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Science & technology: between curiosity and fear

Are the rapid advancements in science and technology a blessing or a curse? Human beings are curious, yet new technologies often scare us. We are afraid of genetic research, nuclear fusion and cloud computing.

The relationship between science, technology and ethics is a topic that offers plenty of scope for discussion. In the webinar "Facets of Science", the guest experts Prof. Margraf from the Ruhr Universität Bochum and Dr. Sandro Gaycken from the Freie Universität Berlin address the topic from both a psychological and a technical perspective.

New achievements in science and technology provoke both curiosity and fear

The relationship between science, technology and ethics is a topic that offers plenty of scope for discussion. In the webinar "Facets of Science", the guest experts Prof. Margraf from the Ruhr Universität Bochum and Dr. Sandro Gaycken from the Freie Universität Berlin address the topic from both a psychological and a technical perspective.

"Human curiosity is often intertwined with fear, resulting from non understanding or control, from bad experiences or from the perception of not being informed sufficiently," explains the psychologist Prof. Margraf. Technological developments therefore often cause mistrust and fear. Even simple linguistic terms can influence our individual risk perception. An example: While the term “bio” generally evokes positive connotations, the word “gene” causes negative feelings. From a technical point of view however, neither the one nor the other can automatically be considered as good or bad.

Risk assessment is challenging due to the limited rationality of humans

Since our rationality is limited, our risk perception is influenced by manifold factors. We generally tend to underestimate common, voluntary risks (such as driving a car) while we overestimate uncommon, involuntary risks (such as a Castor transport of nuclear waste). “The highly visible risks – those present in public – are generally perceived as very threatening,” says the computer and security specialist Dr. Sandro Gaycken. “However, from an expert point of view, less visible risks are often a lot higher. For example, the risk of credit card data being hacked is commonly perceived as very high. By contrast, a cyber attack on the stock exchange's security system is hardly visible to the public although the consequences of such an attack would be much more severe."

The objectification of risks by the means of matrices and statistics and the assessment of risks by experts are thus major challenges for our knowledge society.

How can we bring science, technology and ethics together? Should we trust experts?

Scientists play an important role in risk assessment since they are often consulted as experts. They particularly help to control the so-called “technical risks”. However, as Dr. Margraf points out, “risk assessment has several levels, and we should not neglect the psychological and the sociological aspects of risk”. Issues such as sustainability actually involve a debate on social values, which is why technical assessment can only be one aspect of risk evaluation. The final decision-making on sensitive issues of science and technology, such as embryo research, is therefore still challenging since it involves a number of stakeholders. Who should make the final decisions? Experts -or rather politicians?

The answer to these questions is not easy to find – what do you think?

Join the discussion in the Alumniportal community! The recording of the webinar session on “Science = A blessing or a curse?” of 27 September can still be accessed in the webinar group (session 3).

Webinar

September 2011

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Muscab
10 April 2018

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