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Connecting the Dots
Toxipedia was built around the theme of putting scientific information in the context of history, society, and culture. One of the goals was to provide information to help people connect the dots of science, history, and ethics to enhance decision making. The generalized processes can be depicted in the figure below. The action could be big or small but as an example, we can go big and strive to create a healthy and peaceful environment.
#19: Linus Carl Pauling: Scientist for the Ages
The starting point is three basic dots: science, ethics, and history. They may be augmented depending on the topic or need to go deeper into a specific area. The defined action may also influence a subtopic that requires more research and a deeper understanding. The three basic areas are examined below.
Science is an ongoing process that builds knowledge and facts following a systematic study of testable predictions. The beauty of science is that it is a never-ending quest for facts that explain the physical world, and the scientific method is the process of systematic observation and experimentation to test a prediction or hypothesis. The Oxford Dictionaries Online define the scientific method as "a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses." Science is now divided into many categories and subcategories due to the expansion of knowledge. At the top levels are the natural sciences which study the physical or material world, the social sciences which examine societies and people, and the formal sciences which study mathematics. To this list can be added the life sciences such as biology, or they can be considered as part of the natural sciences. Disciplines such as medicine and toxicology can be considered applied sciences that use the scientific method. In the diagram the science dot represents the scientific facts of the topic. When there is controversy it is important to develop a set of agreed-upon facts or at the very least to understand why there is disagreement. To make good decisions it is essential to have a solid understanding of the scientific facts related to the topic.
Ethics is often thought of as a branch of philosophy that attempts to explain what is right and wrong about a decision. But it is really much more than that. Ethics defines your approach to decision making. A great deal has been written on many different topics related to ethics, and environmental ethics is most relevant. Environmental Ethics is commonly defined as the philosophical study of the relationship between humans and the surrounding environment. For our purposes, it can be narrowed and referred to as environmental health ethics or EHE. EHE strives to consider the scientific facts and make decisions that keep humans and the world healthy and sustainable for current and future generations. EHE accepts the premises that we as humans have an ethical responsibility to ensure that all living things can reach and maintain their full potential.
History or perspective on an issue is also a critical part of making good, ethical decisions. Environmental history is the study of how humans shape the environment and how the environment has shaped us. But is also gives us a chance to learn from our mistakes and apply the knowledge we have to current circumstances. It is only by putting information in the context of history, society, and culture that we can make truly sound ethical decisions. Toxipedia’s series of short articles Lessons Learned provides many examples of lessons learned from history, and how we can apply them to current problems.
In future essays, we will connect the dots around different issues and strive to illuminate decision making that is based upon history, science, and ethics, in essence moving beyond risk assessment. We would love to hear your comments and suggestions for topics.
Linus Carl Pauling: Scientist for the Ages
Lessons Learned: Looking Back to Go Forward
A series of articles exploring historical events that provide an important lesson for ensuring a more sustainable and healthy environment, as well as current issues affecting the trajectory of environmental health awareness and advocacy.
"It is sometimes said that science has nothing to do with morality. This is wrong. Science is the search for truth, the effort to understand the world; it involves the rejection of bias, of dogma, of revelation, but not the rejection of morality."
— Linus Carl Pauling
Linus Carl Pauling (February 28, 1901 - August 19, 1994) was an American chemist, peace activist, author, and educator. He was one of the most influential chemists in history and ranks among the most important scientists of the 20th century in any field. Pauling was among the first scientists to work in the fields of quantum chemistry, molecular biology, and orthomolecular medicine and is one of only two people to have been awarded a Nobel Prize in two different fields (the Chemistry and Peace Prizes), the other being Marie Curie (the Chemistry and Physics Prizes).
During the beginning of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer invited Pauling to be in charge of the chemistry division of the project, but he declined, not wanting to uproot his family. Pauling had been practically apolitical until World War II, but the war’s aftermath and his wife's pacifism changed his life profoundly. From the late 1950s until his death, Pauling shifted his focus from science to political activism; among other activities, he was involved with the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and both he and his wife Ava were involved with Women Strike for Peace and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. His book No More War! was published in 1958, and he delivered a keynote speech, "Our Choice: Atomic Death or World Law," at the Fifth World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima in August 1959. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963.
It is paramount for scientists, politicians, and the public at large to examine ethical considerations as we as a society choose our path forward and make decisions based upon scientific information that is often limited. We must endeavor to ensure a healthy sustainable future for all and an environment that allows children to grow and flourish to their full genetic potential.
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