Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Science, Culture, Knowledge, & Action

The Highly Esteemed Anjali has sparked the desire to post yet again. Please read her two passionate, well articulated posts on recent vaccination debates here and here.

As you can tell from these posts, Anjali and I definitely espouse different worldviews and paradigms that underpin many of our view points. I am especially grateful, then, for the clarity she brings at the end of her second post: the views of one part of a community (in this case, Christian) do not necessarily express the views of a greater whole.

I agree 100% with her conclusion that refusing an HPV vaccine because it would encourage promiscuity is not well informed or accurate belief. To prevent illness and disease based on such fear is not right.

However, I do wish to disagree with an underlying assumption that drives her conclusions: that science and religion have nothing to do with each other. Let them stay separate. To allow one to influence the other is to defile them both. In one light, this is very true. All attempts to make all science pre-determined doctrinal opinions ends you up Galileo--who unfortunately lost his life based on Greek thought parading as pure theology.

This, however, is not the kind of separation or "independent discovery" that I wish to call into question.

I would like to suggest that science and religion (just as easily replaced with culture) have a great deal more to do with each other than either would like to admit.

I cannot perceive of science as Science (with a capital "S"). That is, science as a purely objective and thoroughly truthful pursuit. Several (cultural) influences on my life prevent that. Yes, one aspect are my religious and moral convictions. But the other has as much to do with  my higher education in liberal arts--especially disability studies. From this paradigm, what science observes and concludes can as often be a cultural barometer as much as observation of "facts". "Facts" will always have implications as will later (or prior) interpretations influence the next observation or action.

What do I think this means for vaccinations?

I would say that the instinct of the "religious right" (which it does seem to be) to question science as sole authority is a good one but mishandled and used in this situation. Bioethics is a legitimate field and worth investing time, money, research, and personal energy into. The conclusion that vaccines should be used because they "prevent disease and tumors" is a faulty one if that can be extrapolated that science has a universal right to exterminate any and all conditions that are deemed "abnormal".

Let me state again, that I think it good that this vaccine was developed and its uses excellent.

On behalf of the religious right, I say that their questioning of its cultural implications is right and wise. But let those who question science do so with conscious gratitude of what it has provided and the world it has revealed to us. Let science discover and invent and let the researches and makers and users of its creativity be wise in what we utilize and what we reject. And may its acceptance or rejection never be out of fear or rumor or misinformation, the kind so often trumpeted loudly and uncritically from the unreliable source.


dolce vita said...

It's interesting that you brought up our different backgrounds as a way of thinking about science and culture together. The nature of my work requires that I keep things separate and the nature of your studies almost requires/encourages the opposite. When I interpret my data or read an article, I have to keep it as unbiased and dry as possible, I cannot let my hopes or what I 'imagine' happening influence what is really in front of me. Even when talking about the implications, we traditionally stay understated-we don't like to make grand conclusions proclaiming the greatness of our discovery. Scientists like to be left alone to do their work. That's not the best way to promote ourselves, but it's how we are most comfortable.

Annie said...

i love this, mostly because i strongly agree and also because i think you phrase it far kindlier than i ever would. i believe science and faith inform each other, and it's in letting them work together that we discover the most we can about the natural world.

i especially love your last paragraph. it advises and compels simultaneously.

Dana Ray said...

Anjali, do you not think that science and culture do interact in the moment of research? Not that you have to think about it. I'm thinking along the lines of IRB forms and approval needed from different committees etc. to proceed. Perhaps that is more in labs with human/animal subjects though. The process of science is intensely regulated because of both thoughtless and intentional abuse with science.

However, I completely agree with your distinction: there is a difference between discover and interpretation/application of that discovery. It can happen in the same paper but most often won't. Your insight into a scientist's mind is most helpful. :-)

And Anni: Thank you for your kind words!

dolce vita said...

Well, with IRB approval and such, we try to avoid the grander applications of our proposal as we present it to the committee. By law, the committee is required to have non-science representation, but that serves mostly to show that our research can a) be explained in a way that the general public will understand and b) is ethical according to the unbiased viewpoint of an impartial observer and c) has the potential to impact everyone, not just scientists. IRB approval is not so much for the interaction of science and culture, but rather to make certain that what we do is absolutely ethical, moral and does not cause harm or excessive pain (depends on the test) to the animals or people used in the study. If there is a debate during the approval process, so much the better, but it is unlikely, as far as I can tell.

Interpretation and application of discoveries takes time, over 20-50 years and occurs at a painstakingly slow pace. My results can be published in a paper this year and every subsequent paper that comes after it, no matter how detailed or mundane is a contribution to interpreting my results. It's why Nobel Prizes are awarded many years after the fact--we don't know, when we publish that paper, what it REALLY will tell us. Interpreting results is flexible and malleable-my interpretation of a paper today might be radically different from a year from now, as we get more and more data.

While I wholeheartedly agree with you, Dana, that science and society inform each other (society gives us problems to solve, we tell society how to solve them), I disagree that science and faith inform each other. Attributing new avenues to my research or any research as a result of anything other than empirical data (and here, society, rather than faith, can be measured to an extent), goes against my training as a scientist. No matter our belief system, when we start relying on it to come up with new theories, we lose confidence in the scientific validity of our results. It's why we even have to ignore that 'gut instinct' when we look at disappointing results-even if we know, in our core, that those bad results aren't real and that our ideas are correct, we can't put that into a paper and expect the scientific community to accept our rationale.

Faith keeps us human-it prevents us from forgetting about the bigger picture-of what we are trying to achieve and for whom, but as a scientist, I can never allow faith to dictate or help me decide how to conduct science.