-known by now. A graduate student named Heather Ames was doing cancer research at the University of Michigan. At one point she started noticing her experiments going horribly wrong. This started happening so often that the frustrated researcher almost began to question her own sanity. When she complained to her advisor her advisor would not believe it initially. At one point even her advisor suspected, based mostly on second-hand reports, that the young woman was sabotaging her own experiments to gain sympathy. One can only imagine her plight. Finally, by judicious recording of her experiments, she was able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that someone was tampering with them. When she and her advisor reported the matter to the campus police, the police first gave the poor woman herself a lie-detector test. Only after they were convinced of her innocence did they launch a serious investigation. The winning strategy for catching the culprit turned out to be simple. A camera surreptitiously installed in the lab proved that the young researcher’s colleague, an Indian postdoc named Vipul Bhrigu, was cruelly sabotaging her experiments. This was not a one-time misdemeanor but a carefully planned and repeatedly executed crime, sometimes committed using the simple (but less-than-subtle) technique of adding plain old ethanol to the experimental setups to damage them. The reason apparently was simple jealousy.

Bhrigu is now back in India and his future in science is uncertain to say the least. But his story has again focused everyone’s attention on Indian science and ethics. This is certainly not the first time in recent times that the spotlight has fallen on Indian scientists. Only two years ago, a chemistry professor from Sri Venkateswara University was found to have fabricated literally reams of published manuscripts; ironically, it was another Indian professor working in the US who exposed the scam. A few years before that we had the celebrated case of a National Center for Cell Science (NCCS) researcher reproducing identical data in key papers, a case serious enough to warrant an investigation by committees from IISc and Science magazine. The latest incident of plagiarism comes from IIT Kanpur, where researchers seem to have taken sources of plagiarism to a disarmingly simple level; introductory paragraphs that they used were borrowed with slight modifications from Wikipedia. And although they seem much more prevalent there, nor are such cases exclusively restricted to academia; a team from Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories was accused of publishing an irreproducible procedure for an important drug synthesis by a Swedish group that meticulously tried to repeat it.

Why have Indian researchers’ ethical lapses come to the forefront so often recently? Is it because there’s something fundamentally flawed in the Indian system that encourages unethical behavior? Or is it that these cases are simply being exposed and reported more widely? There are several factors which could be responsible, but instead of exploring all of these I would like to focus on one factor that undoubtedly constitutes a fundamental flaw in our system: the almost complete lack of ethics lessons in our science education, both in formal and informal ways. When it comes to teaching our students about scientific ethics, our system just does not care enough.

When I was in my first year of graduate school in the US, all of us had to take a mandatory two-day ethics class. My friends in other universities indicated that they had to undergo similar training. At first we all groaned about a class that seemed pointless and sucked away time from research, but we quickly realized its importance. They even managed to make the class very interesting by showing movies posing ethical dilemmas and asking thought-provoking questions about real-life situations. A typical scenario was as follows. A colleague in your department gives you an interesting scientific idea in a casual conversation down the hall. You then spend several months working on this fledgling idea, flesh it out much more and execute it to reveal important results. Do you then acknowledge your colleague as a co-author or only in an acknowledgement section? How do you decide on the exact value of his or her contribution? Those two days were real brain-ticklers and definitely underscored the purpose of ethical behavior in science in our minds. But ethical lessons were also not limited to formal classes. I remember how my advisors used to constantly underscore the value of proper attribution of sources, even if the cited statements may have been ‘well-known’ or ‘obvious’. This went beyond the common and more obvious caveats about reproducibility and meticulous conformation of data. Also important was the acknowledgment of colleagues, either as co-authors or in an acknowledgments section. The message was clear; ethical behavior in science should be taken extremely seriously and is as important as the research itself.

Contrast this with my education in science in India, and I suspect my colleagues will share similar experiences. I don’t remember a single time that any of my professors ever stressed the need to attribute sources clearly. I am not implying that the professors did not care about unethical behavior themselves, but they sure did not drive the point home in class. Among students too, casual transgressions were the norm. In fact, I remember students asked to give presentations nonchalantly borrowing figures and quotes from the Internet without ever attributing them in footnotes. I was a little guilty of doing this myself in a presentation. Nobody ever said anything about attribution or acknowledgment. It was simply not regarded to be an important part of the research. With such a complete lack of focus on ethics during formative years in college, is it surprising that Indian researchers don’t seem to respect ethical boundaries? Charity, as the old cliché goes, certainly begins at home in this context.

So it’s clear that we need to stress the importance of ethics in our science education much more. How do we communicate this importance to students? We can start by clearly enumerating the reasons for behaving ethically and the consequences of unethical behavior in science.

One of the reasons why we need to be ethical is simply because it’s so easy to be unethical. This is a point that seems trivial but which needs to be belabored. People like Bhrigu committing wholesale sabotage know (hopefully) that they are committing a crime. But it’s actually quite easy to innocently engage in simple ethical lapses without knowing it. Copying from Wikipedia without attribution may be thought to be ok for instance because ‘it’s a public source’. Sometimes, modifying sources and then copying them may not seem wrong since the sources are being modified after all. The example cited above – not attributing a statement because its importance is ‘obvious’ – can be one of the more common ethical lapses. Not all of these transgressions are equally severe. But the problem is that once we fail to condemn one misdemeanor because it seems trivial, we open the way to more serious violations. Thus it’s important to stress the problems even with behavior that may not seem so obviously pernicious.

Sometimes when the carrot fails, the stick can work. Stressing the consequences of unethical behavior can also help. In the context of famous cases in the US, the consequences have ranged from retraction of papers and censure by the scientific community to revocation of degrees and loss of jobs. In probably the most famous case of pure fabrication in recent years, Jan Schön who committed fraud at Bell Labs on a spectacular scale had his PhD degree annulled by the University of Konstanz, although in a recent development the decision was overturned by the courts. At the very least, unethical behavior can permanently blot your career, making it very hard to get respect, opportunities for collaboration or funding. In most American universities ethical transgressions are taken very seriously, and this fact alone can serve to rein in researchers who may be tempted to step over the boundaries.

Sadly, there’s no guarantee that driving home such consequences would work today in India. Unlike European and American systems, the Indian system is not yet set up to deal formally and severely with unethical behavior, partly because it does not put a premium on ethics to begin with. As far as I know, many of the researchers cited above still retain their positions. There has been very little legal action taken against them. What is equally concerning is that people still loudly proclaim their innocence; for instance, a post that I wrote about one of the more obvious cases gathered comments accusing me of marring the reputation of the good professor! Granted, these days the Internet ensures that the miscreants at least cannot hide behind the cloak of anonymity, and at the very least they run the risk of becoming the laughing stock of the international scientific community. But are such disincentives enough for researchers who are comfortably tenured professors at Indian institutions and who know for a fact that they cannot be fired?

It seems that we are in dire need of formal institutional structures establishing ethical guidelines as well as punitive measures enforced for violating them; a model would be the Office of Research Integrity in the US. More importantly, these guidelines should be communicated to both new faculty members and new graduate students, preferably on the first day of their job. Every university should also have a one or two day ethics class of the kind described above which should be mandatory for graduate students. Setting up such a class is not hard. Case studies from India and abroad can be included. Real-life, thought-provoking scenarios posing ethical dilemmas can be presented for contemplation. Student participation should be required. Students are much more likely to remember the lessons if they are imparted interactively rather than in a typical lecture format that sounds preachy. All these examples should drive home the importance of attribution, acknowledgment and scrupulous confirmation of results.

Ultimately however, ethical behavior goes far beyond the proximal reasons and consequences cited above. The real and overwhelming value of ethical behavior in science is that it is the foundation on which the self-correcting edifice of science is built. Students are much more likely to take such behavior seriously if their role in the grand scheme of things is emphasized. The results which they publish are potentially going to be used by researchers from around the world and may lead to important discoveries that further our understanding of nature, cure diseases or improve our standard of living. Their ethical lapses mean the potential failure of thousands of other scientists in contributing to their careers and to scientific advancement. They owe as much responsibility for communicating their results ethically as any other researcher in any part of the world. Even if they may be working in relatively obscure institutions, they are as important for the integrity of science as a Nobel laureate in a top university. It is only by driving home the great significance of every individual scientist in advancing the structure of science that ethical behavior will hopefully not have to be taught as a separate discipline but will become an integral part of the students’ mindset and personality. They in turn will then communicate this personality to their students, and the cycle will continue.

39 Comments on "Ethics and Indian Science"

  1. paragwaknis October 23, 2010 at 4:25 pm · Reply

    Good post Ashutosh! I cant say much about ethics in science education in India, but your arguments seem to be very convincing and pertinent. They also, however, got me wondering about awareness of plagiarism in arts and commerce education in Maharashtra, India. The whole examination system there is geared to reproducing chunk of material from textbooks or ready-made notes as your answers. How do you drive home the point of original contribution and plagiarism in such a context? After teaching in a Canadian program in India and now in US, I was becoming convinced about the need to revamp the examination system for commerce and arts education. But my argument then, primarily was from the point of learning or being educated. Over the years, however, after literally unlearning the regurgitation and reproduction skills I picked up in university exam system, I have come to the conclusion that a revamp is very much imminent as it goes to the heart of what we mean by educating people.

  2. Ashutosh October 23, 2010 at 4:40 pm · Reply

    Very good points Parag. I am sure that plagiarism in India in the arts and humanities is as widespread, if not more, than in the sciences. Basically our students just don’t think it’s a big deal to copy and paste, and their professors never explicitly discourage this mentality. And unlike science where you can often detect fraud by doing decisive experiments, it may be even harder to detect fraud in the humanities. You are quite right that we need a revamp of the exam system and that our very system depends on reproducing entire paragraphs from textbooks or notes. This makes it more unlikely that students are encouraged to come up with original and creative descriptions, something that will inherently discourage plagiarism.

  3. Abi October 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm · Reply

    Thanks for shining a spotlight on this issue. It needs all the exposure it can get.

    Just a couple of suggestions in the interest of accuracy (if you agree, you might want to correct your post):

    1. Jan Hendrik Schön’s PhD is intact (unless his university goes on appeal and wins). See this post at Nature Blogs:

    http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/2010/09/jan_hendrik_schn_remains_a_phd_1.html

    2. The Pune case you are referring to is probably that of Gopal Kundu at NCCS; I’m not aware of any such case from the University of Pune. Here’s a relevant link:

    http://www.hindu.com/2007/09/04/stories/2007090455330900.htm

  4. Indrajeet October 23, 2010 at 6:54 pm · Reply

    As usual, nice article.
    This is pretty disturbing. Let’s hope the situation improves in futue.
    Btw, there seems to be some problem with the link to UoP fraud, it directs the page to some article from law and judiciary….can you gimme a proper source?

  5. Ashutosh October 23, 2010 at 8:55 pm · Reply

    Abi: Thanks. I was not aware of this latest development about Schon’s degree. Also, for a moment I accidentally thought that NCCS was affiliated with the UoP, being on its campus. It’s clearly an autonomous institute. Have corrected the relevant sections.

    Indrajeet: Link fixed, thanks

  6. Neel October 23, 2010 at 10:56 pm · Reply

    Another case in point:
    Fraud rocks protein community
    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/091222/full/462970a.html

  7. Ashutosh October 24, 2010 at 1:39 am · Reply

    Oh, yes! I remember that one. I also remembered the recent fraud by the Duke University researcher who is supposed to have actually falsified his resume, claiming that he was a Rhodes scholar

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/21/health/research/21cancer.html

  8. C.Pandu Rangan October 24, 2010 at 5:24 am · Reply

    In India, “memorize and reproduce ‘verbatim’” is the way to succeed in school. Students
    are discouraged to write ” on their own” because that may result is loss of marks.
    Text books, essays, math solutions from books, manuals are copied verbatim. Worst still, even computer programs are copied as in the text books!!!!!! Naturally, they take it very light to ” copy” things from any published source and do not bother to ack the source..The disease starts very early partly due to education and evaluation system and the media of instruction. ( you do not get English right for a loooong time..)..
    The mind set should change. creative writing should be encouraged. Quoting habits must start very early in education. Ability and confidence to do the work and presentation on ones own way must be encouraged right from early days..

    Prof C.Pandu rangan, IIT, madras.

  9. Krishna Pillai October 24, 2010 at 6:37 am · Reply

    A study of retracted papers in scientific Journals shows that China and India have a disproportionate number retracted (relative to the number of papers published). For example Indian institutions represent about 8 -10% of retracted papers but only generate about 2% of the papers published worldwide.
    The imbalance is much more pronounced for Chinese institutions.
    A survey and review of Integrity at Indian Research Institutions is being carried out to be completed in 2011. The review is privately commissioned on behalf of parties having an interest to fund research at Indian Institutions and is independent of any of the Institutions.
    Of course integrity is much more than just the number of cases of retractions (and though plagiarism is a major reason for retraction it is not the only one) and it would seem that in cases of scientific misconduct, the Iceberg Principle applies and what is seen is just 10% of what is there. We are currently gathering information and are trying to devise an “Integrity Index” which can be of practical help for parties wishing to fund research in India. Any suggestions or advice would be very welcome.
    http://ktwop.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/survey-and-review-of-integrity-at-indian-research-institutions/

  10. Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav October 25, 2010 at 10:54 am · Reply

    1. My experience as a student seems different, both at COEP and at IIT Madras. As an undergrad at COEP (1979–83), at least in the Metallurgy department and at least during those days, there was a considerable emphasis on asking the student to write his BE Project Report completely on his own, in his own words. Even while making corrections, the professors would typically try to keep the original structure of the statements as is. (My guide suggested fewer than 10 corrections.) The importance of attribution was pointed out. Ethics certainly was explicitly mentioned even during class-room sessions on technical writing (which were informal, but certainly there). The experience at IIT Madras (1985–87) was, essentially, no different.

    I don’t think the situation has dramatically changed, certainly not at IITs (where several of my class-mates are now Full Professors, and I have at first hand seen them in action because I often drop by unannounced).

    On the other hand, I see a bit of this trend of the US-educated Indians trying to teach ethics to the rest of us in India, and therefore wanting to paint the entire Indian education system in a broad brush. Sure, US universities are often formal about it—take a two-day course, fill feedback form, attend a seminar, et cetera. Indian universities (rather research groups) tend to be more informal about it. But the lesson, in my experience, still does get delivered. Yes, even at the undergraduate level in engineering. The only places where it does not, is where the teacher/student ratio is low—e.g. the usual university-affiliated liberal arts and science colleges.

    2. My second point is concerning the de facto practise of ethics in the American/Western/First World universities and R&D labs. Can they really be counted on to deliver as much as all of their well-advertised formal courses and structures seem to promise?

    To answer this question, one has to (i) take a real-life case, and (ii) turn the tables around. Let’s proceed to do that.

    Recently, I received an email (apparently along with thousands others) from LAP Publishing (VDM Verlag) offering to publish my PhD thesis in the book form.

    My PhD thesis does contain patentable ideas—at least seeds of these. I have tried to obtain financial sponsorship for filing for international patents for several years by now, but completely in vain.

    The main question I had to consider (apart from the reputation of the publishers and the respectability of thus publishing the thesis) was the following: Can I be reasonably assured that, as a result of all that ethics training, individuals from rich countries will not steal the seeds of my ideas (more than seeds to the researchers in the respective fields) and go ahead and file for patents?

    Even the author of this main post, and the other commentators, can easily supply an answer to that question. And, I am confident that their answer will have to be: No, no way.

    You see, we can talk about how these Americans/Westerners make such a big deal about ethics—and how that big deal has so wonderfully transformed our Indian human export to their nations. The talk can go on.

    The point is: what happens once you introduce the money consideration into it. As soon as that is done, it is easy to see how thin is the veneer of ethical behavior being claimed by these Americans/Westerners/First World researchers, engineers, “inventors,” etc.

    If so, why single out Indian educational system? Why this holier-than-thou attitude? Just because it feels good—and exactly in line with the Brown Sahib Syndrome of our grandfathers’ generations?

    3. Look at it both ways—turning the tables around if necessary—before singling Indians out. That’s the bottomline.

    –Ajit

  11. Ragothaman October 25, 2010 at 7:59 pm · Reply

    I agree with Dr. Ajit Yadav. Such unethical behaviour and research misconduct is not culture or region specific. Take for example Nobel laureate David Baltimore’s case. What motivated his collaborator’s postdoc to do research misconduct, due to which David Baltimore had to face congressional inquiry? Was it because the person was from a developing nation? No. The problem is not with any education system or university. The problem is to what level any person is willing to lower his/her standards to achieve short-term benefits.
    To be frank, if you take the statistics of such misconducts per country, US tops the list. Why? because the system makes people to do it.

  12. Ashutosh October 26, 2010 at 7:31 pm · Reply

    @Ajit: Thanks for your detailed comments. Before I respond to some specific points, let me say that the “Brown Sahib syndrome” which you cited had not even entered my mind until you mentioned it. I think it’s fair not to assume anything about intentions or motivations on someone’s part until there is explicit evidence. You are right that there are indeed some Indians living in the US who tend to preach what they perceive as Western values to their fellow Indians back home simple because it feels good and self-righteous. But there are also other Indians who misunderstand valid criticism as preaching, and I am afraid I sense such sentiments in your words. There is nothing wrong in borrowing elements from a system which has largely worked; that is hardly self-hating preaching.

    In any case, some more specific comments

    -My experience as a student seems different
    Thanks for letting us know about your experiences at COEP and IIT. It’s great if this tradition of imparting ethics has been upheld; perhaps some ex-IITians or COEPians can comment on this. However, let’s also remember that in the bigger scheme of things in India, IITs constitute only a fraction of higher education. You mentioned yourself that usual liberal arts and science colleges may not pay much attention to such lessons. But as you know, there are many more millions who study in these average liberal and arts and science colleges. Even if ethics were actively emphasized in all IITs and a few select institutions like COEP, that would still leave the vast majority of average Indian students uninformed about ethics.

    -Sure, US universities are often formal about it—take a two-day course, fill feedback form, attend a seminar, et cetera. Indian universities (rather research groups) tend to be more informal about it. But the lesson, in my experience, still does get delivered.

    True, but formal lessons can sometimes engender a sense of purpose that informal instruction cannot. Plus, formal lessons can be uniformly taught to all students, while informal lessons are largely implemented haphazardly, to select students and are at the whim of lesson-givers. And of course, in India undergraduates are usually not part of research groups so they would need separate instruction. Thus a formal system would help to drive the point home.

    Lastly, you mention the invitation you received from LAP publishing. Incidentally I too received such an invitation, and to me it largely seemed to be a waste of time. I personally did not really think about plagiarism of my ideas, partly because the work in my thesis is published and copyrighted and therefore it’s not easy to plagiarize. But more importantly, do you have any references or basis for your belief that your ideas may be stolen by LAP? In the absence of any such data, your critical belief remains speculative at best. If you want to demonstrate that possible plagiarism of your ideas exposes the thin veneer of ethics practiced by Western countries, only ample evidence would validate such an assertion.

    Lastly, we were talking here largely about plagiarism and fraud in journal articles. But more importantly we were discussing the lack of formal institutional structures in India, something which you agreed with. And as I mentioned before, formal structures do make a difference by actively reinforcing principles and lessons.

    @Raghothaman: I would have to respectfully disagree. The Baltimore case is indeed unfortunate and high-profile, but one has to take a relative viewpoint. The question is; how many cases of fraud do you observe in the US vs the Indian or Chinese systems relative to the number of top publications, patents, Nobel and other prizes, citations etc.? You will find that the ratio is quite low for the US and that such fraud has usually been widely publicized and detected. If you have any references to the contrary I would be happy to take a look at them. Plus, as I reiterate, the real question is about having formal mechanisms of inquiry and correction which are definitely largely absent in India.

    • suresh November 20, 2011 at 7:44 am · Reply

      This particular point (preaching vs. constructive criticism) comes up often. To me, the prickly feelings seem to result from these arguments starting with “In the West, things are so great and let us learn from them”. The “us” is usually read as “you who live in India” because the writer is an NRI. And “the West is great” part is usually very easy to argue against. In this particular case, is there real evidence that there is less “real scientific fraud” going on in the West compared to India ? When an Indian or Chinese name pops up, the whole system is damned, but when an Austrian or American name pops up, it is the individual (another common “accusation” in such debates). It is clear that plagiarism is widespread: you probably know what the VroniPlag wiki has been digging up in Germany (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VroniPlag_Wiki). To me, the point that formal ethics guidance is useful can be made without holding up the West as some sort of ideal: such a recommendation could be made on principles and common sense alone. If the efficacy of such methods is to be judged, then it should be accompanied by at least some data on the relative levels of fraud in different societies and how well they can be attributed to the ethics training these scientists have received during their training (in other words, at least an attempt at a reasoned sociological thesis).

      • suresh November 20, 2011 at 8:01 am · Reply

        ps. a) i really like your writing. b) your reply above does address much of what i said above and c) the nature article about bhrigu that you link to is really well-written; but unsurprisingly, the commenters drag in all the irritating, unjustified, cultural/social/national comparisons.

  13. Dr. Ajit R. Jadhav November 9, 2010 at 4:20 pm · Reply

    Ashutosh:

    I can see that your reply is in-part thoughtful, and I thank you accordingly. The reason I add the adjective “in-part” is the following.

    I had said (just an excerpt):

    “Can I be reasonably assured that, as a result of all that ethics training, individuals from rich countries will not steal the seeds of my ideas (more than seeds to the researchers in the respective fields) and go ahead and file for patents?”

    You replied thus:

    “But more importantly, do you have any references or basis for your belief that your ideas may be stolen by LAP? In the absence of any such data, your critical belief remains speculative at best. If you want to demonstrate that possible plagiarism of your ideas exposes the thin veneer of ethics practiced by Western countries, only ample evidence would validate such an assertion.”

    Contrast the two, and it ought to be plain to even an American school kid that I am talking about stealing by individuals from rich countries, and you are replying that by talking of the LAP publishers themselves. Further, I am talking of patents, and you are talking of copyrights.

    With that kind of a gross misrepresentation, one would not ordinarily be motivated to further the discussion—if it occurs one:one. However, this being a public forum, one can always do so, with an eye towards the general readership.

    BTW, that particular evasion of replacing a discussion of patents by one about copyrights, is what I had experienced with a highly regarded Stanford Emeritus Professor (an ex-COEPian) too! So, you emphatically are not alone in thus twisting the thread around. Indians settled abroad do display that trait as a general rule (allowing of course for possible exceptions—but I am hard-pressed to find a single example as of the moment, and am sure will have to wreck my brain to find one).

    Copyrights provide no protection against patenting by others. Indeed, copyrighting ought to follow, and not precede, patenting.

    If you publish, the matter gets added to the sum totality of the “existing state of the art”—and therefore the act of publishing makes patenting impossible, to you or to anyone else: no one can patent any aspect of an existing state of the art.

    So, to ask someone to go after copyrights, when he talks of patents, is to indirectly ask him to give up patenting. Subtle trick, but often played by the Indians settled abroad. (Similar tricks had been the tricks-in-the-stock of Brahmins in the yesteryears in India.)

    And, BTW, one doesn’t have to do much for the copyrights. That’s another misconception.

    Indeed, in the USA, copyright is always implied: if you publish anything via any channel, private or public, even if you don’t explicitly mention that “(c) year and author” statement, the law works as if such a statement had in fact been made by the author in his very act of publication. Overall, if your objective is limited to selling a book (or a pamphlet), the protection offered by copyrights is fine.

    But copyrights are entirely inadequate when it comes to patents—for the reason given above.

    Another point. If I patent my idea in a country X (say India), I am given protection *only in* that country X. But notice the booby trap. In the very act of being granted that protection, the patents office of the country X has to make the details of that patent public. This act itself makes the content of that patent a part of the existing state of the art as far as all other countries are concerned! Therefore, neither me nor anyone else can file for a patent for the same idea in any other country. Therefore, any one from any country other than X is free not to pay me any royalty or any other form of payment for using my patent. Therefore, encouraging me to file for patents in India, but not supporting me to simultaneously file for it in the USA, is like smartly trying to make a fool of me. I can assure you and the general reader that I have run into many Indians settled abroad (many—why, most—of them being Brahmins) who have not hesitated playing this particular trick on me.

    As to the other Westerners and their ethics. The history of controversies over patents rights provides ample proof for the thin veneer of ethics as in fact practiced by enough number of individuals in the Western (or the first world) countries, some also from very highly regarded organizations/institutions, so that my position (in my first comment here) is more than well-supported. Google on the topic, and I bet you can’t miss it—unless you want to.

    The positive aspects you mention to formal training are well appreciated.

    Yet, there also is a downside to any formal training, esp. those concerning ethics of science, given the current state of philosophy in general. The practically important downside is that it all can very easily slip into Rationalism. Every aspect of it. Both on the teaching side, as well as on the learning side.

    Let me give just one counter-example to all the positive aspects of formal training that you bring out. Consider how many years of training goes in teaching ethics to the defence service personnel. And, consider with what regularity we witness scandals coming out concerning misuse and abuse of power, and outright corruption. Another, even more fitting example, because we are talking of formal structures and ethics. Consider the rigor of all the ethics checks formally instituted in the (Christian) Church. And consider the regularity of ethics scandals of all kind breaking out of that same rigorous organization.

    Ultimately, what is important is, the way you mentioned, that principles and lessons ought to be taught *actively*—that activeness part of it, not the formality part. And, even more importantly, upholding these principles through direct action, and making sure that such action is also visible to the student. Moral principles are highly abstract; difficult to translate and apply in concrete terms. And, difficult to be convinced about their practicality—unless one sees an actually moral man in actual action. The importance of moral heroes lies in this fact.

    Formal structures are useless unless that second part is missing, as easily is the case also in the West. Of what use is merely the body if the soul is missing? The soul, in this case, is the direct action. Gokhale had written and preached a thing or two (or many) about freedom, all, in a more or less formal way. Gandhiji demonstrated the principles by acting on them. To the reader (Ashutosh included, should he want): In between the two, who was more effective in teaching Indians to fight for freedom?

    Another point. On your dropping out, in your smart reply, the crucial factor of the teachers/students ratio. Since you seem to be well-versed in this tactic, allow me to make matters “worse” by adding one more factor (which I forgot last time): the $/student ratio, together with the teachers/student ratio. Now, observe that ethics are $-independent.

    [Strictly parenthetically, I might extend the scope of this discussion: Even rich can be good, Objectivists say. I agree. And add: The statement that poor, too, can be good, even better than the rich, also is equally worthy of cognitive-moral respect, regardless of whether Objectivists, Americans, or anyone else is willing to give it the due respect or not. (Objectivists and the white, in effect, have this knee-jerk reaction of leaping to the defence of the rich qua rich---and of suspecting/alleging altruism for any defence of a black, a poor. My response (in Marathi) "are huDoot"!]

    One final point. What makes you believe that any random ex-IITian or ex-COEPian would be just as ethically reliable to you as the professors who have been seen delivering the lessons right? You want to be a skeptic (certainty is impossible)? a cynic (the ethical entailment of skepticism: a good moral character, and therefore, happiness, is impossible)? You want to be that in the context of Indians, but not of Americans/Westerners? Go ahead—it’s your life. But then, don’t say that none even hinted at the hazard of it. I did.

    Wishing you better reading skills,

    –Ajit
    [E&OE]

  14. s April 16, 2011 at 3:12 am · Reply

    Agreeing with Ajit’s comments. I graduated from an Indian university and obtained standard professional training in many aspects of scientific research including ethics. We did not have a formal 2-day training course then. I attended such a course in the US. I found that both helped, but I learnt a lot more of the nuances while learning in real situations than in a seminar series. Also there seemed to be many possibilities for jumping to ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or coming up with ‘moral rules and codes’ when in a seminar, which may/may not be appropriate in a real-life situation. Formal training is arm-chair work, unless someone already had some experience in dealing with the issues involved. So for me, it aided in putting together, refining and reflecting on what I already learned very well in India.
    I think it is not very ethical to bash the reputation of a country and its systems, even if it is ‘ones own’ without being objective or making a fair assessment.
    Personally, I think that in 62 years the progress of India in many sectors including science has actually been tremendous, considering the situation that existed at independence.
    Unethical practices are found in almost every country/culture. It is not fair at all to brand so many people (with the Indian population being so big!) into categories based on a few individuals. It is also not very encouraging for fellow people in the country or in this field to speak with such disdain of the system in India or compare with countries that have been well off for quite some time now. Objective assessments or constructive criticisms that may help one improve the system are very different from the intensely critical attitude I find among Indians settled abroad.

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    Ethics can be taught formally only upto a point.

    Young people observe carefully what their elders do, how they succeed, how some of them ,if not most of them, cheat and get away.

    How do we change the unethical behaviour of the successful elite? Obviously we cannot expect much help from them unless they have scores to settle.

    As Gandhi said if you want to change society, you have to start with yourself. Are we prepared? I doubt.

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