Last weekend American scientists left their labs and went out to protest.
They were demonstrating in support of science and all that it does to improve our modern lives, and lamenting that science has been devalued and is under attack. Scientists are protesting a proposed 30 percent budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, which conducts crucial research on climate. They are protesting steep cuts to the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies, which for decades have propelled the United States forward to be the world leader in science. They also are protesting the loss of access to government data on the environment and other targeted areas. The free exchange of data is critical to the success of the scientific process. Hundreds of thousands of scientists, students and other supporters turned out to March for Science in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, and hundreds of other cities and towns across America.
What has science done for us lately? Thanks to science we are living longer, healthier lives, breathing cleaner air, and drinking cleaner water. We can thank science for miracle babies born through reproductive technology, for extended human lives, cured diseases and mended hearts.
What is science?
The term “science” refers to a methodical approach to learning about the world. The scientific method involves a series of steps, which include recognizing and defining a problem, offering an hypothesis or explanation, and systematically testing the hypothesis by observation and experimentation. Data is collected, analyzed, and the original hypothesis is examined to see if it is supported, or must be rejected in favor of a new hypothesis. This empirical approach can lead to better understanding of the problem, to useful conclusions, and to solutions to the problem. Tested and verified scientific conclusions can be formulated into scientific theories. Scientific theories (which should not be confused with colloquial “theories” generated from half-baked or trivial ideas) are based on knowledge accumulated through scientific research. They are grounded in a process that is self-correcting, typically open to challenge by other scientists, and in the end, a process that inspires confidence in the value of the outcomes. The scientific method is a means to lift the veil of mystery, revealing facts and truth about the world.
Science is an objective approach designed to ask questions about our universe. It is not, and should not be, influenced by politics, profit, prejudice, or preconceived notions. We can have confidence that scientific theories model systems in an objective way. For instance, the cell theory explains how the lowliest bacterial cells and the loftiest human cells function in similar ways. The theory of evolution, based on a vast body of research on genes, cells, and ancient and modern organisms can explain how diverse life on our planet came to be and how it will continue to evolve. And the research of thousands of scientists collecting evidence on a warming planet objectively supports global climate change. Out of 16,208 peer reviewed journal articles on global warming and climate change published between 1991 and 2013, more than 99.8 percent of the experts agreed that human activity was responsible.
What science can do for us?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a baby born at the turn of the 20th century had a life expectancy of 47.3 years. In the early 1900s, infant mortality was high, women routinely died in childbirth, and tuberculosis and other infectious diseases were common and typically fatal. A baby born in 2015 has an average life expectancy of 79.3 years if born in the United States and 82.5 if Israeli born. Scientific advances in microbiology, nutrition, hygiene, immunology, pharmaceuticals, surgical techniques, and neonatal medicine have contributed greatly to the dramatic increase in average life expectancy. Some examples of life-extending developments include vaccines, antibiotics, clean air and water, and anesthesia. Thanks to the men and women who diligently study the world using a scientific approach, we can enjoy a higher quality of life.
Thanks to science, our world is cleaner and healthier than it was when I was a child. Years ago, I would end up with gobs of tar on my feet after a visit to the beach. I became adept at scraping the tar off with a broken shell, and I took it in stride as part of the beach experience. Nowadays, I am happy to report, beaches have improved thanks to environmental awareness, and thanks to new technologies, such as double-hull regulations that help control the worst offenders, the oil tankers. My childhood memories of shore birds on Long Island beaches include only seagulls and the occasional pigeon. Thanks to improvements in the environment, more bird species have returned; today we hear the shrill call of oyster-catchers, we watch piping plovers dash back and forth dodging waves, and we gaze at the graceful diving terns and cormorants. There also has been an increase in sightings of seals and whales in Long Island waters.
Scientific knowledge about how to preserve the environment has resulted in much improved natural areas for wildlife and people, a win-win situation. I’ve shared stories about the “good old days” of tar heels on the beach with my children and grandchildren, and I hope that these stories remain distant memories, so future generations can enjoy the new improved seashore.
The danger of rejecting science
What happens when science is marginalized and ignored? Science deniers wreaked havoc in the Soviet Union for decades, from the late 1920s to the 1960s, when Trofim Lysenko and his followers promoted an approach to agriculture that was not science-based. Lysenko’s pseudoscience, which denied genetics and Darwinian evolution, fed into communist ideology and attracted support of Soviet leaders, particularly the ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin. Under the influence of this anti-science campaign, thousands of scientists were imprisoned in labor camps, many were executed, and genetics research was halted. Scientific knowledge was severely impeded, and as crop yields worsened, the people suffered.
A more recent example of what can happen when science is ignored involves the disastrous movement that promotes an anti-vaccine policy. The anti-vax movement was based on a falsified research study suggesting a link between vaccines and autism, a link that was debunked rapidly and repeatedly by reputable scientists. The alarming anti-vaccine crusade has resulted in dramatic upticks in cases of the life-threatening diseases measles, mumps, and rubella.
Another example of anti-science bullies are the climate change deniers who reject solid scientific evidence to promote the interests of fossil fuel industries. This denial of science may lead us down an irreversible path to major climate disasters.
The Jewish view of science
What is the Jewish view of science? Besides the stereotypical Jewish parent’s goal of raising “my son or my daughter the doctor,” Jewish communities have a history of strongly supporting scientific inquiry. “When you raise the flag of science, a Jew salutes,” Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of biology at Yeshiva University, is quoted as saying.
Biblical and rabbinic sources support the notion that Jews should pursue tikkun olam, improving the world, a principle that includes using scientific progress to improve the quality of life. Another prime directive, the first mitzvah (commandment), in the book of Genesis, is “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it.” The passage is explained by commentators as God directing humans to use science and technology, albeit in a responsible way.
The stewardship of our world includes the biblical admonition of ba’al tashkhit, do not destroy, vandalize, or waste resources, as well as commandments about alleviating the suffering of animals. In addition, the directive v’rappo yirappe permits Jews to pursue medicine and become healers. As Jews, we are obligated in all of those areas. While using our world, we must be good stewards of our planet’s resources, minimize the suffering of animals, heal the sick, and leave the world a better place than it was when we came into it.
In that proud tradition, over thousands of years, we have many examples of Jewish scientists, physicians, explorers, and seekers of truth. The 12-century physician, astronomer, and philosopher Maimonides perhaps is the best known medieval Jewish scientist. In modern times, Albert Einstein, Salman Waksman, Rosalyn Yalow, and Israel’s Ada Yonath are just a few examples of the many Jewish scientists who were awarded Nobel prizes.
There is yet another crucial need to support the quest for truth and facts. Holocaust deniers seek to erase historic facts and cast doubt on the evidence and testimony of the darkest chapter in human history. Modern historic research uses scientific approaches and technology to confirm the events of the Holocaust. One example is the use of radar and radio waves to locate the escape tunnel Jews in Vilna dug during the Holocaust. We must support the empirical collection of facts and preserve documents, witness testimonies, and artifacts, to refute deniers and safeguard the historic record of those atrocities for future generations.
Science and health, food, conservation, and our pocketbooks
Science supports the search for objective knowledge and facts, and challenges those who seek to wipe out the truth. Science helps humanity move forward to improve the human condition by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, conserving our natural world, and preserving the unvarnished facts of history.
At least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, America has led the world in research productivity and technological innovation. This is due in large part to federal support for research. In the 1970s, federal support for cancer research and for basic research led to discoveries that initiated the genetic revolution, which in turn launched the more than 100 billion dollar U.S. biotechnology industry. Scientists studying cancer viruses discovered enzymes used to “clone” or make copies of genes. Basic research on hot spring bacteria led to the discovery of a heat-resistant enzyme now used in PCR technology. PCR has changed the face of forensic science (and many other fields) as it enables the detection and amplification of small traces of DNA left behind in drops of blood, semen, saliva, or a single hair. Those bits of DNA can be matched to their sources, whether they be suspects, victims, or uninvolved in the crime.
Major cuts in support of scientific research will endanger the American lead; we will fall behind other countries that support research. The loss of support will result in the loss of jobs, not only in research, but in the private sector, in industries that grow out of new discoveries, and we will lose out on new industries and technology that stimulate the economy. Younger scientists are most at risk and are likely to leave the field or seek employment in other parts of the world, resulting in a brain drain. American innovation will stagnate.
We all drink the same water and breathe the same air. We live on one planet, rife with bloody history and reveling in glorious accomplishments. Science has permitted us to improve our planet, and the last few decades have demonstrated that we can clean up some of our own environmental messes. Let us hope that the noble quest for truth through scientific inquiry will continue well into the future for the betterment of humankind.
Let science and scientists continue to march forward, with our support and encouragement.
Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman of Teaneck, the Jewish Standard’ science correspondent, is professor of biology at William Paterson University and author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World,” and “Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide.” She does research in microbiology and bioethics and is a champion of hand washing.