Standing up for Science

Many of those on the Left mock conservatives’ anti-science beliefs regarding climate change and evolution, but is liberalism immune to pseudoscience and science denial? How much of the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, naturopathy sentiments on the Left is related to liberals’ anti-corporatist feelings or influence of New Age beliefs? Standing up for science means standing up for the scientific method and being alert to our own biases. It means studying all issues with a dispassionate, rational, and analytical mind.  For scientists to be trusted as credible sources of information and rationality, we have a higher moral obligation to be rationalists in all aspects of our lives. Passion and emotions are not necessary for empathy, but they can blind our judgment in any topic. A rational mind can also be empathetic, but without losing our equanimity or being influenced by the daily ebbs and flows of life.

“It worked for me” isn’t a scientific statement. We must understand how our nature to remember exceptions, and not the norm, can make us fall prey to low-probability events and treat them as more common than they actually are. This trait also makes us believe in miracles, follow our intuitions, or believe in anecdotes. Our intuitions might tell us nature might be better than biotechnology, but history of our species has shown that it is nature that kills us, and science and technology has improved our health and quality of life. We must understand why randomly selected, placebo-controlled, double-blinded studies are important in weeding out outliers or entire populations with genetic or other variations. In the age of alternate facts, we must be aware of quackery posing in the name of alternative or traditional medicine. Just because it might not harm us (and many do harm us) doesn’t mean it is effective – one of the gold standards in pharmaceutical clinical trials. If we dismissed placebo-controlled trials and fell for anecdotes, the market would be awash with pharmaceutical drugs that “works” in many people.

Searching for ‘meaning’ is human nature. If some in the West find it in Abrahamic religions, many find it in spirituality, nature, or turning towards Eastern religions and traditions which look exotic to westerners. But not everyone of these exotic eastern people believe in their holistic treatments. For many it is an option out of poverty. Growing up in the East, I have experienced and have been subjected to many kinds of pseudoscience, and I have seen poor people turning to quacks while rich people going to cities for medical treatment. It is a privilege of not seeing these hardships and complaining about vaccines or glorifying eastern traditions which came out of necessity, and not necessarily some exotic scientific knowledge that only exists in the East. This doesn’t mean we must support pharmaceutical industry blindly. We can criticize its business practices and ask for improvement in clinical trials. We can support traditional cures that have been proven to be effective. Skepticism is the hallmark of science, but re-litigating debunked ideas regarding climate science, evolution, biotechnology or molecular biology is a waste of time and resources, while causing real harm to people’s health and lives. Similarly, celebrities waste people’s time, money, and health by becoming modern-day snake soil salespeople of unproven naturopathy/holistic/fad treatments. Finally, it is important to know that it is the dose that makes a poison. Working in a testing lab, I know very few products are devoid of harmful ‘chemicals’ like mercury or lead. They might exist in the range of parts per trillion, but exist they do.

In conclusion, if we subject facts to our own biases, we lose all credibility in calling out others who might deny facts. There is no eastern, western, or Islamic science. Science is the study of nature to the best of our technological abilities. As our technology and knowledge keeps improving, so will our scientific hypothesis and theories. Standing up for science means standing up for rationality and the scientific method, without subjecting it to our ideological beliefs. It means standing up for funding, resources, independent research, support for students, engineers, healthcare professionals, and everyone working in the scientific field. Turning science into an ideological battle is the very antithesis of the scientific method.