Gregor Mendel

Julia Frugoli jfrugoli at BIO.TAMU.EDU
Mon Oct 25 09:43:57 EST 1999


Ross wrote about Mendel:
(SNIP)
>In our litigious society perhaps he would be
>brought up on Ethics charges...but when you
>realize that the idea of genes, DNA, both male
>and female contribution to genetics, cytogenetics,
>diploidy, and so on were not even known...well
>his work is just fantastic! 
(SNIP)

First of all, I agree Mendel's work is pretty incredible, and I have deep
respect and admiration for him. It's always nice to point out that Mendel
originally wanted to work with mice, but the church wouldn't let him because
mice have sex, and that was considered inappropriate for a monk's study. 
Since it was well known that plants don't have sex :), Mendel got the OK to
do his experiments with peas, which the science of genetics can be thankful
for.  Had he worked with mice, his numbers would have been much smaller and
those embryonic lethals (yellow coat color comes to mind) would have really
skewed his results. 

That being said, you bring up a point that comes up in teaching research
ethics that I wanted to address.  Milliken's famous oil drop experiment, in
which he determined the charge on an electron, was published because he
claimed in the manuscript that every measurement fell within the range he
reported.  Examination of Milliken's notebooks later showed that this was a
blatant lie-his measurements were all over the place.  He simply guessed
right and published as if he had measured his guess invariantly.  The part
that makes this difficult for students when we discuss research ethics is
that Milliken guessed RIGHT, and for some students that makes it OK.  For
others, its not OK, but one can point out that, had Milliken tried to
publish his real results, they would have been rejected.  

I like to point out that the problem comes if Milliken had guessed an
incorrect value.  So, while it may seem that holding scientists to their
data is a function of a litigious society, I would argue that in science, we
trust that the data we see in a paper are the data the author of the paper
gathered, or at least representative of it.  If we can't trust this, the
foundation of science erodes.  Litigious society or not, data are the bottom
line.

Finally, I want to point out that Mendel didn't publish the results that
didn't fit his hypothesis, which is a different ethical question than
fitting data to the hypothesis, although I use it as a subset of the
question when I work with case studies.  I think it's legitimate to hold
back data one can't explain yet. If we wait until we understand it all to
publish, science would grind to a halt.  I offer this little digression only
as food for thought.

My 6 electrons

Julia Frugoli
Department of Plant Pathology & Microbiology
Texas A&M University
Norman E.Borlaug Center for Southern Crop Improvement 
MS#2123
College Station, TX 77843
phone 409-862-3495
FAX 409-862-4790




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