Last week, I came across an article in the New York Daily News entitled “Researchers accidentally release parasitic wasp butterflies in Finland.”
Parasitic wasp butterflies? That caught my attention. According to the piece, which describes an “inadvertent” introduction made by Finnish researchers, a particular class of butterfly now has a threefold — threefold! — parasitic threat: a parasitic bacterium inside a parasitic hyperparasitoid inside a parasitic wasp inside the butterfly (say that five times fast). The article explains, “The rampant spread of the various parasites has left the original butterfly that was intended to be the focus of the study, the Glanville fritillary, to experience major fluctuations in population on the Finnish island of Sottunga, according to The Guardian.”
It’s stories like these that remind me of that classic quote from Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Let me take a moment to say that what we are able to accomplish with scientific innovation is a downright miracle. On the medical side, consider how quickly the COVID-19 vaccine was produced, the advancements we’ve made in treating some of the most known debilitating illnesses, gene therapy, and so forth. And that’s not to mention the development of greener technologies, space exploration, and nanotechnology. Scientific advancements are serving to make our world a better place.
I could sing its praises all day, but what I can’t do is deify it. Science has also been used to manufacture some of the worst horrors: nuclear warheads, biochemical warfare, eugenics, human experimentation, etc. Ultimately, science can be neither the paragon of virtue nor the epitome of vice, because it is, by definition, a process. It’s what we do with it that matters.
More and more, I think we are veering away from a healthy appreciation of science and toward a religious view of it. There’s a term for this, actually: scientism. A dogmatic, philosophical approach to science, Merriam-Webster defines it as “exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).”
To me, this manifests in common phrases bandied about in our political discourse — “believe in science”, “trust the science”, “the science is settled” — but these phrases are meaningless. Science, a process, is never settled and isn’t an object to be believed in. Science is ever-evolving as we gain more information about the world around us. There is also the potential for biases and poorly run experiments, but even if we didn’t need a margin of error, the scientific process is still subject to the time and space it operates in. The beautiful thing about science is not only in what it reveals, but the whisper of uncertainty it holds for tomorrow.
As long as we human beings are flawed, so will our science likely be. This should generate in us a sense of humility as we talk through today’s issues. We can only have productive conversations about the importance of acknowledging scientific revelations if we also maintain the importance of scientific inquiry, holding even our surest findings with an open hand. Science is the art of asking questions of the world around us — a noble pursuit we should neither exaggerate nor underestimate.