Lewis Wolpert welcomes a new brain game

April 8, 2005

How to get the public involved in thinking carefully about scientific issues is a major unsolved problem. So I was intrigued to have the opportunity to play the New Economics Foundation's Democs ( De liberative M eeting o f C itizens), a game that aims to encourage people to consider and discuss complex problems related to science.

The version I tried was focused on animal experiments, but others include nanotechnology - revealed this week at London's Dana Centre - the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, stem cells, genetically modified food and climate change.

Nine of us sat round a table, a little more than the recommended five to seven. And we had a facilitator, although this is apparently not necessary if one follows the instructions.

After a brief discussion we had to indicate our views about experiments on animals by voting on our degree of support or rejection of statements such as "animal experiments should never be used for science" or "scientists should decide when and how to use animals for experiments".

Then "story" cards were distributed. These were accounts of animal experiments by various authors, some of whom were named, and that were both for and against such experiments. We read out cards we thought particularly interesting.

Next, we were given four "information" cards. Again we read out those that we liked, and passed the others on to our neighbours. Already members of the group were making comments on the cards, such as whether they were misleading, or biased or that they really liked them.

These cards gave information about the law relating to animal experiments, why such experiments were done and the number of different animals involved. It was becoming clearer what the attitudes of the members of the group were, and what they cared about.

The final set were the "issue" cards, which made short provocative statements about animal experiments. We all went through at least eight of these.

They claimed, for example, that animals were so different from humans that experiments on them were largely misleading in relation to helping human health; that the suffering of animals was insupportable; that cats killed more mice than scientists; that the human benefits had to be balanced against the suffering of the animals; the importance of the existing legislation on animal experiments; how the legislation was not always followed.

Again, this raised much polite discussion. Indeed, from the beginning we were told to be both polite and brief. Finally we voted again on the same issues that we had voted on at the beginning and there were some changes.

I found the game valuable in opening up discussion on a subject that is rarely openly talked about. It certainly made me think about the issues. A possible weakness was the absence of information on the actual nature of animal experiments. But several aspects of the game are being modified on the basis of our experience. It would be valuable for sixth-form students, and a version is being designed for younger students.

Democs is an imaginative game that has received positive evaluation as the players acquire collective knowledge and experiences around the table, as well as an appreciation of the diversity of opinions and the complexity of the issues at hand. There is no winner, but the prize is the exploration of ideas, which should be strongly supported.

Lewis Wolpert is emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London.

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