Tuesday, April 7

Public Awareness

I have really been thinking about how Kitcher states that to set the ground for an open discussion a scientist “has to advance public understanding of the questions with which she’s concerned and to encourage people outside science to appreciate the point of the inquiries that she and her colleagues undertake” (pg 196). However what dictates that one do this? Why should the public be continually informed of what is going on in science?

There is the obvious answer that if it is research funded by public money that individuals have the right to know where their money is going. But, outside of this reason, why should the public be made aware and in turn educated? Is it really only so that an open discussion regarding a scientist’s line of inquiry can be held? I fine this difficult to believe. For you see programs and organizations all over the US trying to educate people about certain types of diseases and cancers, and steps of preventions in regards to these diseases and cancers. I see such information as important and beneficial to others and their well-being, and that this reason is a main motivator for wanting to make the public aware.

However, does this mean that all scientists should inform the public in some form about their line of inquiry in regards to the implications that it can have? Or should some of the responsibility also be left up to the public?


  1. I found this to be a very interesting point in the Kitcher reading. I'm with you in that I find it difficult to believe that the public being made aware only so that an open discussion can be held. As far as the two questions you raise at the end of your post, I personally believe that some of the responsibility should be left up to the public.In order to be informed, the public has some sort of responsibility to raise questions and research information on there own. With that said, I also believe that some lines of research should be required to disclose to the public or at least encouraged. These lines of inquiry being those in which greatly effective the general public and could raise overall awareness of these lines of inquiry.

  2. I have also been thinking about this public issue. I disagree with Kitcher’s comment about the scientist’s duty to advance the public understanding of their particular field. While I understand the point of educating the public, I do not feel that it ought to be the scientist’s responsibility. The information should be available to the public, but education is a completely separate issue. Today’s science is so specific it would take at least a masters degree to understand the specifics of most studies. If the general public feels compelled to educate themselves on a particular issue then they should be free to do so. Scientists do not need to waste time campaigning like a politician. That would be a huge waste of intellectual resources.
    I also agree with both of you that the public is responsible for obtaining and educating themselves. If a study has hazardous implications then those should be actively provided to the media by the scientist. Considering the use of public money to fund science, the information must be made available. However, I believe that public involvement can severely hinder the scientific process which is often due to religious beliefs or lack of education. Hence, their direct involvement should be limited.

  3. I agree, I think it's unreasonable to assume we could thoroughly educate the public about many or even the most significant scientific achievements; there's simply not the time, resources, nor willpower among all parties involved. What I do think is essential, however, is that the scientist be willing and able to engage in discussion with the public and policy makers. The scientists are the only ones who really understand what it is they've discovered, and they must be able to convey both the potential consequences and limitations of their research when proposing to implement new technologies or medicine. If the scientists don't speak up, other sectors of society will invariably interpret the findings for themselves, leading to further misunderstanding and worse, misapplication.

    To illustrate my point, let me tell you about an experience my research mentor, a distinguished biologist in his field, explained to me. I apologize for not remembering the exact details of his story, but I do remember the overall scheme. Several years ago he was part of a committee (I think for the U.N.) that had been recruited to draft guidelines for environmental legislation of some sort. Their task was to come up with some impossible list of how to detect/treat a huge range of toxic chemicals in the environment (or something to that effect), and they had 3-4 days to come up with these guidelines. After two days of agonizing (the scientists on this committee, including my mentor, knew that what was being asked of them was impossible), a supervisor came to check in on how they were doing--they lamented that the task was illogical if not impossible. The supervisor responded that it didn't really matter whether it was possible, because if this group of expert scientists couldn't come up with guidelines, then politicians and legislators untrained in the sciences would do so for them. At this realization, the committee worked diligently to produce the best possible guidelines, even though they knew they were imperfect.

    Without an enormous effort on many parts, I don't think there's a possibility that the whole of society can be "scientifically enlightened." In fact, it's better that individuals devote themselves and their careers to doing what they're good at, not stretching themselves thin trying to understand how the world works. The key to responsible science is effective communication between scientists and the rest of society, which I think is the other half of the equation in Kitcher's well-ordered science and "tutored preferences".

  4. I agree with Casey that the public should have some responsibility in educating themselves, but I think their is also a responsibility for scientists to try and make science digestible for the public. If scientists don't try to make their work easier to learn, or try and communicate it effectively to the public, then who will, or who is capable of doing so? And if part of the problem of public involvement in science is their lack of education then wouldn't it make sense to try and educate the public so they can make better decisions?

    I don't think that the only route to scientific knowledge in a particular field should be to go to college for 6 years. It should be possible for normal people to informally learn topics given the time, desire, and resources. I don't think it is unreasonable to expect your average Joe or Jane to understand the basic concepts of most sciences. Yes, they won't grasp all the subtleties and details, but we all start with the big picture before we start filling in the details. When it comes down to brass tax your understanding of a topic is contingent on the amount of energy you invest in to learning it whether your formally educated or not. Yes, not everyone has a strong desire to read microbiology journals in their spare time, but I don't think we should underestimate the focused drive individuals can possess for certain topics or hobbies whether it is for movies, art, model trains, computers, insects, etc.

    In education there is currently a high demand for using neuroscience to create more effective teaching curriculum. Certain non-academic groups are making huge sums of money selling scientific snake-oil like "brain based learning" and "brain gym" to schools by preying on the public's hungry for how they can use scientific findings to teach more effectively. Part of the problem is obviously the educators being wholly unskeptical and misinformed. But I think part of the the problem is that the scientists aren't trying to communicate with the education community. They aren't actively discussing their findings outside of their scientific community much less debunking misinformation because they see it as a waste of their time and think it will eventually fall out of favor so why bother actively denouncing it.

    Secondly, they are only asking "how do children learn" and not "how can children learn better." The scientists only discuss the epistemic significance of their findings but not the practical significance. If the scientists directly addressed these questions, and addressed the applicability of these findings we might actually have a better education system instead of misinformation and wasting money on companies who claim to be experts but really just use fancy marketing to sell scientific hokum.

    (For more information on the education topic see Usha Goswami's Nature article titled "Neuroscience and Education: From Research to Practice?" http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v7/n5/abs/nrn1907.html)


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