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Djerassi Explores Science Culture's 'Tribal Secrets'

Pallavi Dandu
Novelist Darl Djerassi speaks about ethical and cultural issues in the academic sciences to a full house in 10-250 Tuesday night.

By Austin Frakt

Celebrated novelist Carl Djerassi raised ethical and cultural issues in the academic sciences in his talk "Nobel Science/Nobel Lust: Revealing Tribal Secrets," delivered to a packed audience in 10-250 Tuesday night.

In order to maintain a requisite level of trust in the academic scientific community, the lay public as well as scientists themselves "need a more realistic picture of what science is about," Djerassi said.

Djerassi, a chemistry professor at Stanford University, then broadly painted this picture by reading and elaborating on excerpts from his novels Cantor's Dilemma and The Bourbaki Gambit, free copies of which were distributed to the first 250 attendants of the talk.

Emphasizing his theme of communication among scientists and between scientists and the public in order to foster trust, Djerassi quoted the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine Arnold S. Relman. "It seems paradoxical that scientific research, in many ways one of the most questioning and skeptical of human activities, should be dependent on personal trust. But the fact is that without trust the research enterprise could not function."

Scientific culture focused on

The excerpts Djerassi read from Cantor's Dilemma and The Bourbaki Gambit consisted mostly of question and answer exchanges among the main characters and served to reveal the largely hidden dynamics of the academic scientific culture.

Since the dynamics of the scientific culture are not explicitly taught to students, they are like tribal customs that are learned by osmosis and kept secret from those outside the tribe, Djerassi said.

The "tribal secrets" include knowing whether to add your supervisor's name to a paper detailing your work and properly interpreting the pronoun "we" used in nearly all scientific communications, even those by a single author.

In addition to ethical issues, the discussion touched on a myriad of topics, including the supervisor-student relationship, the pressure to publish, cooperation and competition, and many women's issues.

Djerassi's excerpts revealed a tribal culture which can be hostile to women. In one passage from Cantor's Dilemma, a professor reveals that she sacrificed beginning a family to achieve tenure, Djerassi said.

When asked how he made the transition from scientist to author, Djerassi indicated that the progression began with his autobiographical work The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse.

Later in life he turned to fiction as a way to convey scientific ideas, ethical issues, and cultural dynamics. Djerassi described his work as "science-in-fiction but not science-fiction," clearly distinguishing himself from today's popular science fiction writers like Michael Crichton.

"We have to explain to people not only what we do [as scientists] but how we do it," he said.

Ethical breaches create distrust

In his introduction for Djerassi, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education Issac M. Colbert spoke of the disturbing trend toward public distrust of the academic scientific community. He blamed this loss of trust on rare but well-publicized allegations of ethical breaches and "unspeakable acts."

"The reason Iwanted to bring Djerassi, and that so many individuals and groups were willing to work on the forum to ensure such a huge turnout is" his general approach and attitude, said Senior Lecturer in the School of Engineering Caroline Whitbeck, who serves on the technology and culture steering committee.

"His science-in-fiction approach supports our efforts here to look at research practice from the vantage point of the problems that graduate students and post-docs actually encounter," she said.

There are many "practical issues about where to begin and how to teach ethical conduct," Colbert said. He praised Djerassi's work as providing a unique approach to describing the academic scientific culture which is also accessible to the public.

The erosion of public trust in the academic scientific community threatens the very existence of this community, said Professor of Biology Jonathan A. King. Continued progress of science depends heavily on public financial support.

"The talk was less about what is ethical or not and more about the process of constructing a set of ethics for a research tribe," said Geoffrey J. Coram G, who co-chairs the Graduate Student Council's housing and community affairs committee.

"It was different than I thought it would be. It was not about student-advisor relationships, which is a complex issue raised and explored in Cantor's Dilemma," said Gregory B. Dudley G.

Djerassi has published many works including some on the chemistry of natural products, applications of physical measurements, and computer artificial intelligence techniques.

Djerassi also has received numerous honors and awards for the first synthesis of the chemical used in the birth control pill, including the National Medal of Science in 1973. He received the National Medal of Technology for novel approaches to insect control in 1991 and the Priestley Medal, the highest award of the American Chemical Society, in 1992.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum, the GSC, the Program in Women Studies, the Office of Graduate Education, and Student Pugwash of MIT.