What role should science centers play in addressing complex ethical issues in the biomedical and life sciences, such as embryonic stem cell research, cloning, global warming, genetically modified foods, and vaccine safety? In the session “Why Don’t They Understand? Public Perception of Controversy in Science” on October 18 at the ASTC Annual Conference, Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, urged science centers to engage the public in ethical issues directly, particularly in exhibitions.
Caplan asserted that the public must understand science and bioethics in order to vote on controversial issues, manage their own health, and remain competitive in their jobs. Yet science centers tend to address ethics at the very end of exhibitions, if it all, according to Caplan. “Ethics and values should be the leading issue to hook people into the exhibition,” he said. “Ethical issues are at the core of what the public needs to know about science.”
Caplan reminded exhibition designers not to assume that the public knows what science is or understands the scientific method. He also encouraged science centers to treat religious points of view with respect when discussing controversial issues. “It’s time to end the increasingly toxic stand-off between secular arrogance about religion and religious know-nothingness about science,” he said.
About the image: Arthur Caplan discusses science centers’ role in addressing ethical issues. Photo by Christine Ruffo