The problem with science is…

…that we’re all human, and as such, we all have a split personality. On the one hand we are more or less hard wired for rational thought [work with me here please!], but at the same time we have the capacity to live quite happily with paradox. For example, I consider myself to be a very logical person, so I refuse to accept the idea of pre-destination, yet when things go my way I get this warm feeling that ‘fate’ is being kind to me. If a paradox becomes too painful I  do something about it, eventually, but most of the time I just live with it.

“Get to the point!” I hear you say.

“Yes, Master,” I reply as I tug my forelock.

So the fact that we can live with paradox tends to explain things like the rise of creationism. After all, you don’t see creationists giving up their cars, dishwashers, huge tv’s and all the other creature comforts that rely on the science they deny, do you? No, of course not. If asked they will say that they only deny evolution, which would be fine if evolution relied only on Darwin’s observations. The truth though, is that evolution is backed up by all sorts of other scientific disciplines, including the discipline of geology which gives us the petroleum that fuels our technology.

And therein lies another human fact : we are ignorant. We know how to use a light switch or an iPad but 99.999999% of us have no idea how either one works, or is produced. The same ignorance extends to the sciences. Notice that plural? It’s important because until fairly recently there were two types of science – pure and applied.

Back in the day, Universities used to be funded by governments and philanthropists so scientists could be free to explore new ideas just for the hell of it. From this ‘pure’ research, other scientists would come up with clever ways to put the discoveries to use. This was the ‘applied’ part of the equation. Industries then turned these discoveries into manufactured goods and services for consumers, i.e. us.

If we fast forward to the present day, however, we find that a third branch of science has been added to the family. I call this one ‘commercial’ science. Large companies with lots of money fund research and development directly. The scientists who work for these companies are paid well to do the kind of research that will benefit the company. Successes are turned into patented, goldmines. Clinical trials that fail are quietly swept under the carpet. This is not how pure and applied science is meant to work but hey, who wants to lose their job, get blacklisted and face possible litigation as a whistle-blower?

So from the heyday of the first man on the moon, we [the general public] have gradually moved to an era in which we no longer trust science quite the way we used to. We still cling to the technology, but we’re starting to feel uneasy about the juggernaut that’s bearing down on us.

The two great controversies of the present era – genetically modified food and climate change – are prime examples of our love-hate relationship with science. We don’t know who to trust any more because we don’t understand how the system works. And so we allow creationism equal time with evolution. And because we don’t understand how the politics of science work, we end up distrusting both the science that gave us genetically modified food, and the science that’s telling us our lives depend on doing something about climate change before it’s too late. As with government politics, scientific issues are now surrounded by so much spin and counter spin that no-one knows which way is up.

My compass in these murky waters is the old saying ‘follow the money’. On that basis I reject genetically modified food because it benefits huge multinational companies like Monsanto, and I accept the science of climate change because it definitely does not benefit huge, multinational corporations who might have to clean up their act.

I know this is a very unscientific way of making choices, but it works for me. Do you agree? Disagree vehemently? Have a completely different take altogether? You know I love a good debate and the weekend is looming, so let’s get this discussion started!



About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

18 responses to “The problem with science is…

  • Ilil Arbel

    Sorry of coming in a little late in the game… but things were uber-busy for me recently. Anyway, I had little to contribute other than praise the analysis. This is exactly my way of choosing. If it benefits a corporation, the science is guilty until proven innocent (and sometimes, though not often, it is innocent!) and if it does not benefit a corporation, it is innocent until proven stupid.


  • Colin

    I think most people suffer from cognitive dissonance, in that they think they know more than they do. One of the things my school has really stressed is to evaluate sources; it blends into everything there. If you can’t show why a source should be viewed as credible, they’ll mark you down on the grades.

    This is of course a key in the pedagogic method at my school where critical thinking permeates everything, and part of critical thinking is to accept knowledge despite personal reservations. I think that’s important. In the end, can I really object to climate change if 99 per cent of the climate scientific community says it is occurring? What are my own credentials for making a different case? What is the value of the source that is me?

    And conversely, you learn to evaluate other sources so that it becomes a bit second nature, and whenever there’s a talking head on television that say something, you believe none of it because you don’t know that talking head’s credentials. For instance, does a pundit with a media degree from some mid-level University really understand economy well enough to offer any reliable guide to public financing solutions?

    I think that’s the way to defeat my own cognitive dissonance. Critical thinking is good that way.


    • acflory

      Nicely done! Sadly most people aren’t taught to think that way any more. And one of the downsides to the information revolution that is the net, is that anyone can proclaim themselves an expert in any field. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is hard enough when you demand ‘proof’. Next to impossible if you don’t.


      • Colin

        I’ve grown up with the net. There’s never been a time when I wasn’t on it. First through my smart-phone since I was ten or so, and then I got my first computer at 13. So, my bullshit detector is very well developed. 😀


        • acflory

          lmao – you really are the new generation aren’t you? My Daughter has been on the net from about the same age but I’m not totally convinced her BS detector is fully functional! [And she’s 25!]


  • littlemissobsessivesanatomy

    science can be tricky…specially the commercial one.. problem with modernized and up-graded science is that it is only focused on making big money…not many people care for climate change science…which is sad but true..


    • acflory

      😦 I understand that no-one /wants/ to give up some of their standard of living but… surely that’s better than not having a world that’s worth living in by the time we have grandchildren? Well you and your generation at any rate. 🙂


  • lorddavidprosser

    The problem for me is knowing that GMFoods being in the hands of multinationals like Monsanto, i never know how far they’ve looked at the downsides of any modifications….Yes it’s bigger but does it have nutritional value any longer? …Sure it looks good on paper- your paper- but will I be full of carcinogens in five years?
    Over the years we’ve learned not to trust big business interests. I smoke. I don’t blame anyone else for me starting to smoke but if the industry had released facts they we’re well aware of back in the sixties might I have thought differently about starting, would I have pumped my body full of addictive chemicals?

    Maybe Big Business allocates more money for R & D than Government but when their priority is pleasing shareholders which puts real pressure on them to produce results just how far can they be trusted?
    Climate change leads me to another trust issue.I recognise climate changes have occurred in my lifetime and I see more changes every year…or do I.? One lobby tells me there is virtually no change and certainly no danger but is their vested interest the production and use of fossil fuels, are these the same people I hear tales of year upon year of committing murder rather than have someone release a formula for a cheap and simple fuel that’s made from rabbit droppings ? Thy say the planet goes through cycles of weather and his is one of them….but where’s the chart showing the cycles.

    On the other hand there are the passionate ones who declare everything we do is damaging the earth and climate change is a major disaster not just waiting to happen, but already happening with the melting of the ice caps. Since I know that summer’s in the UK are colder and wetter than when I was a child, since I see proof of far more vicious storms and flooding here and around the world my inclination is to err on the side of caution.If you’re sure we can manage without fossil fuels, I’m sorry about the loss of jobs but let’s give it a go before there is no world to have a job in..


    • acflory

      Oh well said David! For me, the irony is that once the proverbial shit hits the fan and we’re scrambling to salvage something from the mess, the hit to our ‘standard of living’ will be so hard we will wonder why the idiot in the early 21st century were so stupid. 😦

      Of course by ‘we’ I mean our kids and grandkids. There’s something about willful ignorance that makes me believe there may be true evil in this world after all.


  • jenniferscoullar

    Following the money? … sounds a damn fine way of making a decision to me!


  • Candy Korman

    One of my close friends is part of the climate change movement. He recently attended one of Al Gore’s trainings and is giving climate change talks right now. I’ve talked to him about the inclination to discard or deny scientific evidence — of climate change, of evolution, of the way diseases are transmitted, etc. And it is truly amazing.

    In the end it boils down to your world view. Can you accept that some things, although proven scientifically, simply don’t make sense? That some observations are deceptive? (i.e. concluding that vaccinations cause Autism or that strep throat is associated with the onset of the genetic disorder TS)

    If you are able to live with the fuzziness of real science as a growing and changing thing. If your world view can accept changes as new things are proven. Than maybe you’ll be open to the new science whatever it proves. If you need everything to be clear, knowable and unchanging, than science is too complicated.

    Just my two cents…


    • acflory

      Actually I think you’ve put your finger on another human need – the desire for immutable, unchanging ‘facts’. Science just doesn’t work that way. Teaching science better in schools would help but that’s another, huge can of worms.


  • metan

    Even as a child at Sunday School I can’t remember really believing in creationism and the more I see in my life the less I could possibly believe.

    Science though, I love that. My rational brain is happy to know that there is the chance of finding an answer for everything. We humans are just not smart enough to have found them all yet. Of course with the right funding more answers are found every day 😉


    • acflory

      Yes, it all comes down to funding, yet strangely, many of the greatest discoveries are still made by poorly paid academics. Of course their discoveries then usually end up in industry and subject to patent laws. Grrrr.


  • Carrie Rubin

    “Clinical trials that fail are quietly swept under the carpet.”—This is such an important point, because we can learn just as much from the failures as the successes. It’s so important to study and understand both.


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