Advisory Committee on Pesticides, 1963
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Teaching Notes
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Contents: Aims | Organization | Teaching Contexts
Format/Day Plans [page 2] | Discussion Guide [page 3]

A historical simluation is an open-ended exercise for "recreating" a historical event by posing a particular problem in a particular historical context. Although based on real historical characters or conceptual positions, the goal is not to re-enact history. Rather, the aim is to allow participants to grapple with the problem themselves, and to experience the uncertainty and contingent dynamics of history-in-the-making. Simulations are especially valuable for exploring how many alternative perspectives interact. Participants typically learn to appreciate the complexities of historical events and the challenges of resolving problems that, in retrospect, may seem quite plain and simple.

Aims. The simulation on the President's Advisory Committee on Pesticides, 1963, is designed, in particular, to profile the intersection of science and public policy, as well as to portray a particular historic moment in the early 1960s when environmental attitudes began achieving greater public significance. As profiled in the Overview, the case helps render the issues of: scientific credibility, science and values, scientific uncertainty, public understanding of scientific issues, and science and gender, as well as the science itself. The simulation may be used or adapted to many possible contexts-- scientific, ethical, political, historical-- but ideally fosters bridging such contexts.

Organization. The focus of the simulation is Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, and the concerns it raised about chemical pesticides. Participants situate themselves in 1963, roughly one year after the publication the book. The occasion for discussion is the President's Science Advisory Committee, mandated by President John F. Kennedy in late 1962 to advise him on this topic. There are 12-24 roles. The roles are designed to reflect the spectrum of stakeholders and perspectives in 1963 -- not to replicate history faithfully. Participants aim to resolve the sometimes conflicting perspectives and develop a joint policy recommendations for the President. There are many possible formats for structuring the activity -- from explicit presentations of testimony to informal discussion -- as profiled below.

Teaching Contexts

The case of pesticides is an occasion for students to learn many biological concepts: agricultural productivity and monoculture (and the role of pest control); disease transmission (and the role of pest control); food chains and bioaccumulation (or concentration of elements); biodegradable v. persistent compounds; predator-prey and parasite-host interactions; natural selection and insecticide resistance; population dynamics of introduced species; and (optionally) toxicology and the physiology of poisons. Use of pesticides also raises important questions about ecosystem stability and the (un)predictability of complex systems. In the simulation, the scientific evidence -- its meaning and relative reliability -- can take center stage. The debate on evidence for toxicity of food and for the carcinogenicity of pesticides was particularly problematic at this time. Another important challenge is to identify and map out areas for future research -- and perhaps how much it will cost.

In addition, Carson appealed to the "balance of nature," a concept now widely discredited by ecologists. One may discuss the status of the scientific basis for this concept and thus its prospective relevance in a policy context.

Most important here, perhaps, is probing the limits of science in guiding public policy. Science cannot justify values, even when providing information relevant to forming value judgments. Assessments of risk, for example, may be quantified, but what level of risk is deemed "safe" expresses a value. This case illustrates well how science may inform policy decisions, but does not eclipse other considerations.

While science is central to decisions about the use of pesticides, the balancing of values is also worth addressing. Some values are relatively clear: reduction of suffering from disease or from hunger; protection from health risks; long-term prudence (versus short-term expediency); property rights and personal liberties; and public versus private benefits. How such multiple values interact, however, can prove problematic. There is also opportunity to discuss several aspects of environmental ethics, a set of values that were emerging in public discourse at this time. First, what is the nature of our obligation (if any) to non-human species? Do we protect wildlife only when it is convenient or serves our own aims, or are there intrinsic responsibilities? Second, what is the nature of our responsibilities to each other as mediated indirectly through the environment? What is the nature of our duties to future generations? What is the ethical role of economic "values"? (Even opting to let markets function --a laissez-faire approach-- itself involves values.) Finally, what is the ethical status of "the control of nature," portrayed by Carson as inherently wrong?

Politics (Public Policy, Government, Social Studies)
The case illustrates well the challenges of integrating science and values in public policy. Values may be measured in many ways -- ethically, economically or politically (say, by popular opinion, whether formally "justified" or not). Which should be deemed relevant, and why? How does the scientific information shape these values, without justifying any value itself?

Of particular interest may be the challenge for non-scientists of determining expertise and credibility, especially where scientists seem to disagree. A related issue, also central, is how to make decisions under scientific uncertainty. Is a precautionary principle warratned? In what sense?

In this case, one may also highlight how laws, policies and institutional structures in 1963 contributed to or mitigated the problem of pesticides. The recommendations of the committee may thus be framed more explicitly in terms of proposed legislation, regulatory changes, or Presidential executive initiatives (and particular administrative bodies responsible for particular actions). There is also occasion to articulate the domains of federal versus state regulatory roles.

In this context, the simulation might well be viewed as a training exercise for persons (potentially any citizen?) who might participate in such deliberations or negotiations. The historical context can be valuable in setting important boundaries -- both in available information and in decision-making options. In an alternative decision-making scenario, one might imagine trying to simulate the power structure of the early 1960s, adding a further dimension of political challenges.

Another context for addressing Silent Spring is its role in history. Here, reviving the historical perspective of 1963 is paramount. If Carson's claims were eventually vindicated, why was there any controversy at all? Especially important here are the historical sources that help profile the cultural views of the 1950s and early 60s. To echo the politics of the period, one might elect to modify the simulation to allow the chemical companies greater voice.

One of the central lessons of history is the role of contingency. Thus, it is important to discourage tendencies to anticipate the future and to make the history come out "right."

Ideally, of course, regardless of the disciplinary context in which the simulation occurs, the various contexts intersect. In all cases, too, Carson's book is a central document combining these contexts and making them all relevant.

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Simulation assembled by Douglas Allchin. || last revised November 7, 2009