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In 2009 I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. The keynote speaker was Carl Elliott. I knew he was a Professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota and I knew he wrote for The New Yorker. I had assigned his piece on the lives of human research participants, Guinea-Pigging, to both my science writing and genomics-in-society classes. But none of that prepared me for his speech, which was eloquent, thoughtful, accusatory, profane, and above all, funny as hell. In 25 years of  academic conferences, I can’t recall hearing another talk that made me laugh until I cried.

There were hilarious vignettes from Elliott’s South Carolina childhood and jabs at “bioethicists for hire” (including many in the audience–at times it was almost as though the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association had invited a strident and acerbic member of PETA to deliver its keynote). But in between was a question: why weren’t more of us doing what he was doing? Why weren’t we investigating egregious, troubling or even benign-but-fascinating... see more