(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Spring 2015 series Are We More Than Our Genes? For more on our series of videos exploring this question, please look at the post Our Genes, Our Selves.)

by Lisa M. Ortuno, Ph.D.

Every day, new scientific claims are plastered on the web, in the newspaper and on social media. Science finds a cure for aging!  New discovery proves that humans interbred with early hominid species! Studies of voles reveal monogamy gene!

But in truth, science is much conservative than how the media portrays it. So how do we make sense of sensational headlines about new scientific discoveries?

Scientific reporting generally relies on journalists, who  interpret the studies, present the conclusions in meaningful ways to us and sometimes provide their own speculation on the study’s implications. But conveying technical scientific information to non-scientists can be challenging for many scientists.

That is why Dr. Abby Olena, post-doctoral fellow at Duke Science and Society, works with scientists on communication.  In this conversation, Abbey describes how she teaches scientists to communicate their work accurately and effectively so that the consumers of scientific information can better weigh and frame the results into the context of world around us.

So once we have a better understanding of the latest science, we can use that knowledge to inform public policy more effectively.

But how can a well-meaning citizen be involved in furthering scientific progress? Many people selflessly want to donate their time, personal information and even their own biological samples to advance science.  But how do we know what the long-term effects of using human samples might be? What effect can it have on the donors , both physically and psychologically, one, five or even twenty years or more  down the road? What about the recipient of the biological material?  Whose rights are involved and how will privacy be protected?  Is there true informed consent?

Those questions drive Dr. Thomas Williams, a lawyer and post-doctoral fellow at Duke Science and Society. He takes us into his world as he discusses how we, as a society, must continue to be proactive in thinking about the potential human impacts of modern scientific advances.

We are in an age where technology has far outpaced our regulations and policy discussions.  As we continue to make advancements in genetic technology that affect who we are and what have the potential to become, we have many more questions that need to be asked and pondered. Once again, Ian Malcolm’s powerful statement in Jurassic Park comes to mind –  “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

We need scientists, and even more so, non-scientists, to help us understand why we should pursue certain technologies, and have deep conversations about their implications. Human dignity demands it.