Science v Society
The struggle for Acceptance
by Michelle Licci | email@example.com
For centuries, science has played a critical role in our lives. From the discovery that the Earth revolved around the Sun to the invention of methods that harness energy from natural resources, science serves as a vector for exploration of our unique world. It changes the way we evolve as a species and how we innovate unique applications to our everyday life.
We are practically surrounded by evidence of scientific innovation: smart phones, GPS tracking, immunization, electricity, the Internet, and weather prediction. However, the public tends to be skeptical of which aspects of science to embrace. In fact, throughout history, there are many incidences of conflict between science and society – despite the empirical evidence that science provides to support a claim. There are times when advances in certain scientific fields are widely accepted and times where other fields face criticism.
Overall, scientists face three obstacles related to society’s perception of their role. First, they’re under pressure to make a major breakthrough in their field, but they risk rejection of the breakthrough which can lead to the discrediting of their work. Second, they are expected to perform research and other tasks in their field at an unrealistically fast pace—when research labs or major science centers don’t produce fast enough results, they lose funding. Finally, scientists are ranked among their peers according to the number of publications they produce rather than the quality of their work.
The majority of our population embraces technological innovation. Just look at our constant usage of smart phones and computers that perform about every task we desire. In fact, thanks to computer science, nanotechnology, and engineering, we can rely on these electronics to assist us with our daily lives: from waking us up in the morning, to organizing events, communicating, and even accessing information instantaneously. Altogether, society is enamored with the technological revolution of the 21st century.
Other fields of science are not always embraced the same way. The medical field, for example, faces a large amount of criticism by society both politically and socially. Despite the successful development of vaccines that serve to eradicate disease, the anti-vaccination movement has gained momentum in recent years. This movement claims that vaccinations cause autism, distorting scientific facts to support their theory. Unfortunately, this is negatively impacting our society. Measles, a preventable disease that was nearly eradicated in the early 2000s, returned in an outbreak recently. Cases of measles in the United States increased dramatically from approximately 200 the previous year to 644 cases in 2014. Parents refusing to vaccinate their children for the disease contributed to the rise in measles cases.
Medicine and vaccines face skepticism not only because of misinformation, but also because the diseases that vaccines prevent tend only to be prevalent in third world countries; thus, many are ignorant of how dangerous these viruses truly are. The privilege of being in a country that does not have to live in fear of a lethal disease tends to be taken for granted, and unfortunately there are times when a parent is not convinced vaccines are necessary until his or her child contracts a potentially deadly though preventable illness.
On one hand, a scientific field involved with technological innovation is widely embraced by the population. On the other hand, a field involved with preventing and eradicating diseases is met with resistance despite it being as relevant to our daily lives as the technological revolution.
In addition, some fields of science, such as astronomy, struggle just to be taken seriously. Recently, NASA has discovered the presence of water on Mars. To most people involved in the scientific field, this is an amazing discovery that suggests the possibility of life on a planet other than Earth. Critics, on the other hand, tend to dismiss this discovery, claiming that our planet should have priority focus. Many people pass off astronomy as a sort of novelty science – interesting but not very useful – when it actually plays a significant role in studying the way our planet behaves in relation to its surroundings, making weather prediction accurate as well as allowing for the proper positioning of satellites.
Scientists today are under a lot of pressure. They strive to pursue a field of their interest and excel in it. However, the definition of scientific success tends to be vague. Most would say Steve Jobs was an excellent scientist as well as Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. These figures excel in fields involved with computer science and physics – both of which contribute to the innovations of technology we have today. However, other scientists do not always receive the same amount of praise despite contributing just as significantly to innovations in their field. For example, most of us believe that the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA is James Watson and Francis Crick. However, it was actually Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure first with the use of X-ray crystallography. Despite her significant contribution of this discovery, she was not credited.
Genetics, physics, and computer science are very different from one another, and granted, computer science may be more applicable in today’s society than most other fields. Regardless, scientists in all three of these fields struggle for recognition of breakthrough research – especially in a field like computer science that tends be competitive between companies who specialize in it, such as the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft. This type of economic competition may seem beneficial because it promotes the evolution of technological innovation. However, the disadvantages include glitches both hardware and software that occur because these products have not been tested long enough before being distributed to the public. For example, with the release of the iPhone 6, there were reported incidents of users being burned by their phones after these devices would spontaneously combust.
"science is not a rapid process. In fact, it can be very slow; Einstein’s theory of relativity took nearly a century to progress into the modern innovations of technology we have now such as the GPS"
In addition to the risk of not being fully credited for their work, scientists face pressure to do more than what can realistically be performed. The expectation for scientific breakthrough tends to lean toward a discovery that could change our lives almost immediately. However, science is not a rapid process. In fact, it can be very slow; Einstein’s theory of relativity took nearly a century to progress into the modern innovations of technology we have now such as the GPS. This shows that when science proceeds in a timely manner, developments can be made and improved accordingly with minimal risk. However, when science is rushed, dangerous consequences can occur.
On top of that, the expectation of what can be done by scientists is further skewed by television programs that portray science as an instantaneous solution. Shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy demonstrate doctors curing almost every single patient in their ward in about a week, whereas in reality the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a patient tends to be more complex and time-consuming. Other shows like CSI and Bones also portray unrealistic practices of crime scene investigation and forensics, which in reality involve tedious lab work and waiting periods for results as well as slower methods of identification processes.
Lastly, if scientists are not recognized for breakthroughs in their fields, their success is defined by how many publications they produce. Students who graduate as science majors tend to be perceived in terms of what they do with their degree. The more publications produced, the more “successful” they are. Combined with the slow processes of science in general, this results in a conflict between finding new discoveries to produce a publication about and waiting on the proper results over time to further confirm or improve their theories. Just as developing new products should occur slowly, research to publish studies must not be rushed. Otherwise, careless mistakes are more likely to occur and could lead to dangerous consequences. Recall, for example, the anti-vaccine movement, which is based off a published study claiming that an ingredient in vaccines causes autism. Even though this study was debunked repeatedly by other scientists, this mistake still fuels those against vaccines to continue discouraging citizens from receiving immunization from preventable diseases.
We want to experience fantasized scientific discoveries, such as the cure for cancer, invention of a time machine, or an encounter with aliens. What we often fail to realize is these discoveries are improbable, but even if they did have a chance of occurring, they would take a lot of time and patience. This also fuels a sense of disinterest in the meager yet significant foundations of science. The possibility of finding microorganisms on Mars is more exciting for a scientist than it is to the general public. Quantum particles are considered boring by society unless they are applied to an invention like a GPS. Astronomy is considered a novelty science unless it is used for weather prediction.
These three factors contribute to the scientist’s struggle for success and acceptance for their work. They are encouraged to make breakthroughs, but only if it’s interesting or “relevant” to society’s expectation. This not only hinders the progression of all scientific fields, but also undermines the micro-evolution of theories and discoveries that happen on a day to day basis. This reflects that, as a society, we need not only to improve our attitude about science as a whole, but also to learn to consider the evidence presented to us and hold more realistic expectations about the pace of science. If this is accomplished, perhaps scientists would be motivated to truly excel in their work, rather than simply to satisfy the public.
November 9, 2015