The role of the Public Understanding of Science in Optimizing the decisions made by Individuals

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In several instances, the public understanding of science has proven to play key roles in informing the decisions of individuals across the globe. This article analyzes the roles that both government and individuals play in optimizing the choices that individuals make specifically in sectors related to culture and health.

The public understanding of science plays a specific role in optimizing choices for individuals in the field of health. As much as the individual may be responsible for the choices they make, the government, via media and other outlets, controls and monopolizes the kind of information that reaches a population. For instance, the information that the government lets out is vital in the kinds of choices individuals make when it comes to blood transfusion. Blood transfusion is often portrayed as the only option that individuals have when they find themselves in a medical dilemma that involves varying levels of blood loss. To the outside world and the layman, blood transfusion is often portrayed as the only way that they could survive such loss of blood. However in the medical world, there are various options that allow an individual to survive a situation that involves blood loss. Alternatives to blood transfusion include medical procedures such as volume expanders, growth factors, intra-operative or post-operative blood salvage and blood substitutes. These alternatives are of course rarely heard of due to politics and other factors involved in the release of such information to citizens. The exception occurs perhaps only when it comes down to a life and death situation.

However in some cases, governments provide individuals with adequate data and information that would enable them optimize their choices. Yet as related to the issue of making decisions, certain factors such as addiction may prompt individuals to still make wrong decisions. For instance as from December 2012, Australia effected a new initiative that was tagged plain packaging. This initiative was geared towards drastically devaluing cigarette packaging and smoking. Despite this, the percentage of adults who smoke in Australia is still an average of 17.  In addition, tobacco companies face a dilemma of a conflict of interest in terms of economic deficiencies due to this new initiative. Thus regardless of the fact that the government clearly makes known the harmful effects of smoking on the human body, these decisions by individuals are still influenced by other factors apart from depth of knowledge and information.

The information the government provides also helps in making decisions on some cultural practices. For instance, in the past years, the HIV/AIDs epidemic has threatened the existence of the Luo tribe in Kenya. The major cause of this has been attributed to the widow inheritance culture that has been practiced for a very long time. This culture commonly referred to as tero demands that when a husband dies the deceased widow is to be inherited by a kinsman. This leads to multiple infections circulated in case the death of a husband has been caused by HIV/AIDs. In defence, the local Luo people explained that the culture is to ensure the continuity of the deceased husband’s lineage and offer support and security to the deceased family. In 2000 the government of Kenya imposed a ban on the culture but faced a lot of friction from the Luo leaders and politicians saying they could not abandon the long practiced culture. The government through the ministry of Health, organized workshops and civil education programmes to educate the Luo people on the dangers of having multiple sexual partners. Amidst numerous challenges faced by the government, certain parts of the Luo people have eventually come to the realization through information provided by the government, that doing away with their long-cherished culture was more beneficial than holding on to it.

The above examples and illustrations show clearly that the public understanding of science does aid in making informed decisions by both individuals and communities. However the essay also raises the question of whether governments are to take sole responsibility of the decisions that citizens make. The example of plain packaging introduced in Australia highlights the fact that both individuals and governments are responsible, to some extent, for the decisions made by individuals. The case of tero on the other hand emphasizes on the role of scientific information in helping societies question some of their customs Therefore, it can be concluded that public understanding of science assists in individuals making refined, educated decisions that affect themselves directly and others around them, but public understanding of science is but one of the many factors that plays a role in decisions made by individuals.

Tanimola Somolu  and Wycliffe Aluga

African Leadership Academy

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