By Charlie Mueller
We need intelligent science. Far too often we sacrifice intelligent science for arrogant science. Arrogant science is where we ignore certain possibilities and only focus on scenarios that fit our views; when science is driven by the fantasies of man and not the realities of nature. It is driven by fear, money and egos.
Arrogant science is what has led to our current crisis with antibiotic resistance and climate change. In each of these cases, we used the findings of science to develop technology that appeared to change our lives for the better in the moment. There is no denying that the development and use of antibiotics has saved millions of lives, but it seems our strategy may also end up causing millions of people their lives in the future. It begs the question, “Did they really help or did they just make the problem worse?”
The industrial revolution and modern globalization has brought the quality of life standards up for billions of people around the world. It has enabled a way of life that was science fiction only a century ago. However, in doing so we changed the very architecture of our ecosystem in a way that may be irreversible. Were these changes preventable? Were they predictable? Did we consider the long term effects of these strategies designed to improve our lives?
With both antibiotic resistance and climate change, the problem seemed to be that we used science and technology to change a particular system before we understood how that system worked. Maybe one of the best examples, where we implemented a strategy without understanding the system, is in regard to the US policy concerning forest fires. In the 1930s, the idea was that forest fires needed to be prevented and put out as quickly as they were found. It seemed logical and certainly couldn’t be a bad thing, right? Apparently it was. We didn’t understand that there was a natural order to forest fires and that they weren’t “bad” even though they appeared this way in the moment. By not letting fires burn the forests became very thick and the ground became “primed” with deadwood and brush. The stage was set for the fires to become stronger than ever, something we’ve seen recently over the last few years.
The problem here again was that we didn’t take the time to understand the role forest fires had in keeping a forest healthy and as a result we implemented policy that actually did the opposite. We chose to act arrogantly and pretend we understood the issue. Now we are paying the price. What will happen if in the future we can’t pay that price? Are we about destroy planet in the blink of an eye with the Hadron Collider experiments that have a very small probability of forming a black hole? Do we really understand the risks we are taking in science? We need intelligent science.
Intelligent science requires patience and an informed public. The goal of intelligent science is to understand the systems being studied and how they work. Intelligent science is not driven by money; it is driven by knowledge. When we take the time to understand how a system works, we can properly develop strategies that change the system in ways that we want and in ways that we can predict. We can prepare for the “side effects” and truly use science and technology to make our lives better. Intelligent science is what leads to the impossible becoming possible.
In order for us, as a society, to practice intelligent science we need a public that is capable of identifying and supporting intelligent science. Science is a dialogue, it is an ongoing conversation made up by the people who speak, practice and study it. Anyone can be a scientist. Like any conversation there are multiple points of views and many ways in which a particular issue can be framed. The beauty of science though is that this conversation relies on evidence for a particular point of view to hold.
If there are only a handful of people who can determine if the evidence is good or not, then there are only a handful of people who can decide if this point of view is valid or not. This is why we need an informed public. Without an informed public, the scientific dialogue will be framed according to the beliefs of the few that understand its findings. We need as many people as possible scrutinizing the latest scientific findings, asking the questions that need to be asked and making sure that science stays true to its pursuit of knowledge. We don’t need a precautionary principle in science, we need intelligent science.