Society and Science

What role does science have in society? Science serves our interests, and is an essential part of how our society changes. Public health and advances in microbiology, such as the invention of the vaccine, help defend us from the onset of disease and infection. Advances in chemistry and physics have innovated how we live our lives, from energy to waste management. Science helps to inform society’s perspectives, as new strides in biology help us to better understand the world around us and our impact on it (such as climate change). Science has also served our curiosity and ambition in our quests to reach the stars, and hopefully, one day soon, the work of scientists will bring us to the Red Planet, Mars.

The global community has both benefited and suffered from scientific knowledge. For example, while the Haber process can be utilized to produce ammonia for use in chemical fertilizers (which helps us all because we eat a lot of food), it has also been applied for the production of explosives during World War I. I think after the atom bomb was used at the end of World War II, the global community began to have a new attitude towards regulating science, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Knowledge has great consequences; good and bad. I believe that it’s important for the world to continue to have conversations about the implications of scientific research because of its potential to provide for us, and harm us. We should act and decide together, in an informed and rational manner, about the nature of science and the fruit of its progress.

It then becomes crucially imperative for the populations of the world to be well informed about the nature of scientific work and research. If we are to have these conversations, they cannot be swayed by inaccuracies or misconceptions. The truth is far more important than perceptions of it. Aside from the expected/intended applications, if there are dangerous implications of scientific knowledge, they must be known. If there are economic determinants, they must be known. All relevant details must be brought forth and presented to the global community in order to have fair conversations about what paths we allow science to take us down. It then becomes not only the duty of scientists and researchers to provide that information, but the obligation of the governments of the world as well.

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The Power of Who

One of my most favorite topics of science that integrate society is how public policy is shaped by public opinion of science and education. The reason being is that there are so many ways that a citizen’s opinion of science in their lives can be influenced by the world around them — the public radio, national television, and national politicians constantly broadcast their views on science and education of science to millions of Americans each day, which slowly changes the dynamic understanding of whatever topics are being talked about at the moment.

I like to think of the change in public opinion of science as societal evolution: an influencer’s broadcast implants an ‘allele’ of an idea — it can be an opinion on abortion or a fact about global warming from an anchor on a national news outlet; a bill that a politician is fronting such as Obamacare / ACA, or a full page ad in The New York times from a pharmaceutical company. The idea broadcasts to the rest of society and thus gets its ‘allele’ of an idea is implanted to the reader’s mind. But, it must be believed first, which is the incredibly tricky part. How does one decide to believe a scientific fact or opinion, when they were very likely told a converse opinion or somewhat-contradictory-sounding opinion moments before? Who should they listen to?

To be honest, I really don’t know. That is why the topic is so interesting. How do citizens become so steadfast and interested in public scientific opinions, inspired by politicians, pharmaceutical ads, and talk show hosts, and subsequently develop a discourse amongst other citizens? Or perhaps, how do citizens of a society develop a discourse amongst their family, friends, and peers? When is there an alarming lack of discourse on a topic of science, thus allowing the perpetuance of somewhat questionable views on science, and how does that arise?

When an idea is implanted, it must be evaluated by the brain in order to find it true. How fascinating — the interesting part is that a fact can be true, but still be rejected by the brain, or more, the fact can be believed but its implication or conclusion can be rejected. Take an opinion on global warming for example: say I believed that global warming was fake and a manifestation of China’s conspiracy to weaken the American energy economy via restrictive policy influenced by public opinion (i.e., global warming is real). What facts would I cherry pick in order to believe in such an opinion, but more importantly, how did I go about believing them? One’s consideration of a fact to be true is influenced by not only by their previous scientific knowledge, but also by other members of society, their family, and furthermore, how the conclusion will affect their future standing within society, their family, and how their scientific beliefs align with those significant members of society which influenced them in the first place.

That’s the really interesting part. There is a huge social element to public opinion of science. One might expect a public’s opinion on an agreed upon scientific conclusion to reflect the scientific conclusion which was reached among academics, but that doesn’t happen. There must be not only a scientific reason for one to believe in an opinion of a scientific topic, but also a societal reason. Take Northside, for example. Leaving out any causations of academic success and position along the political spectrum, Northside is a largely liberal school, yet its acceptance of students is politically blind. The influence upon students to maintain such a consistent ratio of political affiliation, at least in my four years, is fascinating, and probably requires many papers on its own to even come close to fully understanding. For now, I hope the reader recognizes that there is a significnat social influence on a Northsider’s understanding of scientific topics and public policy.

Consequently, in a world where information is so abundant, one can easibly be influenced by public figures that have no scientific credentials, and thus steadfastly believe in scientifically false opinions of public policy. Ahem, the Golden Age of Information. It is understood that one’s opinion of facts and scientific topics has a large social element within an individidual, and that the evaluation process for any new fact also considers one’s social impact on a topic. Here’s a hypothetical: Say I steadfastly read The New York Times, who recently underwent a regime change amongst its head executives. Congratulations, its now owned by Viacom, an american media conglomerate, who is paying rather close attention to the ever increasing proportion of scientific skeptics in the United States. Subsequently, Viacom decides to increase the proportion of writers who align with scientific skeptics, in order to generate news and editorials that align with the ever increasing collective pockets of its target audience. The change in ideologies of the writers alters the information presented towards the audience.

Hypothetically, how would I go about believing a new article published to the Times? There is a certain social inertia that will influence how one makes their public and scientific decisions in the future, even if one was taught academically in the months or years prior. This inertia can be seen amongst family members, who influence eachother based on their own small group psychology and collective beliefs of public policy and science, as well as a larger, academic inertia: one’s high school. Should my friends have aligned chiefly with Confederate sympathizers and alt-right politicals, my alignment would slowly be pushed in their political direction, as long as I continue to align with them in other facets. This is a reality for many students and regular citizens alike, and most alarmingly in an extreme case where “Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer led a large group of demonstrators carrying torches and chanting “You will not replace us” Saturday in Charlottesville, protesting plans to remove a Confederate monument that has played an outsize role in this year’s race for Virginia governor,” via the Washington Post.The influence of society on an individual’s opinion of scientific fact is a concerning and ever increasingly significant topic during the late golden age of information. I hope that I continue to stay sensitive to the ever evolving landscape of political and scientific opinion, and hope that I don’t get caught up in the wrong mix in my future years of living, while I’m at it.

Update: Removed a portion of the post that mentions an actual writer hired to the Times in April, whose first editorial suggested the legitimacy of climate skepticism and related research field. However, the Viacom hypothetical doesn’t exactly justify his hiring. Just food for thought.

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Science and Society: A Few Thoughts…

Each of the videos presented different junctions between society and science. For example, the three different talks about societal privileges prescribed by anatomy, parasitic manipulation, and kinky insects all shed light on how societal norms and fears clash with the laws in nature surrounding sex, sex roles, and individual autonomy. Science highlights how human society diverges from nature, especially in the talk discussing how vast human evolution may be in a 100 years. An ethical debate arises from this talk: the speaker, Juan Enriquez, claims that it’s unethical to not develop the human body for extra-planetary exploration because we should prevent ourselves from going extinct with the earth, and we should colonize other planets. My discomfort with his ideas is that his view of the earth and human bodies is one that makes them seem disposable. The idea that once we’ve used up the earth, we can fly away it and let it die is one that seems to devalue it to an insignificant rock. The other idea that he proposed where we could contain and insert people’s consciousness into different and subsequent bodies or vessels for long-term space travel presents a man-made immortality that devalues human existence. If we would live forever, then what will it mean to be alive? And value would the human body have? (Plus, it is very reminiscent of the thriller Get Out, which is freaky enough). His views echo the common sentiment in human society, which is we need to prolong ourselves, no matter what the costs.  He’s not the only one with this view, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad one– we should want to live, we should want to live quality lives, and we should make necessary advancements to do so. But when society prioritizes our own advancement over the survival and respect for the natural world, it makes me wonder whether we are an innovative and imaginative species or a wasteful, scared, and selfish one.

Anyway, we rely on scientific discovery to prolong our lives, which is why I believe that the junction where science and society meet most popularly is in health and medicine. Health and medicine is probably one of the main reasons why humans dominate the planet–we defy microscopic killers, we effectively heal from injuries, we defy the dangers of childbirth, we eradicate once-fatal diseases through vaccinations all thanks to advancements in this field. However this junction is a tricky one, because while science stampedes here, its still held back by society. As seen in the Rx for Survival episode, medicinal intervention and care is inaccessible to certain groups of people due to lack of resources. Even in affluent nations, wealth disparity renders many having to choose between medicine and their groceries. Speaking of medicine, my sister, who is currently in a Global health and Indigenous medicine class, shared with me how cures to certain illnesses are not researched well because cures are less profitable for a pharmacy than maintenance drugs that keep the symptoms of one at bay. This is an example of how societal aspects like economy can hold the reins on science, and even have the power to dictate lives. Now I get that medicine is a business, and I get that science should be regulated so that it doesn’t go too far and out of control, but the possibility that certain research is being funded based on money is a bit disheartening. Ellen Jorgensen suggested in her talk about CRISPR that we, the general public have a responsibility to CRISPR because our taxes fund the scientists who develop it. Society supports scientific advancements, and as long as we care about prolonging ourselves, I think we should demand for discoveries to be made, ones that eradicate disease, not ones that babysit them.

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Science+Society

What is ethical?  Is experimenting on animals ethical?  Is experimenting with human egg cells ethical?  When dealing with human morals, there’s rarely an easy answer.  These questions can be highly personal, and often, the answer can vary by case to case basis.  My personal criteria is fairly simple.  First of all, science should always contribute to the benefit of society or understanding of the world around us.  Secondly, no experiments should cause unnecessary pain and suffering if it does not solve a larger problem in which many would benefit.  Unfortunately, the second step can be a bit objective, depending on which way one looks at an experiment.  Still, it’s a decent place to start when considering ethics.

 

The focus of science is- and always should be- to understand the world around us, and to use that understanding to advance and/or benefit modern-day society.  I feel the only way this can truly happen is if the information is made widespread.  However, one must be careful when sharing data with the public.  In many cases, facts are twisted (we’ve all seen those “is coffee the new miracle drug?” articles), omitted (as in the case of skewed test groups), or are plainly not true (vaccines and autism, for example).  To best do this, the information needs to be shared clearly and dryly, with a heavier focus on the limits of the research.
To be a good scientist, one must always keep an open mind.  No matter how certain one is about any given phenomenon, in light of new evidence, they must be willing to change their hypothesis if they truly wish to learn.  Too strict of beliefs can impede understand, as in the case with bees and other insects, and how they often don’t follow human gender roles.  By nature of being human, however, very few scientists are able to look at data through a completely unbiased lens.  Somehow, society has formed their beliefs in a way that may color their opinions and theories to match up better with what they know and experience.  

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Human Evolution

I found the first video – ‘What will humans look like in 100 years?’ – to be the most interesting for a number of reasons. I specifically found the part when he talked about the theoretical transition from man made prostheses to, well, man grown prostheses to be fascinating, partially because of how simple it is to say versus how many barriers there currently are. He discusses George Church’s work to incorporate an entire human genome into a programmable cell and how it is in theory possible to alter this genome to our advantage, then how the ethics of doing so must be addressed. His arguments for why this is absolutely necessary are interesting, such as his definition of ‘ethical’ being ‘what is best for human survival.’ His discussion of numbered life civilizations is such a foreign way of thinking about life and his examples of potential alterations indicative of a life three civilization – including cells re-splicing in response to radiation and breathing by ‘having oxygen flow through your blood instead of your lungs’ – are so outlandish that it is difficult to think of them as currently relevant. These abstract concepts are followed by a concept that is extremely interesting and being worked on currently: replacing/altering specific fundamental chemicals, like those used to build nucleic acids, in order to create alternate systems of chemistry that might allow for greater adaptability and provide immunity to effectively everything on earth. I have been interested the process of abiogenesis, but only for the specific chemistry that life we know of uses – when considering that there’s no reason life had to start out exactly as it did, the possibilities for creating life seem to expand greatly; I would be curious to know more about experiments altering things like base pairs and amino acids, as discusses by the speaker. On a different note, I enjoyed watching videos of cell processes on the following channel immensely: https://www.youtube.com/user/XVIVOAnimation. (We might have looked at one of these in class? I can’t quite remember.)

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Society and Science

Society and science often work together to mandate many of the nuances of human life but also occasionally act as opposing forces. This dichotomy inadvertently shapes the world we live in.  

Many societal developments can be attributed to the successful union between science and society. For example, in 1854 there was a large cholera outbreak in Soho a section of the City of Westminster in London. At that point the germ theory of disease was non-existent and people assumed that most infectious diseases spread via ‘bad air’ or miasma. A man named John Snow eventually proved that the disease was not spread by air, instead traced the roots back to an infected water pump. He used basic statistics to prove that the areas of the city with high concentrations of cholera outbreaks correlated to water from the Thames. Unfortunately, John found that despite the government changing the pump, they refused to acknowledge the true problem in the river. It wasn’t till the Great Stink of 1858 when the government finally created a new sewage system but only after a bombardment of political propaganda and local complaint. By working together science and average people were able to make a large-scale change that is still present today. This example is a strong representation of how society could improve when aligned to developments in science, together they can create macro level changes to improve the lives of many.

There are also times where science and society disagree, and this is where there becomes a gray zone. There are some social constructs that are put into question because of science and there isn’t a clear course of action. Both Alice Dreger and Marlene Zuk discussed the disagreement between science and society in regards to sex in their Ted Talks. By compartmentalizing the world, society inhibits fluctuation that biologists recognize. Dreger describes our situation, where “the farther our science goes, the more we have to admit to ourselves that these categories that we thought of as stable…are a lot more fuzzy than we thought” Dreger agrees that having this grey zone is uncomfortable but she also recognizes it’s necessity in progressing into a more accepting culture. Society also disagrees with science when there is a greater gain than loss. Since the 1970s, scientists have been at war with the US government about climate change. Though the government (sometimes) recognize the negative implications of global warming, no actions are taken to lower greenhouse gas emissions because of monetary gain.

Whether science and society agree or disagree, the impact is present within our culture and attitudes. Really science is only effective when society accepts it, and society is only effective when science accepts it. 

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Science, Society, and Saving Lives

Like many other areas of knowledge, science is a tool for society. Without it, society lacks the logical reasons regulating human behavior and justifying decisions. People explore the intersection of science and society as they present the information in an attempt to teach, change minds, and exact change in their environments. From visualizing the beginning of human life to studying  appearance in the next century, scientists have contributed clues to the mysteries society has yet to unravel. Science brings forth an undying curiosity and sparks the interest in society so that its members continue asking questions about how their world works. In doing so, the answers drive humanity towards understanding and progress. Often times, their discoveries emphasizes new perspectives, inventions, and approaches to world issues.

In Ed Yong’s Suicidal Wasps, Zombie Roaches, and Other Parasite Tales, organisms lose control of their bodies to other parasites. Grasshoppers enter bodies of water, despite seeing the drowned bodies of their kind, because a worm within it must reproduce in an aqueous environment. Knowing the commonality of these, while fascinating and disturbing, also focuses the world’s attention on potential consequences of letting parasite populations infect large geographic areas. This could spark further studies in parasite effects on humans that could aid in preventing illnesses in the future.  Likewise, learning about CRISPR informs audiences of the advantages and disadvantages of genomic engineering projects to create policies about how this science can alter society. Just as science provides the literature for society to read, society supplies the judgment calls that finalizes how information changes people’s actions.

Society and science also works to dispense information. The connections between people, as defined by social interactions, uses opinions and relationships to spur action. Science helps develop communication technology that leads to a rapid dispersion of data for long distances. As more people in society become aware of discoveries in science, more ideas can stem from preexisting ones. PBS’s Rx series, Delivering the Goods, accurately portrays one such instance of society and science working towards solving a problem in a village of Africa. On one of their visits to the region, the Colemans noticed the lack of working ambulance vehicles at the Ministry of Health to send the ailing to hospitals for treatment. Thus the Colemans, one a former professional motorcycle race and another a journalist, founded Riders, a nonprofit that created motorcycle extensions that would mobilize health workers and patients. This brought optimism to the villagers, who were not only given better chances of accessing medical care, but also allowed to control that access on their own by learning to ride, repair, and inventory their own transport. Similar success stories in the episode include Thailand’s battle against HIV when it’s government spread the information they obtained about the infection through public health campaigns and Bangladesh’s program to train lower class women in basic medical care. Although science can explain how to prevent illnesses or calamities and save lives, it is society that ultimately implements those actions to do so. Without the care of the people, science would remain just stories.

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