How does biotechnology become real?

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogSeeing things with our own eyes, not just hearing about them, makes a difference. Words certainly arouse images, but they are our own images of what we never saw.

This is a challenge for the rapid development in biotechnology. Genetically modified organisms are created, in vitro fertilization is practiced, stem cells are grown, and biobanks are constructed.

For most of us this is only hearsay. The words we hear arouse images, but as I said: images of what we never saw with our eyes. When we then respond to new forms of biotechnology, perhaps with anxiety or a sense of unreality, it is often our own images we respond to.

It’s like trying to form an opinion of a person who is hidden in a cloud of rumors. What a difference it makes to actually meet the person, and not only respond to the images that the rumors create within us.

Increased popular scientific efforts don’t automatically solve the problem. On the contrary, relying too much on the visual potential of, for example, computer animation can contribute to the cloud formation. People are stimulated to create even further images of what they never saw.

So how can biotechnology be made real? I believe: by showing what can be shown. Just seeing a genetically modified tomato or a person who underwent stem cell treatment makes biotechnology more real to me than any image of the DNA helix or stem cell differentiation can.

Seeing what can be shown – often practical applications – doesn’t necessarily make me approve of all forms of biotechnology, but I can discuss the technology without being too much distracted by my own cloud of images. I can discuss what became real.

How new forms of biotechnology can become real for the public is discussed in a new article in the Croatian Medical Journal, written by Anna Lydia Svalastog, Joachim Allgaier, Lucia Martinelli, and Srecko Gajovic.

They introduce the notion of Knowledge Landscapes to think more concretely visually about communication with the public about new forms of biotechnology. They emphasize science museums as one arena where biotechnology can be discussed as a reality rather than as an urban myth.

Show what can be shown.

Pär Segerdahl

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

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