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'Our health and our environment: How does "responsibility" matter?' - A Science Cafe

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

The quality of air, water and soil; the quality and security of our food; climate change and infectious diseases - there are so many ways in which our environment has profound effects on our health and the health of our communities.  Science North’s latest Science Café brought together a panel of speakers and members of the community for an informal discussion and sharing of ideas around environment, culture and values; the ethical dimensions of the interaction of environment and health, how to allocate responsibility and how we communicate these. 
Since we are individuals who live as part of a community, we have both individual and broader community responsibilities.  Ensuring the collective welfare can sometimes limit the choices individuals are allowed to make.  Whose responsibility is it to ensure we can continue to have choices and make the right decisions to ensure we cope and thrive, both as individuals and as a community?  Or perhaps a better question is:  how do we divide this responsibility?
In these days of climate change and increasing gaps between rich and poor, clearly some are more equipped than others to best bear the rising cost of energy and food.  Some can recover better from disasters.  Some have less power, less information and fewer choices.  Not all voices are equal.    If our solutions are either heavily consumer driven where having more resources creates a louder voice or if our solutions are heavily regulated, leaving fewer choices for individuals, then marginalized groups do not get heard.  Treating recipients of aid as passive receivers does not give them a voice, a stake or motivation.  Food banks, for example, are a necessary stop gap but perhaps community solutions with shared responsibility, like a community kitchen or community food centre where recipients share in decision making would be a better answer.  
The language we use, both consciously and unconsciously, sends us in various directions.  All the ways we talk, weigh evidence and make decisions are different from person to person.  Our words and our perspectives colour the message and how it is received.  Without some common ground we cannot communicate effectively.  When we talk about “local” or “organic” or “food miles”, for many of us these are feel good terms that are vaguely positive but are we using the same definitions or do we really even understand what they mean?  If I have a choice of local grown with chemicals or organic which has been shipped a long way, which is better?  We try to be responsible, informed consumers, but it is nearly impossible without shared meaning for our words.
As citizens we sometimes feel responsible to make decisions about our health and our environment that we are just not equipped to make.  These decisions are often about our values as much as they are about science and so it should be a consultative process; but in medicine have we perhaps slipped too far toward a consumer driven model?  You can’t brow beat a mother into having her baby vaccinated if she just doesn’t believe the science behind it, but how can she even be sure she has all the facts?  We hear a lot of our health information from advertising of drugs and products but advertising is about selling, not informing. 
When groups of citizens come together out of concern for the wellbeing of the community, are they responsible to become scientists in order to understand and participate in the process?  When the 2009 Sudbury Soil Study, which was largely funded by local mining companies, concluded we had no increased health risk even after decades of mining, citizens doubted the process and tried to be involved.  They were forced to fundraise to hire experts just so they could understand the science to try to determine whether the results were true.   
Why do we seem to have such a deep mistrust of science?  Should scientists be advocates or should they be about pure science – asking questions, testing hypotheses?  Often research grants are funded by corporations or governments with a vested interest.  Non-disclosure agreements are the new normal, leaving scientists unable to freely publish findings.  The result is scientists feeling muzzled and the public wondering if any of it is true.     
Perhaps some of the public distrust of science is about language, context and how results are reported.  Scientists and citizens don’t speak the same language.  Science does not work in absolutes, it deal with hypotheses and possibilities but words like “may be” or “appears to be” are not very comforting to the public.  Science is ongoing – new discoveries mean the answers may change.  Too often science is used as a PR tool.  All of this makes scientists very unpersuasive. 
Science Cafes are about asking questions so we can start thinking about solutions – asking ourselves and each other if we can find a better way.  We are responsible for the health of ourselves as individuals, of our community and of our environment.  If we can strive to be citizens rather than consumers perhaps we can find community solutions where all voices are heard.
Check out this Science Café for yourself.  It is available até. 

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Karen Bringleson (Karen Bringleson)
Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Member since November 2013


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About the Sudbury Working Group

The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

The Sudbury working-group site is no longer being updated and has been archived.