Science, Society, and Controversy

As time goes on, humanity is able to achieve much grander fetes than what our predecessors could even think of. One hundred years ago, no one could predict the Internet. Two hundred years ago, no one could predict creating vaccines that can totally help eliminate certain diseases. The list goes on. However, with every new invention and discovery, there is always a lot of controversy– “Should we put a man on the moon?” “Is animal testing ethical/necessary?” “Is the Earth not the center of the solar system?”– that is generally resolved when enough of society agrees whether or not one thing is right or wrong through general knowledge of the topic at hand.

Despite all of the controversies, science and society constantly overlap. After all, we would not be where we are today if we did not explore and discover. Sometimes, we make discoveries that we would probably not want to know about: in Ed Yong’s TED talk, we learned about how parasites can create real life zombies. Yong’s talk ended with a haunting realization: could what we do be affected by a small parasite with its own agenda? Although Yong’s TED talk is not the most controversial scientific discovery, it still describes a terrifying realization that most people would prefer not to think about. However, despite sounding so horrible, knowing about these parasites may be helpful. Studying the toxo parasite may help us learn more about human behavior as this parasite is found in 1/3 of the human population.

A more controversial topic is found in CRISPR. Ellen Jorgensen’s TED talk explains ethical issues behind using CRISPR, which sounds pretty exciting but may be more harmful than most people think. We do not know the long term effects of what our technology can currently do. It is hard to predict what nature will do (we cannot predict what new species will arise in the next hundred years), it is even harder to predict what our new technology can do. As Jorgensen stated, we do not know the long term effects of eliminating mosquitos or editing a baby’s genome (although, there is currently a question of whether or not CRISPR can cause unwanted mutations).

Although discovering more always brings up new and interesting topics, the intersection of science and society generally results in controversy as people get excited about new things but do not consider what may happen past that. As Jorgensen said, it may be better to educate people about the new technology. Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk showed the beauty of pollinators and talked about the potential catastrophes if they were to disappear, again reminding the audience that all of our actions have consequences. Understanding science is useful to control the Earth, but we have to consider what may happen out of this. Nonetheless, we have made many positive contributions that helped move the Earth forward but, as Jorgensen said, we should deeply think about what we read in newspapers instead of just outright believing that something is “easy” or “cheap.” On the other side, another big problem that stops science and society from intersecting is possible controversies, which again can be solved through people actually understanding the topic of debate.

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A Parasitic Wasp Beats Mars Anyday

This past February, scientists and bioethicists from around the world gathered in New York to chart the future of genetic engineering. A year ago, at a similar international convention, bioethicists decided it would be “irresponsible to proceed” on any alterations that could be passed on to the next generation without public consensus (New York Times). However, the gene editing technology has advanced so quickly since then that a second convention was necessary. In February, the decision was changed, and research on heritable gene alterations is now allowed if it targets genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s. This opens up a box of related, and now pressing questions, like, “Should scientists be allowed to keep embryos alive to experiment past the current benchmark of 14 days?” (NPR, 2017) As technology moves rapidly forward, society must be forced to have  difficult conversations. We must ask what is practical, and what is ethical.

Juan Enriquez’ Ted Talk “What Humans Will Look Like 100 Years in the Future”  certainly brought some wild ideas to the table. Yet his vision for humans in the future, combined with some cherry-picked futuristic research studies led to very bizarre message. What he viewed as the purpose and future of genetic engineering is frankly disturbing.

Mr. Enriquez drew a progression from prosthetics to gene editing. It was an interesting idea but felt like a red herring. We have seen prosthetics evolve, from Captain Hook-like tools to post-war limbs, and we could perhaps even extend the prosthetic category to include cloning tissues to reproduce organs. However, heritable gene alterations are NOT simply advanced or positive prosthetics. These alterations would change the blueprint of human species and the makeup of an embryo. It is a separate vein of discovery that should be regulated by different laws.

Mr. Enriquez motivation for artificially evolving humans seemed most peculiar.  Evolving a new human so that we can live on Mars? Where did that come from? Perhaps he has watched a lot of Star Trek? He argued that at some point in the future humans will be threatened by extinction but that if we are able to colonize other planets we have a better chance of survival. However, he neglects to acknowledge that we humans are currently responsible for the 6th mass extinction. Part of what makes us human is our ability to alter our environment. Should we not be able to alter it back to livable? Should we not put money and resources into trying that first? Avoiding anthropogenic extinction seems much more achievable on any given time scale than trying to evolve to live on Mars or survive for thousands of years to reach another planet.

Why is Mars so appealing anyway? The parasitic wasps described by Ed Yong in his Ted Talk “Zombies, Roaches, and Other Parasite Tales” sound far more interesting. Parasites that lay eggs in caterpillars and then hijack them to guard future eggs, parasites that alter shrimp behavior to cause its host to be eaten by a flamingo: the complexity of these parasitic relationships is unbelievable. The same complexity is found in the relationships between flowers and their pollinators as mentioned by Louie Schwartzberg in his Ted Talk “The Hidden Beauty of Pollination”. Some of these flowers have evolved to trap pollinators and force them to crawl through pollen coated exit tunnels. I would value a single parasite or pollinator relationship over life on Mars anyday.

Just because the evolution is happening at a time scale beyond our human scale does not make it slow. Gene alteration must be approached with a wide view. Mr. Enriquez speaks of the great lengths we should go as a species to avoid extinction but maybe, just maybe, the most natural and ethical thing would be for humans to go extinct. We are not necessarily the ultimate species, we are just one of  over 8.7 million species currently on earth (Science Daily, 2011).

Works Cited

Harmon, Amy. “Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Support.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.

“How Many Species on Earth? About 8.7 Million, New Estimate Says.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 25 May 2017.

Stein, Rob. “Embryo Experiments Reveal Earliest Human Development, But Stir Ethical Debate.” NPR. NPR, 02 Mar. 2017. Web. 25 May 2017.

TedTalks by Juan Enriquez, Ed Yong, and Louie Schwartzberg

 

 

 

 

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Meeting At a Crossroads

 

Often times when science is mentioned, images of people in white lab coats with their goggles swishing the contents of a graduated cylinder comes to mind. Laboratories are located in locked facilities where there is only a few have special access. However it is that isolated work in those laboratories that science has the opportunity to be shared with the rest of the world.

Public health is something I have recently been gaining more interest in. When people think of doctors, immediately they think of the long amount of education that is required along with the sizable paycheck that comes along completion of studies. However public health has shown that there are more opportunities for doctors to reach those who cannot find basic care for themselves. Public health, from what I understand and what I hope to believe, has the mission of caring for those who don’t have the available resources, educating people how to provide basic care for themselves, and reaching the unreachable. Doctors Beyond Borders does amazing work and I believe when people are out in the field as they are, without all the equipment and luxuries of technology, people are tested in their abilities. There is more reliance on their senses, there is more emphasis on remembering all the knowledge they have gained. In Taiwan with Mr. Mechai Viravaidya, he emphasized the importance of knowledge and awareness. Science seeks to move us forwards but we cannot do that when people are being left behind. Public health I believe is one of the driving forces that will continue to help those who have not had the opportunities for better resources some time to catch up.

Ellen Jorgensen in her Ted Talk emphasizes the importance of the right type of information being sent out. CRISPR has recently the buzz throughout the biology community of its ability to break a genome and insert a new piece of DNA between. It has been advertised as a simple and cheap process, one that Ellen Jorgensen believes to be the flashier side of CRISPR. This has caused much false hope in many people as they believe they can simply go and have CRISPR work on them. However she believes that the type of information that should be shared should be to learn about the technologies so that we, the public can guide the development of the technologies.

Science needs to be shared by those who do the research to the public while the public has the responsibility to learn and gain the knowledge about the work being done.

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Consequences of Science

 Juan Enriquez’s “What will Humans look like in 10 Years” Ted Talk was a very interesting video that explores how science is impacting the way humans look. He states that today, prosthetics are getting integrated in many parts of the human body such as bone, skin, and even muscle. The fact that a prosthetic can for a symbiotic relationship with the body is fascinating. 200 years ago, who would think that we would be able to place and object in our body that can function a specific body part? As he mentioned, the future may consist of the ability to take your own gene cone and remake your own body parts. Although I think this is something that can help the human species, it can also affect society and how people view themselves. In society, science has the ability to help us in a way that can improve our lives in a positive way. We can use science to find cures, find efficient methods, and learn more about the world. However, we tend to forget that science can also influence the way humans view themselves. People today are finding ways to alter themselves in order to follow the “standards of beauty”. Plastic surgery is used by many celebrities to perfect their image and to appeal to their audience. In many cases, many people try to find ways to get a cheap plastic surgery, resulting in fatal consequences. Once there is a way to change genetic codes, people will try to find ways to change their own bodies in a drastic way. In addition, they will try to change the way their offspring will look like. In essence, science has its own consequences and there is no way to change societal views.

Enriquez also mentioned that we can change genetic codes in order to allow humans to live on other planets such as Mars. This can definitely help us learn more about space and possibly find new life around us. Maybe in the future, humans will find a way to live on other planets other than Earth and form a new society. However, I don’t think immortality should be something that should be discovered. Gaining immortality would become a competition which can result in arguments between people. I think we should use science to not just improve our lives, but to improve the lives of future generations. The goal should be to keep the human species alive by using science to our advantage. Watching these videos made me realize that to every science advancement comes a consequence.

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Science and Society

The purpose of science is to help us obtain a better understanding of the world around us. It is to explain phenomenons in such a way that makes tackling them more feasible and allows us to build on our knowledge. Not only that but it also serves as a mechanism to help us improve on on the shortcomings present in our society.

The episode from Rx for Survival illustrated the influence culture has on scientific research. In the US, we may be preoccupied with technological advancement such as of the creation of prosthetic limbs that will allow individuals to perform tasks that require fine motor skills. Meanwhile, India is focusing on reducing the amount of child deaths by educating households on how to treat dehydration and other countries are simply attempting to make healthcare more accessible to the public. The impact that society has on scientific advancement is undeniable.

I strongly believe that science arises from society and that  there are definitely benefits in all scientific advancements however, their value varies from region to region, depending on the prevailing issues in their society.

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Imbalanced Frontiers

When referring to science, we tend to think of it within a specific frame of mind: biology, chemistry, physics, and so on. However, to fully understand our world and the root causes of the problems tribulating it, we must realize that there is a science (or lack thereof) to everything in our world.

There is a science to the way in which a parasite hijacks its host, yes, and there is a science to the pollination of a flower; there also is a noteworthy science to the systematic approach Mechai used in his condom campaign, and one to the seemingly miraculous events of childbirth.

For most things in our world, there is an element of science imbued within. The word “science” is derived from the Latin word “scientia,” meaning “knowledge” or “skill.” In the truest sense of the word, science, i.e. knowledge, is the piece of pollen lying within every element of our world, waiting to be unearthed and spread to others. It is the characteristic that is most unique to us among all our biological relatives on Earth’s phylogenetic tree.

Our ever-evolving knowledge of our world was underscored in the TED talks we watched. The speakers taught not only what they learned in their respective scientific pursuits but also that there is so much yet to be known about our universe, so many boundaries redefined and science to be pollinated. In these TED talks, science(/knowledge) was power in that it allowed us to wield a tool to observe and affect ourselves or the world around us to better our own lives.

Years of imperialism and foreign involvement constitute a social science that lie at the root of such terrible statistics as the fact that someone in our world dies of hunger every 10 seconds, as mentioned by the PBS episode. There are underserved people who die regularly from diseases that pose little to no threat elsewhere. This is the darkest and most urgent intersection of society and science and the one we choose to turn a blind eye to the most.

If science is power, and if we have harnessed it as a tool to advance ourselves and our well-being in our environment, the argument goes that this should advance the well-being of our entire species, or the vast majority of it, at least. However, if the knowledge (the tool) already exists and there is still such glaring inequity in our world today, it is not science itself that is the issue; rather, it is us, the people wielding it.

We choose to delve into science in diverse capacities, which is necessary for the diversification of our knowledge and enhancement of our quality of life. We would be handicapped were it not for people researching both prosthetic legs and genome editing, for the different perspectives in the overlap of the two will blaze a new trail for the human experience. The more ground we cover as scientists, the better.

I believe that though we should not be homogenous in our scientific pursuits and that progress in one frontier should not be retarded for progress in another, we should all prioritize certain dysfunctions in our society such as the hunger and vaccination epidemics highlighted in the PBS episode. We have the capacity to solve this problem, but the positive change we want to see in the world must come directly from us, for science is but the tool and we are the vehicle of bettering our world.

This lesson can be applied to several of the most prominent intersections of science and society today: climate change, animal protection, poverty, disease, etc. We are adding tools to our scientific toolbox every day and our strength comes from that very fact, but as the PBS episode stated well, the best medicines are useless if they don’t get to the people who need them, and by extension, the best science/knowledge is useless if we do not take the initiative and responsibility to use it to help those whom it would benefit.

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Scientific Progress & Solutions

I found the episode “Delivering the Goods” from the PBS series to be the most interesting video because of the context it provided for me within global public health initiatives in developing parts of the world.  As I watched the episode, I found myself recalling the interconnections between scientific progress and innovation and the implementation process of ensuring that all people have access to the health care they need.  It reminded me of an episode of “The West Wing,” political drama show from around a decade ago that followed senior White House staff members through the trials of politics and policymaking.  In this particular episode, staff was in negotiations with HIV drug companies about lowering prices for an AIDs ravaged nation.  A barrier to implementation was brought up within those negotiations — the complicated timing process associated with the administering of the treatment would be difficult to follow because there were few watches and clocks in this imagined nation.  While I personally didn’t believe this to be a valid argument for the targeted price increase for areas of the world that most need help to battle HIV/AIDs, I was surprised by the barriers I would’ve never imagined because of the privileges I have.  Similarly, before I viewed this episode, I didn’t realize how much more effective a motorcycle ambulance could be in certain environments compared to an entire ambulance vehicle because of the limited repairs required.

I particularly liked the episode because there are so many people with ideas and ways in which they’d like to positively impact developing nations, yet it often seems that their plans fall through, don’t account for something critical, or create stopgap solutions.   Based on this episode though, it seemed that Riders for Health had a detailed and structured plan for helping people use the motorcycle ambulances effectively.  My immediate reaction to the idea of motorcycle ambulances was “that’s a great idea!” with no thought to the upkeep and the complexity involved with ensuring that the motorcycles could be kept functional.  I appreciated the level of planning and training invested in by the couple who founded Riders for Health — what should riders do if the motorcycle breaks down? How should pick ups and call ins be monitored and regulated?  Because I’m interested in domestic and international public policy, I appreciated the perspective provided by the episode — it reminded me of the reasons why scientific progress must always be considered within a social and ethical context.  I think the content of the episode is especially relevant as we as a country work to reform and preserve our healthcare system, regulate drug companies, invest in renewable technologies, and wrestle with the way privacy and ethical questions involve themselves in technological innovation.

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