Liberal Arts and Management Program | Science, Politics and Evolution
L216 | 8495 | Jose Bonner

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle triggered the creation of the Food and
Drug Administration, the FDA.  Charged with protecting consumers
from poisonous, contaminated, or otherwise dangerous products that
they might eat, inject, or slather onto their skin, the FDA has
moved back and forth over the years from lax oversight to
implementing overly-burdensome regulations.  Who writes these
regulations, and who determines the precise phrasing?  Who
determines if regulations are too lax, or too burdensome?
Protecting public health requires a complex dance between science,
economics, and politics, to determine the best balance between a low
cost, high risk extreme on one end, and a high cost, low risk
extreme on the other.  The role of science is to provide the best
interpretation of the available information, objectively and
dispassionately, so that policy-makers can strive for the best
protections.  Economics determines the cost, measured in dollars
(but how can we quantify the "quality of life?").  Politics does the
rest; on the floor of the Senate, in the Oval Office, and in board
rooms and back rooms around the country.  Final decisions factor in
the arguments from multiple constituents with differing goals, and
with differing access and influence.  What is the public perception
of all of this?  Half a century ago, public trust favored science
and scientists; things have changed since then.  Most remarkable is
the blossoming of the perception that personal testimony is of
greater validity than information derived through scientific
investigation.  It is all the more remarkable that this holds true
even when the "testimony" is fictitious.  Is this a cultural shift,
or is it a part of human nature?  Perhaps we are by our very nature
programmed to believe the snake oil salesman, even against our
better judgment, because he looks and sounds convincing.  These are
complex issues. They have the potential to change our future
dramatically—for better or for worse, depending on what we do from
this point onward.  How far have we actually come since The Jungle?
In this seminar, we will read articles and reports at
various levels of technical expertise, along with excerpts from
longer works.  We will discuss the significance of the readings, and
try to develop an understanding of what has occurred at the
interface of science and politics.  We will do much of our reasoning
in writing, sharing thoughts and alternative explanations about why
things have transpired as they have.  Human nature—genetically
coded, inborn behavior—has undoubtedly played a major role; if we
can articulate this role, perhaps we can develop strategies to avoid
pitfalls that have snared us in the past. The seminar is open to all
majors and assumes no particular scientific expertise.