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Science Policy, Politics and Human Rights

05/03/2005 5:30 6-120
Kurt Gottfried, PhD '55, Co-Founder and Chair, Union of Concerned Scientists; Emeritus Professor of Physics, Cornell University; Sheila Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Description: n this talk, Kurt Gottfried invokes the spirit and philosophy of Andrei Sakharov, Soviet physicist and human rights champion. It was Sakharov, Gottfried reminds us, who in recent times forged a powerful connection between science and politics: just as science relies on objective truths which can only be arrived at through testing of hypotheses, a democratic consensus depends on public study and open discussion of facts and beliefs. But, Gottfried warns, our nation is rapidly "moving away from a reality-based conception of policy and culture" and if our "policies relentless ignore reality, they will collide with it." Behind this slide toward unreality, he says, is the government's "distortion of scientific knowledge in advocating its policies to the public and Congress." Among a long list of examples: the systematic misrepresentation of the scientific consensus about climate change; political litmus tests for scientific advisory committees; abolishing advisory committees on nuclear deregulation; and posting misinformation on government websites about a condoms and spurious links between breast cancer and abortion. Says Gottfried, "Some of these cases are reminiscent of Soviet-era practices." He warns that there's a limit to how long you can stay out of contact with reality."

In her response, Sheila Jasanoff urges scientists to join hands with experts from other disciplines to serve as watchdogs on issues of science and technology. She says that "human rights provides a wonderful umbrella" for such an effort. Jasanoff makes a clear distinction between the practice of 'regulatory science,' which is more politicized from the get-go, and research science. She argues for public debate on the values that lie behind policy-making, and to "hold politics answerable to public hopes, fears, beliefs, knowledge, desire and needs."

Kurt Gottfried
has served on the senior staff of the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva and is a former chair of the Division of Particles and Fields of the American Physical Society. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Council on Foreign Relations. He has served on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists(UCS) since its inception and led the UCS critique of the "Star Wars" program. He is the author of Quantum Mechanics and Concepts of Particle Physics, and senior author of The Fallacy of Star Wars and Crisis Stability and Nuclear War.

Sheila Jasanoff's 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. She has written and lectured widely on problems of environmental regulation, risk management, and biotechnology in the United States, Europe, and India. Her books include Controlling Chemicals(1985); The Fifth Branch(1990); Science at the Bar(1995); and Designs on Nature(2005).

Jasanoff has held academic positions at Cornell, Yale, Oxford, and Kyoto.

Jasanoff holds an A.B. in Mathematics from Harvard College (1964), an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Bonn, Germany (1966), a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Harvard University (1973), and a J.D. from Harvard Law School (1976).

Host(s): Office of the Provost, Program on Human Rights and Justice

Tape #: 19955

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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