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MCAT Sample Questions : Writing Sample

Scientific inquiry is rooted in the desire to discover, but there is no discovery so important that in its pursuit a threat to human life can be tolerated.


It is human nature to be curious, and it is the role of scientists in society to pursue the scientific truths lurking in nature. Centuries of scientific inquiry have resulted in the discovery of essential facts about our natural world, a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, and the practical application of scientific knowledge to every day life.

The statement in question raises an important issue in regards to scientific inquiry. How, exactly, does science and, in a larger context, society itself-make the determination as to what is ethical in terms of the pursuit of knowledge? Do the ends justify the means?

All reasonable people agree that the testing the Nazis did on unwilling subjects in concentration camps in World War II was despicable and immoral. Those ghastly experiments, carried out on prisoners who were hostages of Hitler's Fascist regime, are indefensible. No one volunteered to be in a concentration camp, so surely none of the subjects can be said to have participated willingly. Their lives were put at risk-or deliberately destroyed-without their consent. This was not science; this was madness. Some discoveries-one thinks of Thomas Edison in his laboratory, inventing the phonograph and the light bulb-are made without risking human life. But scientific inquiry often involves human beings-as explorers or subjects-whose lives are put in jeopardy to gain knowledge and advance the cause of civilization. Think of Ben Franklin, flying his kite in a thunderstorm. Think of explorers like Christopher Columbus or John Glenn, venturing into the unknown without regard for personal safety. And think of the brave individuals who participate in AIDS research. In order to test vaccines, healthy subjects are required. In order to test drugs to suppress or retard the advance of the disease, subjects who are already ill are needed.

This brings us to the central question implied by the statement: when is it ethical to risk a human life in order to discover scientific truths? The key is informed consent. It is essential that every person put at risk whether a willing explorer like an astronaut, a patient choosing a course of treatment, or a subject in a controlled experiment be fully informed of the known risks he or she faces. Scientists are not God, and human beings are not guinea pigs. Human life must be respected. Human beings are not disposable like paper cups.


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