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”.