Science, truth and modesty

The Martian film poster [Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons]
Mark Watney, the character played by Matt Damon in the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster The Martian is stranded all alone on Mars. But he announces defiantly that the only way he can survive and return to Earth is to “science the shit out of this!” This quote came as music to the ears of scientists worldwide, and all those who saw science as the all-redeeming vehicle for seeking truth, and the sole authority to make life better for us earthlings has generally been assumed by the larger public. But is it really so?

To begin with, what we accept as science is what is published in academic journals after experimentation and after scrutiny by expert reviewers. But recent evidence points out that several experiments published in reputed journals are not always replicable – meaning they do not yield the same results when the experiment is performed again. In other words, the science behind the experiments may not be reliable or worse, fake.

Failure is the stepping stone to success and science should also be allowed to fail if it has to succeed eventually, some of you may say. Unfortunately, history is filled with examples of “good science” having influenced governments and industries to take serious decisions impacting humans and nature, but with disastrous results.

In 1980, an academic letter in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that opioids (a morphine-like narcotic used to relieve pain) were not addictive. This declaration motivated leading healthcare specialists to recommend its usage. Today, it is widely acknowledged that opioids are highly addictive with deadly consequences – to the extent that opioid manufacturers in Canada and the US are being sued for “misbranding” and creating a “health care crisis”.

In the 1980s, neonicotinoids came to be used as one of the world’s most favourite pesticides for use in agriculture; of course, after approval by scientists, environmental agencies and government committees. Unfortunately, these pesticides also had disastrous consequences on bee populations across the globe, with implications for food crop production since bees serve as vital links in pollination. In 2013, the European Union and several other countries banned neonicotinoids with the EU planning to reinforce the ban in 2017.

Do these examples mean that science is flawed? Far from it – it only means that science also has its share of uncertainties and needs to be more modest about what it can do. People still trust science, but science also needs to trust people, as Wiebe Bijker points out. Scientists have been accorded a “priest-like status” in society today. But we need to realize, as Tom Nichols suggests, that “science is a process, not a solution”. We need a social system which rewards scientists who are more patient and more rigorous than those who publish unverified results for the sake of attracting industrial patronage.

So while Mark Whatney used the power of science to return safe to earth in “the Martian”, we need to be more modest and democratic if we need an earth to continue living on – this includes  listening to all groups in society, including the “non-scientists”.



4 thoughts on “Science, truth and modesty

  1. Good post Satish! Few points to make:

    – Science is conducted by humans and therefore always will be subject to human flaws, biases and prejudices. The beauty of science is that the actually process of it helps to weed these flaws out over the long-term. Like your article states, science is a “process not a solution” that helps to move us closer to the truth over the long-term. Science never claims absolute truth – it only ever states that given the current set of data we have at the moment, the following model/ conclusions are the best that we have that account for that data. When new data come on the scene that don’t fit a currently accepted model or conclusion then the model needs to change to take that data into account and thereby moves us closer to the truth.

    – My other point is that currently the main failing of the peer-review process is to favour publishing studies with “positive” outcomes compared to those with a “negative” outcome. In my opinion this is a reflection of our human flaws and is an impediment to the scientific process. All outcomes provide valuable data that help us build models that a truer reflection of reality.

    Love the posts, keep them coming 🙂


  2. I love this post. The infallible facade of science is currently causing plenty of human suffering. From the assumption that God and our own minds don’t exist (materialistic reductionism) to the incredibly upside-down treatment of type 2 diabetes, science needs to be seen for what it is: a human pursuit. Nothing we do is worthy of replacing common sense and spiritual awareness. 🙂


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