Trust in Science
A five-part series exploring the implications of how Canadians trust in science
The Idea: Trust in Science
Polls in Canada, the US and Europe concerning questions of whom and what we trust seem to confirm again and again surprisingly ironic results. On the one hand, scientists and those who apply scientific knowledge (especially health-care professionals) come out on top in terms of trust. They and their institutions are characterized as dispassionate, unbiased and objective pursuers of truth, with our best interests at heart. Our continued flourishing as societies can depend confidently, it is thought, on their authoritative expertise and self-regulation to get on with their work uninterrupted. On the other hand, politicians and business leaders languish under high degrees of mistrust with respect to such characterizations. And yet, as Wendy Mesley’s recent broadcast – Chasing the Cancer Answer – highlighted, scientific knowledge and its applications (such as medicine) cannot be treated as though independent from industry and government. This means that what emerges from the “trusted” space of the scientific laboratory into our daily lives through government policies or consumer products and technologies may not deserve the levels of trust we have invested in science and its institutions. It is time to reexamine just what it means for Canadians to “trust in science.”
As part of a national initiative to explore this important question of “trust in science”, the History of Science and Technology (HOST) Programme at the University of King’s College, Halifax, and the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs (CCEPA) are teaming up to organize a series of five public sessions to be held at King’s over the 2006/2007 academic year. The series will bring together scientists, science policy analysts, along with leading philosophers and sociologists of science, in order to explore the origins, meaning and future of trust in science and its institutions. Our distinguished speakers will address both specialists and the wider thinking public in a stimulating way. All five events will be recorded by CBC Radio, and the CBC Ideas programme, with host Paul Kennedy, may produce one or more broadcasts based on these lectures.
The Approach: Five public sessions
Modern images of the scientist, the trustworthy bearer of truth into whose hands, in part, the continued flourishing of modern progress should be entrusted, are relatively recent. The story of how these images evolved helps us understand them better. The first lecture in our series will chart this narrative. From the dubious obscurity of the Renaissance court magician, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of the ‘scientist’ and scientific institutions as key components of successful government institutions and imperial conquests. The successes of science especially as practical applications in the fields of technology and medicine during the 20th century have laid the foundations for the ways in which scientists and their institutions (such as research universities and scientific societies) are co-opted by both governments and businesses to pursue, enhance and even legitimate their respective agendas in our contemporary world.
Speaker: Dr. Steven Shapin is Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University. His many publications include A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Chicago Press, 1994). He is co-winner of the prestigious 2005 Erasmus Prize for his co-authored book, Leviathan and the Air Pump.
The perception for most of us on the ‘outside’of the modern scientific establishment often is that of a peaceable community of dispassionate truth seekers able to rely on indisputable methods of inquiry to form consensus and discover truth. The view from within is rather more complicated. This lecture will focus on specific, recent controversies of public concern within different sciences to highlight the complex ways and degrees to which the scientific establishment both trusts and distrusts itself, and how these two are balanced against one another along the complex pathways in which scientists interact with each other’s work. How and why scientists trust (or mistrust) one another, how science monitors itself, should be of great interest to the public at large who trust (or mistrust) it.
Speaker: Dr. David T. Scadden. Professor of Medicine, Harvard University Medical School; Director, Center for Regenerative Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital; Co-Director, Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard University
Scientific expertise plays a pervasive role in the discovery, implementation and safety-assessment of the applications of such expertise in our day-to-day world, such as the foods we consume and the medicines we take.
It plays this role because of its success at unlocking nature's secrets at the level of the laboratory and clinic - that space "inside the test tube" that enjoys our confidence, but is largely hidden from public view. But by what pathways does this expertise translate into the processes and products that we all consume, our "dinner tables" so to speak? This lecture will use specific examples drawn from the domains of the pharmaceutical and food industries to examine in particular the role played by government oversight of these pathways on behalf of the public they serve. Whom are we trusting, in fact, along the way? Do we have cause for concern?
Speaker: Dr. Janice Graham holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics at Dalhousie University, Halifax. Dr. Graham is a medical anthropologist interested in diagnostic imaginaries, biotechnology and technoscience. Graham is also Director of the Qualitative Research Commons and Studio.
In our modern world, science and private industry find themselves increasingly and inseparably linked. From pharmaceuticals through to theoretical physics, recent restructuring of public funding has accelerated this intimacy.
The results can be lucrative and our economy and prosperity depend on it. But what then happens to the objective 'purity' of scientific research that we trust to tell us the truth about our world? How objective can scientists be in the midst of this growing relationship between the laboratory and the market-place? Did such 'pure' scientists ever exist?
This session assembles a forum of leading experts drawn from the diverse domains of science research, bioethical enquiry and government regulation. We will explore the science/business interface, and what this changing relationship means for our trust in science.
Moderator: Francoise Baylis holds the Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy (2004-2011) at Dalhousie University where she holds a cross-appointment in the Departments of Bioethics and Philosophy. She is Co-coordinator, with Susan Dodds, of the International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics.
Where does that leave us, as democratic publics in Canada and the world? Because of the pervasive presence in our lives of the fruits of the scientific enterprise, what role does our trust, or mistrust, in science play in all this? Our governments are ultimately answerable to us for their technological decisions, and we as consumers have to evaluate the products that businesses offer us.
And yet few of us feel we are competent judges of science itself, and the answer to democratic citizenship can hardly be that we all take crash-courses of continuing education in science, or that our schools turn all our children into amateur scientists. The previous four sessions will have explored the social, political, economic and cultural complexities of 'trust in science' in our society that are deeply rooted in our history and institutions. These complexities have important implications for how we the public, as individuals and collectively, trust science. This final session will outline the ways the public currently have at their disposal, although many of us may be unaware of them, for being active agents in determining our individual and collective 'trust' in science, rather than being merely ignorant consumers or puzzled bystanders. It will also reflect on new possibilities for such agency, and on how the biggest questions facing us in the changes that lie ahead in the 21st century may well be whether we can trust...ourselves.
Speaker: Dr. Sheila Jasanoff is Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University. Her research concerns the role of science and technology in the law, politics, and public policy of modern democracies, with a particular focus on the challenges of globalization.
The series is being made possible with the generous support of:
Contributions are also acknowledged from:
University of King’s College
CCEPA is a joint initiative of The Atlantic School of Theology and Saint Mary's University .
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