Why Academic Conferences Matter


“I was expecting something devotional, not this egghead stuff.” That's a paraphrase from a comment made about our recent summer conference at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. So, why do we bother with designing and hosting academic conferences?          

First, let me tell you about our conference, which we called Bioethics in Transition. The familiar ethical questions and issues from the past 20-40 years have changed, which means that we need to be aware of the issues for the next 20-40 years. This transition requires some serious, thoughtful engagement. That’s what the main speakers did: they covered issues such as the drive toward the bureaucratic procurement of organs; how bioethical perspectives are often quite different outside of North America and Europe; and how concerns that used to be part of science fiction are now current news.          

These issues didn't just suddenly bloom in the research lab. The ideas behind them germinated decades ago. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences for life and death, and for good and bad ethical decisions. When philosophers argued that some human beings are not persons, these ideas opened the door to creating embryos for research, testing vaccines on orphaned children, and denying certain medical care to mentally impaired people.         

Ideas can be resisted . . . with better ideas. This is what respectable scholars do. They take ideas seriously, they respond charitably, and they argue credibly. Good scholarship means careful research, taking time to think through implications, and learning from experts. At an academic conference, you have the opportunity to hear a variety of ideas, and evaluate them to see which ones make the most sense.           

I believe part of our God-given responsibility is to explore all of his creation. That includes the realm of ideas, and their implications for research on improving health and well-being. We should not be shoddy or lazy in our work. We should aim for excellence. To paraphrase a statement by Dr. Milo Rediger, a former president of Taylor University: “being a Christian in bioethics should mean more, not less.”          

Academic conferences prompt us to pay close attention. A recent study concluded that even though we say we want “hard news,” that’s not what most of us read.[1] We click on stories about YouTube games, the World Cup, a tornado, the Miss America pageant, and cat pictures.           

So, on your behalf, we host academic conferences, we learn from respected scholars, and we collaborate to build better ideas. It might not be your idea of a weekend excursion, but it’s important for groups like CBHD to create a space for those of you who are ready and willing to dig in. Together, all of us can think better, and make wiser choices.

[1] Derek Thompson, “Why Audiences Love Hard News –and Love Pretending Otherwise,” The Atlantic, June 17, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/news-kim-kardashian-kanye-west-benghazi/372906/


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