Science in a vacuum

Good science, and good scientists, need to be connected to the society.


Muhammad Hamid Zaman October 19, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

The last year and a half have shown both the powers of science and its fundamental limits. On the one hand, we have vaccines that have saved millions of lives, and new rapid diagnostics that are able to detect the presence of the virus before it is too late. These, and other innovations reaffirm the value of investment in science and technology. Innovations in video conferencing have offered new solutions in education and pedagogy. There is ample data demonstrating the value of vaccines and an accompanying cautious behaviour. But large groups of people are unwilling to pay heed to that data. Science — we are finding out — may not have the power to change behaviour.

In cities and towns, from Pakistan to Peru, from US to Uganda, the societies large and small are seeing the limits of science. Vaccines are a powerful shield, but only for those who get them. There are some who are rejecting vaccines for a variety of reasons, there are many others who desperately want them but our collective apathy towards the poor is keeping it out of their reach. Investment in science is not an antidote to colonialism.

The ongoing pandemic has also exposed the deep fissures in society. The have-nots are far more vulnerable to the disease than the haves. Those who worked multiple jobs did not have the luxury to sit in their pajamas in their bedroom and do all of their work on zoom. The impact of the pandemic on their short- and long-term mental health is going to be substantial. Science alone won’t solve their problems that stem for injustice and inequity.

This is not to say that science is not important or relevant. Quite the contrary, in fact. A reflection of the last eighteen months should tell us is that scientists and public health experts need solid grounding in science, but equally need a strong understanding of society and a better sense of the human experience. It is not hard to figure out in the light of the past year and a half that our policymakers and practitioners should have a stronger grounding in social sciences and humanities.

A good place to start is to ask ourselves what opportunities we create for our future scientists, engineers and public health professionals to engage with history, culture and the humanities. A cursory look at our training programmes, both in professional institutions and in the grades leading up to them, tell us that there is no expectation to read beyond the subject at hand. Our clinicians, scientists, engineers and public health professionals have no opportunity to grapple with ideas of philosophers, no platform to analyse sociological arguments, and no avenue to reflect on the evolution of inequity that prevails across the globe. There is no course on great books and no framework to critique the ideas on which the society is founded.

Some have argued that our students — in various stages of their training — have shown little interest in reading beyond what is taught. I look at the problem slightly differently. We have never asked, or expected, them to read beyond what is taught. The issue is not that the students are not interested, it is that we have told them not to be interested.

I still remember a lesson from my 8th grade science book. It was about sound waves. The argument was that sound waves do not travel in a vacuum but rather require a material medium to travel. But perhaps the lesson was about more than mere mechanical waves. Good science, and good scientists, need to be connected to the society. In a vacuum, the waves of their discovery are not going to go far.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2021.

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