Good reasons for a love-hate relationship with science

,,heartAmong the many researchers I know, many people have adopted either a pure cynical attitude towards the scientific establishment or fight with an intensive love-hate relationship with science (in academia as well as in industry). I personally see the following painful dilemmas which cannot be solved:

Science helps us to understand the world

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Science only provides fragmented knowledge

One of the strongest motivations to study science which I observe in young researchers is the wish tounderstand how life works and which mechanisms hold the universe together. However, when they enter the lab the will work on a very specific, well-selected, very focussed research question which only provides fragmented information about a tiny aspect of the huge and complex universe. The young researchers soon realize that their contribution will probably not change the world. Even a Nature or Science paper will probably not change the world but – in the best case – open a new research domain. In addition, young researchers learn that they know only after 5 to 10 years whether a publication has survived the rigorous process of replication/falsification by other researchers. My personal conclusion is that we have no other option than to become humble that we (as a single person and as part of humankind) will only understand a tiny fragment of reality.

Researchers create real knowledge and progress

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All scientific endeavour is pointless

Closely related to the previous point is the feeling that most – if not all research activities – do not lead to real progress but just add a little insignificant piece to the information overflow. Thomas Kuhn described the famous concept of a ‘paradigm shift’ in his highly influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Unfortunately, the author himself and many of his followers used this term in multiple different manners which diluted its meaning. As a result, a broad population of scientists sees scientific progress only as ‘paradigm shifts’ in the hollow form of “scientific trends” and “science bubbles” (cf. the stem cell bubble). This attitude breeds sarcasm, cynicism, and negativism in older scientists. On the other hand, there are publications which document scientific progress (see, for example, Diamandis & Kotler: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think). These may help to motivate young researchers substantially. However, it remains a matter of philosophical and political debate whether this progress is worth the effort.

Only rarely do older scientists develop an attitude of ‘wisdom’ that supports younger researchers in their careers and guides them.

Science helps us to make moral decisions

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Science does not help us to make moral decisions.

Science does not give us the answer to moral, ethical, value-based questions. Science only shows us predictable consequences in the best-case scenario or just a lot of contradictory information. Let me give you two simple examples. Research from the last decades produced pretty convincing evidence that smoking damages our body, for example, the heart and blood vessels, the lung, and the elastic fibers in the skin. Thus, it is rather predictable that the habit of smoking will result in a higher probability of developing cardiovascular problems, lung diseases, including carcinoma, and will make the smoker look older. Science does not give us the moral imperative to stop smoking. This value-based decision is made under the assumption that the long-term effects of smoking are worse than the long-term effects of non-smoking. However, in many important domains of our daily life there is so much contradictory scientific information that it does not help us to make easily value-based decisions. Typical examples are the multiple, contradictory studies about the best diet. However, I prefer to have a lot of contradictory information that can hopefully be filtered by clever meta-analyses than having no information or just doctrines without a scientific base.

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4 Comments

  1. What of the nature of (1) the motivation for the research and (2) the research result? Basic research, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, a minor advance in our armamentarium vs. applied research or knowledge for commercial application and profit.

    The extensive fundamental work on sodium-glucose co-transport and the discovery of SGLT 1, recently reviewed (http://physrev.physiology.org/content/91/2/733) is an example of basic research. This mechanism became the key factor in the success of Gatorade in 1985 when Dr. Robert Cade and associates developed the drink to replenish water and electrolytes in volume-depleted University of Florida football players; obviously, the drink is a commercial success.

    Recently, the SGLT 2 inhibitor dapagliflozin has found a place in diabetic blood glucose regulation by blocking the renal reabsorption of glucose, eliciting glucosuria, and reducing hyperglycemia, another potential commercial success if more extensive studies show the safety of the drug and inevitable analogs.

    The sequence is desirable: Basic research generating advances that foster applied research and eventuate in clinical applications. Although both activities can be found in academia, they can also be found in industry.

    Disclosure: None of my work was intended to have or had a commercial endpoint. And as a one-time colleague of Bob Cade and the person who introduced Gatorade to Stokely-Van Camp, I know that Bob offered the results of his research to the University of Florida only to have it declined – until Gatorade proved profitable.

    Frank Nash

  2. Another “reason for love / hate” is the ongoing, deep corruption by moneyed interests. Scientific research often costs money – sometimes a great deal of money, spread over a long period. When big money infuses mass media and even purchases politicians, “the Science” runs the risk of arousing mistrust, particularly when it involves an experimental gene therapy never properly tested on humans.

    “The Science” (as it is known), academia and medicine have all sacrificed a massive degree of trust since the all-too-timely premiere of the Coronavirus, with its miraculously-synchronous “vaccine” (in “quotes”), whose lab data show great injury and death (alas, the courts did not approve their 75-year suppression from the prying eyes of unbelievers). A combination of media fear barrage (for a virus with ~1% fatality), strong-arming with threats and sanctions, a clever shaming campaign and mandates managed to drive the masses into getting jabbed.

    Now what? Read the insurance statistics on 40% rise in unexplained “sudden deaths”. Check out the wave of athletes collapsing (and often dying) with heart conditions. Quite the coincidence. All driven by the love of money (The Science and Medicine) and Control (governments – never get enough).

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