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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Science fails to explain itself

Published: September 23, 2005
Section: Opinions

It has been my experience with biology that very rarely does one encounter simplicity. True enough, the underlying science is not terribly complex, once sufficiently broken down and analyzed. But this is true of all sciences. No, it is in the application of that science that things become complicated. Whenever science meets society, confusion and frustration are, lamentably, commonplace. Because of these observations, I have attempted to ascertain the cause of this disorder. It is my conclusion that the fault for the science-society discord rests firmly on the shoulders of the scientists.

There is an unfortunate trend among the academic scientists to remain withdrawn and aloof where the general population is concerned. They tend to dislike public interaction and will take aims to avoid it. This is understandable, as most of that public interaction comes in the form of media interviews, and the media have their own unfortunate trend of misinterpreting the things people say. So pervasive is this tendency to reclusion that the public is largely ignorant of what is actually going on in the labs. What news that does leak out is often distorted or misunderstooda consequence not of the medias, but of the unwillingness of the scientists to step forth into the limelight.

Scientists seem to assume that science is largely removed from society, and, thus, social influence. This is pure folly. Science does not exist in a vacuum;

thus, it cannot be conducted as though it did. Public and private institutions, for example, often fund scientific research. These foundations and corporations are social entities;

consequently, their influence extends into science in the form of money. The scientists receiving that money, therefore, must respond to the relevant social pressures as their funding is often dependent upon them. In short, scientists carry with them an obligation to correctly respond to social currents and events. Science, after all, through its discoveries and inventions, has a major impact on the course of that society.

Science, for the layman, is often difficult to decipher and understand. A complex and convolute terminology separates the professional from the amateur. This is not the problem. It is when science fails to explain itself that problems arise. Consider the controversy over stem-cell research. Little needs to be said on the nature of the conflict, but an examination of its origins might prove useful.

Public opinion, for the most part, is split into two groupsfor or against stem-cell research. It seems to me that this is a result of the failure on the part of the scientists to adequately explain what they were doing. Had a complete and straightforward explanation of the research, and an investigation of its potential outcomes been presented to the public directly, this heated debate could have been lessened, and research could have proceeded more or less unimpeded. Alas, this was not the case, and the current situation is testimony to this fact.

It has been my goal for quite a few years to enter sciencenamely medicine, an extremely socialized field. The very nature of the work demands continued exposure to non-scientists. Physicians have become quite adept at this interchange between professional and patient simply because they have had no other option but to do so. They cannot, like the rest of academic science, hide behind their white coats and test tube racksthey have been forced almost entirely into the social realm, and, interestingly, have survived.

Physicians are but one group of scientists, and, perhaps, are more inclined to social interaction than other divisions of the field. Now, however, it is the duty of the academics to continue the trend into their respective areas of specialty. There are those who, no doubt, would argue against my suggestion of integration by citing the relative difficulty of sciencenot everyone can comprehend it, so any attempt to elucidate its secrets will, ultimately, prove futile. Even if one were to try to explain science, without the detail, it would only be a superficial and meaningless explanation, devoid of any application. Not so. Granted, the public need not be made aware of all of the intricacies that lie deep within the sphere of science, but a general comprehensionif even superficialis warranted. Science is, essentially, a search for the truth, and truth is valued above all else. As such, it is the responsibility of the scientist to uphold that truth;

to argue its meaning and validity, even against those who may not fully understand. To do otherwise would be a crime against science.

Opinions can only be formed upon given information;

thus, by having adequate information provided, the public has been left to form opinions based upon incomplete or misleading dataa crime that any scientist will decry as being most foul in the halls of academia. Nonetheless, nothing has been done to curb this communication deficiency. Now, however, for that lack of effort, scientists are suffering. Their research has been limited. All the while, they could have stopped the misunderstanding before it could grow to its current magnitude. But, no, the scientific community, instead, elected to remain hidden within its labs with a pseudo-elitism that smacks of the bourgeoisie. I fear that, if allowed to continue unabated, this reclusive tendency will cause more difficulties in research science. We have already seen how it has affected stem-cell research, and cloning has suffered essentially the same fate. Given time, developments in gene-therapy and genetic modification will all succumb to public censor if science does not correct this aberration of communication.

Scientists have an obligation to the truth, and, as such, are accountable for public opinion about science. The truth does not changeonly its interpretation can. Thus, those who are responsible for that truth are of paramountsocialimportance.