WWW Site for John Lawrence Bencze, Associate Professor, Science Education, OISE/University of Toronto

Personal, social and environmental harms linked to influences on fields of science and technology.

Welcome!
Humans are facing many realized and potential harms to wellbeing of individuals, societies and environments that have been linked to fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics ('STEM'). As indicated at right, people worry - for example - about: illnesses associated with fast foods, poor working conditions in factories, build up of toxic electronic wastes, mind control via entertainment and climate change due to fossil fuel uses. This page provides information and resources about such harms - which can help inform and motivate students to develop and carry out actions to address them.



Introduction

Considering the simple model shown at left, there seem to be many possible relationships among fields of science and technology and societies and environments. There often is much debate, however, about how positive are some such relationships. Not everyone agrees, for instance, on benefits of fast foods and other manufactured foods - with many people enjoying their taste and convenience, while others express concerns about added salts, sugars, fats, dyes, preservatives, etc in such products. There are many debates like this, some of which are given at Global Issues. In the sense that many of these debates are based, to some extent, on science, they often are called 'socioscientific' issues (SSIs). The more people investigate such issues, it seems, the more likely they may effectively address them.
While there is a great range of SSIs, many of them seem to share some characteristics. Causes and effects of problems relating to science and technology are, for instance, often controversial. On the one hand, for example, problems and controversies may be due, in part, to the 'maturity' of the field. In early stages of fields of bio-technology, such as engineering of genes for modifying food crops, for example, much controversy seemed to arise from uncertainty of broader and long-term effects of engineered organisms. Nevertheless, for many issues/harms, there appear to be significant concerns around influences of powerful people (e.g., financiers) and groups (e.g., transnational corporations, governments, etc.) on fields of science and technology (and, likely, engineering & mathematics).

For example, as suggested in the short documentary at left, it appears that companies that make various products that use shiny mica (e.g., for cosmetics and for paints [e.g., for automobiles]) are making significant profits while harming wellbeing of people (often children) mining it under unhealthy working conditions. Perhaps contributing to such harms are governments that set laws encouraging sale of commodities containing mica and allowing child labour, for example. 'Consumers' who choose to use such products without consideration of related harms also may be contributing to such harms.
Although analyses of controversies and problems are complex and uncertain, it seems clear that a person's views about merits of practices and products of fields of science and technology depend on her/his ideological perspectives with regards to matters of political economy. A common way to study one's ideological perspectives relating to political economy is to take the 'test' (questionnaire) at the Political Compass website, here. In this analysis, although people's views can be located across a spectrum, there appears to be considerable debate between those who, on one hand, support neoliberal capitalism (also see here) and those opposed to such a system of institutionalization of free-market priorities. Some elaboration of the so-called Left-vs-Right Divide is given here. My views lean towards significant opposition to neoliberalism - supported, for instance, here. Given their role in assisting financiers and companies in development and marketing of for-profit products and services, I have been particularly concerned with capitalists' influences on fields of science and technology (and, likely, engineering and mathematics) - as outlined at Corrupted Science, for example.




Some STSE Harms

In support of claims made above regarding harmful effects of influences of capitalists on fields of science and technology (and, likely, engineering & mathematics), brief descriptions are provided below of associated problems relating to various products and services:
Foods & Beverages
Many manufactured foods and beverages are the source of health problems (e.g., blood-vascular diseases and cancer) for people and, perhaps, societies that rely greatly on them. Many of these products have high sugar, salt and/or fat content, along with artificial flavours, colours, sweeteners, preservatives and caffeine - often at the expense of healthy (but expensive) nutrient content. Many people also are concerned with possible adverse effects of genetically-modified foods & beverages. An excellent source of information regarding such problems is the Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

Drugs
Although there are numerous benefits, many manufactured and natural chemicals used for altering human cognitive and/or health states often have negative side-effects. Some people are concerned about adverse effects of 'mind-altering' drugs, such as marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, ecstasy, etc. An excellent source of information about drugs and alcohol is at: Teen Challenge. Another is: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.


Transportation
Many forms of transportation, while helping to bring people, goods and services together, have negative side-effects. Of particular concern are energy sources that generate potentially hazardous by-products, including 'smog' and 'Greenhouse Gases' from petroleum products. Production of long-lasting radioactive breakdown products from nuclear fission reactions also is problematic. The Oil Drum, for example, is a website that provides interesting information and perspectives about alternatives to oil use.

Electronics
People throughout the world often mediate their social relations through various forms of electronic technologies, including cell phones, personal music players and organizers, video games, television, movies, and the internet. Concerns about these and other technologies are that they may carry with them particular 'messages' (often in the form of instructions for or limitations of use) that may surreptitiously govern people's lives. This often is debated through the concepts of techno- and social-determination; e.g.,  at: Technodeterminism.


Pop Culture & Entertainment
As described above, various forms of popular culture for entertainment purposes (e.g., television programmes, movies, magazines, etc.) have potentially problematic socio/techno-deterministic characteristics. Additionally, many of these often have subliminal messages associated with them to promote further consumption of those or other forms of culture. Trends in and issues surrounding subliminal advertizing, for example, are discussed at Mind Power News. Associated with such advertizing are techniques of data management and mining; e.g., using computer systems to determine consumer purchasing habits and then adjusting advertizing to encourage further consumption.
also For some ideas relating to this issue, refer to: Data Snatchers; Consuming Kids.
Recreation
Various forms of recreation, while providing many health benefits, for example, can pose WISE problems. Recreation depending on motorized devices (e.g., boats, personal water craft, snowmobiles, etc.) produce various forms of pollution and, in some cases, physical injury due to accidents. Some issues pertaining to personal watercraft, for example, include those at: Ban on Jet Skis.


Health & Beauty Aids
Many people use products and services (e.g., plastic surgery, cosmetics, vitamins, perfumes & colognes, etc.) to improve their health and/or physical appearance. Certain vitamin supplements, such as Vitamin A, can be helpful for people living where there are long periods of low sunlight levels, for example. Use of multivitamins is, however, a controversial practice - with some studies indicating health improvements, while others question their benefits (e.g., Do multivitamins work?). Similarly, use of cosmetics is not without controversy. Considerable concern has developed about cosmetics that use anti-bacterial and anti-fungal chemical additives - which may lead to forms of cancer, for example (Cosmetics & Cancer).

Resource Extraction
Primarily related to humans' needs and interests in terms of production and consumption of goods and services, forms of resource extraction (mining, forestry, fishing, etc.), although important for human survival and quality of life, appear to be contributing to significant habitat destruction and consequent species losses. People appear to be consuming too many products and, through timed-obsolescence, discarding them to purchase newer and 'better' products. This is leading to enormous problems of waste accumulation, much of which is toxic. Often associated with resource extraction are many serious social justice problems. An excellent resource in this regard is Blood in the Mobile.

An excellent summary of many of these issues is The Story of Stuff.
Biotechnology
In the last three decades, there has been a'revolution' in biotechnology, the engineering of living things. Although many of these products - such as genetically-modified seeds that can grow in new, formally less-suitable, soils - may have various benefits, there can be issues associated with such technologies. That they can be patented, for example, means that their use is limited to those who can afford to pay for them. Issues relating to bio-technologies are discussed at ActionBioscience.

Education
Education often is seen as a public service, aiming to educate everyone to the maximum of their abilities. Such a service may, in principle, improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged students, effectively narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and enable the society to be transformed in ways partly determined by disadvantaged people. In practice, however, education tends to reproduce traditional class groupings. Many subject areas, such as school science, tend to focus on identifying and prioritizing education of the relatively small fraction of students who may pursue careers in the discipline. In doing so, the education of other students often is compromised - and, consequently, education can perpetuate and augment a society prioritizing individual competitiveness and specialization of work/careers. Ideas about these and other related issues are located at Globalization and Education.


Labour
An undeniable aspect of human life is the need for labour - to sustain life and, in many cases, to improve it. Many struggle, however, with achieving a healthy balance between labour and leisure. Indeed, apparently due to a highly individualized competitive economic environment in many countries, the work-to-leisure ratio has steadily declined in approximately the last one-hundred years (e.g., Leisure?). On the other hand, many people - including children - work under unfair labour practices - like Iqbal.

Financial Services
In many parts of the world, people conduct financial exchanges facilitated by services provided by private enterprises. Credit and bank cards, for example, allow people to make cashless transactions. Although such services make purchase and sale of goods and services more convenient, their existence may lead some people to spend more than they actually possess in savings. Refer to this site for some ideas about this issue: Credit Card Over-spending.

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