“There are all sorts of questions to ask about science, beyond whether it’s correct or not” wrote Philip Ball in his new weekly column in the Guardian. Maybe! If it is true, the best way to explain it would be by example. In response to the first 100 online comments, Philip Ball specified his aims as
“writing about science as something with its own internal social dynamics, methodological dilemmas, cultural pressures and drivers” *
That still sounds a bit abstract. What are these cultural pressures and drivers?
“Every era,” it suddenly struck [Mukherjee], “casts cancer in its own image.” *
Still pretty abstract, but here it comes:
The US in the 70s was haunted by cold war fears of the enemy within – and so the “big bomb” was replaced by “the big C”.
HIV overshadowed the following decade, and then the search for cancer-causing viruses became oncology’s new obsession.
Now that we’re obsessed with genetics, the focus of research has moved on to hereditary causes. *
This example shows how scienctific progress is embedded in cultural drifts and currents. What makes a certain area of research fashionable is not a question that can be answered solely by ‘the facts’.
“When a disease insinuates itself so potently into the imagination of an era,” [Mukherjee] writes, “it is often because it impinges on an anxiety latent within that imagination.” *
In other words: Science is about facts (most people agree on that, I guess, even though there can be longish discussions on how theory-bound these facts are) but the way these facts are gathered and the way scientific progress is achieved is not independent from the cultural environment that science takes place in.
If you don’t do the right thing at the right time, you don’t get funded – it’s as simple as that. And scientist are only human, like the rest of us – their judgement of what constitutes an interesting problem worth pursuing during their career is of course guided by what the rest of society think are big problems.
This means: No matter how important facts are, science is not unconnected from the rest of society. Unfortunately, this connection is usually latent and implicit.
Hopefully, Philip Ball’s column will help to change that and explore more concrete examples of this interaction.
Image source: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/About/General/2011/12/2/1322847190250/Siddhartha-Mukherjee-Dece-007.jpg (Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian)