November 1, 2015

BANKS | Scientists — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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There is such thing as ugly science. You know, the kind that leads to media sensationalizing, fear-mongering by the ignorant and the miseducation of the masses (look up the “scientific” root of the anti-vaccine movement for one infamous example). I’m already sick of talking about ugly science, which doesn’t deserve more than a few sentences condemning the stuff to hell for its negative effect on the STEM community.

Bad scientists, on the other hand, do exist. They may not be bad people, but money, political corruption or the pressure to publish often leads them to bad decisions. They often produce ill-advised conclusions that, technically, could be drawn. For evidence, look no further than the legions of diligent pro-fracking scientists lurking on corporate payrolls. More often than you’d think, anti-science escapes peer-review unscathed and becomes published. Once that happens, there’s no stopping companies, government leaders and other non-STEM folk from using the research to peddle a particular narrative. Yet it’s not even the ugly or bad scientists that worry me the most.

I’m most concerned about the good scientists, for whom I have a tremendous amount of love and respect. These passionate souls fling wit and innovation back and forth in lab meetings, engaging in the most heated of debates on the merits of one technique or theory over another.

Even when I graduate and abandon biology for a career in the humanities, I intend to remain immersed in biology’s captivating community. But as much as the work of good scientists astounds geeks like myself, they’re also the ones who frustrate me the most. To a lot of people, the fruits of a good scientists’ labor look like they were plucked from a magic field, one which only a select few can successfully enter. Thus, not many can appreciate the raw brilliance and compelling language of primary literature — or so society would have you believe.

My first true exposure to the secrets of science was a research internship during the summer after junior year of high school. There are two ways I could describe this project: I can say that I studied the kind of wasps that inspired the horrifying chest-bursters from Alien, which have babies that eat you from the inside out. Or, I can say that I studied the reproductive and physiological impacts of parasitism via parasitoid wasps on pea aphids that harbor a facultative symbiont, mediated by a bacteriophage. See the difference? If not, allow me to clarify.

I won first place for my presentation, and so I fancied myself a scientist and dove into the world of research. Fast forward to this past summer, where I discovered firsthand what true autonomy and rigor felt like while doing research once again. Needless to say, I realize and admit now that I’m a terrible, terrible scientist. I lack the meticulousness required or, dare I say, the work ethic. I’m at peace with that. Apparently, it was my presentation of the information that won me the award.

I’m not the one you should trust with navigating a research site, but I know that I can navigate communities adeptly. I have no shortage of confidence in my ability to tell a gripping story, describing events and details so that they become vivid and accessible. I write on end about love of all people, but I know when to inject emotions like anger and sadness into my words so that they might be heard by those who refuse to listen.

And so the same must be done for science. We, those lovers of inquiry, need storytellers to distill the aforementioned fruits of primary literature into a meaningful and appealing beverage. Otherwise, STEM folk can never hope to slough off the debilitating untrustworthiness that some have unceremoniously draped over them.

Scientists have a knack for thinking critically about the work of their peers and pointing out areas for improvement. In the world of good science, this skill proves invaluable. Yet academics also have a tendency to apply this same line of thinking to their interactions with those outside that world. For this reason, the general public continues to perceive academics as pretentious, cold and esoteric. This exclusivity presents the most salient danger of all: the danger of believing that not doing science and understanding science are mutually exclusive, or that one who does not engage in scientific research cannot understand that research.

Consider the renowned astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson and famed science communicator Bill Nye ’77. Neither of them are biologists. Neither of them have conducted research in evolution. Yet they have both publicly defended the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution because they have the capacity to read, interpret and articulate the findings of others. No one challenges their credibility or questions their resolve when it comes to the importance of spreading awareness. Imagine the world we’d live in if the only people allowed to explain the perils of anti-vacciners’ beliefs were people with doctorates in immunology or disease.

At the core of everything that occurs in this world, science prevails. Regardless of whether or not we have the explanation already, we as a species have the latent potential. When people  contribute their energy, hearts and — quite frankly — dollars, society can discover and create wonders. We can also use this latent potential to avoid the destruction and disaster that results from a reckless abuse of our intellectual capital. But none of this is possible without people to communicate. No change takes place without a middle woman or man to serve as the bridge. And a bridge is only as good as its connection to both sides of a stream.

Granted, times will always arise when science communicators cannot fully grasp the work of a researcher from simply looking over a paper. During these times, it is the responsibility of those who seek understanding to reach out to the scientists, humble themselves and learn all of the details. I wonder though: If and when they do so, how will the scientists respond?

Amiri Banks is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at abanks@cornellsun.com. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.