Scientists and Society

Class discussion on Tuesday, March 24th left me with quite a few unanswered questions about the nature of humanity and science. We discussed our perceived differences between historians and scientists. Are historians inherently more introspective, pessimistic about the world, and more willing to discuss the dark side of society than scientists? I wanted to know more about how scientists engage with science’s history. I used eugenics as the entry point into my inquiry, looking up how scientists today think about, discuss, and learn from the history of eugenics.

Unsurprisingly, in my search I found that the scientists trying to understand eugenics in the past are involved in science outreach. The Ontario Science Centre has a fascinating exhibition called “A Question of Truth.” According to their website, this exhibit hall challenges “beliefs about differences between people and how those beliefs influence science.”[1] The exhibit discusses a diverse range of topics including slavery, racism, and eugenics. I encourage you all to look at the website for this exhibit and to watch Dr. Hooley McLaughlin, Chief Science Officer at the Ontario Science Centre, give a tour of this exhibit. He does not shy away from the fact that science has been a vehicle for society’s ills. He says in the STORYCAM tour, “in this exhibition we also look at prejudice and discrimination that has been aided and abetted by science.”[2]

Scientists involved in scientific outreach are also making connections between the past and the present by investigating the “new eugenics”– genetic engineering made possible by advancements in genetic technologies. Northwestern PhD student Laura Hix published an article in Northwestern’s Science in Society publication Helix Magazine called “Modern Eugenics: Building A Better Person?” I think that this article really eloquently explains this history of eugenics and its implications today. Hix provides a brief description of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century, the current reality of genetic engineering, and predictions for the future of the field.[3]

I am encouraged by the fact that science professionals are involved in serious discussion about the relationship between science and society but I wish that I could have found literature by scientists who are not involved in public outreach. I am also encouraged that through my research I found historians, philosophers, journalists, and others discussing science and ethics. These conversations are being had by multiple disciplines and I think that is important. What are some ways that we as emerging museum professionals can engage the public with these issues of science in society?

[1] “A Question of Truth,” Ontario Science Centre, http://www.ontariosciencecentre.ca/Tour/Question-of-Truth/.

[2] Ontario Science Center, “STORYCAM: Can you handle the truth?” Youtube video, 3:56, July 8, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLFD44AED439A8BA4C&v=VYJR6IzOkP8.

[3] Laura Hix, “Moden Eugenics: Building a Better Person?” in Helix Magazine, Northwestern University, July 23, 2009, accessed March 30, 2015, https://helix.northwestern.edu/article/modern-eugenics-building-better-person.

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