Saturday, June 23, 2018


Life is uncertain... There will always be uncertainty and risks that we have to accept as part of our lives.

My primary motivation for teaching this course stems from my experiences as a scientist. In particular, from my experience as a scientist I became convinced that a major driving force behind how science and public policy issues unfold is that many people look towards science in the hope of finding some level of certainty in an uncertain world. That is the starting point for my story line for this course, and exploring this theme is interwoven throughout all of the topics covered in the course.

The underlying theme of this course is that people, being generally uncomfortable with uncertainty, often expect science and technology to eliminate uncertainty from their lives. Furthermore, I find that people are often disappointed when science fails to do that. Science has, of course, drastically reduced uncertainty from many areas of our lives, and this is generally a very good thing. But it can become problematic when people grow to expect science to reduce uncertainty, and become disillusioned when science can't. A related issue is that because people are uncomfortable with uncertainty, they often prefer simple answers over complex answers to science-related public policy issues.

With that as a map of the underlying theme, what can we expect to cover in this course? We can:
  • Learn about the underlying science relevant to at least some science and policy issues.
  • Explore how that science needs to be considered as part of the process of making public policy decisions.
  • Hear about how one scientist (me) has experienced and reflected upon issues of science and public policy.

Another issue that must be considered is funding for science research. Scientists must compete, with both other societal needs and with each other, for funding for their research (and career advancement). Is it good for society then if (in an effort to gain support for their research) scientists encourage the public to believe that: If we allocate enough funds for scientific research, science will eliminate uncertainty to a greater extent than is really possible?

What is the best balance? Funding for scientific research often leads to great benefits for society, but funds are limited, and decisions have to be made about how much money for science is too much (when we also need money for other things)? Should we explore outer space or feed the hungry? Does it have to be a choice, or can we do both? Can we "just fix the problem", or do we first need to do more research.

Other questions to consider: How do we decide which scientific projects should be funded and which should not? How can citizens make informed decisions, when we are not experts in the various fields of science that want us to support them?

In order to understand the relationship between science and public policy, it is necessary to understand the relevant scientific concepts. In this course, our approach will be to immerse ourselves in four specific science and policy topics:
  •  Galileo and the Church: Science, Religion, and Public Policy
  •  Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth
  •  Global Warming and Climate Change
  •  Earthquakes and the Environment 
Teaching a course on such a broad topic as this inherently requires some compromise between breadth and depth. The organizing principle behind this course is to achieve that compromise by going into great depth on four major topics, with the idea being that through in-depth exploration of those four topics we will, in the process, gain a general understanding of the broader topic of science and public policy.
Galileo’s encounter with the Church, the creation/evolution controversy, global warming, and earthquakes: These are issues that contain a rich amount of material related to the fundamental questions that we will be addressing in this course. Also, these topics involve a wide range of core scientific concepts as well as some excellent examples of how scientists and public policy makers interact when they need to make decisions about scientific issues. Thus, the course is based on using those four major topics as a springboard for delving into more general issues of science and public policy.