Science and culture – a symbiotic organism

Martian canals

Canals on Mars?

My job is all about ‘selling’ science – making it sound exciting, interesting and inspiring. Often this isn’t hard, because a lot of science is (I think) self-evidently amazing. The raw material doesn’t usually need a lot of polishing.

But writing about the process of science is harder. It involves a lot words like ‘trying’, ‘hoping’, ‘investigating’, ‘if’ and ‘but’. It sounds alarmingly human and error-prone, not at all like the shining quest for truth that science is ‘meant’ to be.

This week I was reading about science writing (it was all a bit meta) and came across David Dobbs’ great piece as part of a blog series to accompany the Wellcome Trust’s Science Writing Prize. This quote really stood out:

the science of any age is shaped by (a) the deep philosophical, cultural and social movements of its time and (b) the personalities, desires, ambitions and rivalries of the main players.”

I absolutely agree with Dobbs that understanding how culture contributes to science is a must-have – for anyone, not just scientists and science writers.

That’s because, to express it with another nice quote I saw recently, ‘the raw material of science is ideas’. Ideas come from human minds, which aren’t just computers. They’re steeped in assumptions, misconceptions and prejudice. And the process of science can be very human, with competition, feuds, sexism, money and all sorts of other sordid details.

Anyone who thinks this used to be true but that science is much more rational these days just needs to take a look at the #overlyhonestmethods tweets from today’s scientists, proving that they are definitely (and refreshingly) only human.

So it was really great to see the Medical Research Council celebrating 100 years of research into human health by highlighting some very human characters, at their Strictly Science exhibition. From the Sir Almroth Wright (sexist and sometimes known as ‘Almost Right’ by snarky colleagues) to Dame Harriette Chick who managed not to be held back by her gender, the point was clear – scientists aren’t driven only by the pursuit of truth (whatever that is), and are products of their time whether they like it or not.

And the MRC also looked to the future, asking people ranging from scientists and celebrities to schoolchildren what they hoped and feared for the next 100 years. The answers quickly became rather philosophical, a helpful reminder that it’s not a failing for science to be directed by human concerns. We should care about whether progress is heading in the ‘right’ direction, and we should always be asking what that means. Does a focus on cures for disease mean we’re not putting enough effort into the science of dying with dignity? When might we be able to stop using animals in scientific research?

It was a great exhibition – gently thought-provoking while being fun and not at all patronising. Science always tries to recognise its limitations – there are sources of error in every experiment, but also in the entirety of science itself. The known unknowns are tricky enough, but the unknown unknowns are always lurking in the background.

So what’s going to happen at the crossover of science and culture in the future? I think in the next 100 years we’ll get a bit closer to thinking about animals not as a separate group, but as just another form of life, no better or worse than humans. We might figure out a bit more about the brain, but only enough to realise how little we know. And maybe we’ll actually do something about climate change…

But the fun (or scary) part is that no-one knows. Science keeps muddling on, both hampered and fuelled by the times we’re living in. To bust out another favourite quote of mine, ‘imagine what we’ll know tomorrow’.

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