March highlights questions about benefits of science

On April 22, tens of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts marched for science in Washington, D.C., and in other cities around the globe. Many participants expressed overtly political messages, but, as Science News reported live via Twitter from the National Mall, many marchers also focused on how much they value science. People gathered en masse in part to recognize science as a fruitful and worthy endeavor that has improved lives — and thus is deserving of society’s support.

I suspect most Science News readers would agree with that message. It’s easy to list examples of how science has benefited humankind. Deeper understandings of how the human body works have led to effective medicines. Research on earthquakes, materials and mechanics has led to shake-resistant buildings; atmospheric science helps us predict the weather and prepare for storms. Einstein’s theory of relativity makes accurate GPS devices possible for navigation. In this issue alone, we report on ancient advances in dentistry that would have treated tooth decay, and a new technology that, if developed, could alleviate water shortages. Scientific understanding enriches people’s lives by putting their individual experiences into broader perspective.

But science’s achievements often mix risks with benefits; science brought us nuclear bombs, chemical weapons and DDT. Antibiotics fight disease but lead inevitably to antibiotic resistance. Computers enable many of life’s modern conveniences but bring worries about cybersecurity and cyberbullying.

And sometimes, science is done poorly or improperly, causing irreparable damage — such as the discredited British study that still fuels the antivaccine movement. Even the best science sometimes generates more confusion than clarity, as illustrated by current debates over the widespread use of statins. Science also tells us things that are hard to hear and that we don’t know how to fix: Climate change is melting glaciers, raising sea levels and, new research shows, even affecting the ecosystems in our beloved lakes.

Such complexities muddle the key questions that society faces when it comes to supporting science. Those who marched on April 22 are concerned with ensuring science’s role in shaping public policy and with how much funding science receives. And there are deeper concerns, too: Should society value science highly? Should science be trusted as the proper method for drawing conclusions about the workings of our world? Does science really enhance human health, promote happiness and enrich the human condition?

The marchers overwhelmingly agreed that the answers to those questions are yes. But science’s power has its limits; there are always gaps in the data, flaws in procedures and qualifications to the conclusions. Science is done by people, who themselves make mistakes — some innocent, some rooted in misconduct or attempts for personal benefit. That’s why science journalism has an important dual purpose: to report on science’s advances and benefits while also illuminating its flaws and shortcomings, so that science can improve and better serve society and thus continue to warrant the support and respect that so many of us have been giving it.

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society