Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Skepticism of Science

Matthew Gerstbrein
Dr. Adam Johns
English Comp 0200
15 October 2014
Skepticism of Science
            The science of biology is easily one of the most influential sciences ever to be developed. It would be difficult to overstate the influence it has in the world today. Because of the immense impact it has, many laymen regard the science as absolute, and that any “fact” dispensed under the name of biology should be accepted and taken without question. I believe that Lewontin wrote “Biology as Ideology” under this theme, to show readers that biology research conducted by humans has its flaws. While the science itself may be pure, the research conducted by fallible humans can be  examined, re-examined, and questioned many times over in order to prove its validity, or lack thereof. Using this understanding, gained from the book, we can apply it to current biological (or any, for that matter) science and determine the truth in the claims made by science.
            It is my assertion that “Biology as Ideology” can be useful in showing us the imperfections of scientific research, along with the rare but existent lies that are cloaked under the name of science. The book provides many examples of evidence suggesting biology is far from perfect. One example is with regards to the human genome sequencing project. Many scientists, backed by large companies funding research, claim that knowing the sequence of the human genes would allow us to easily identify genetic defects which cause diseases. The precise language from the book is “if we had a reference from a so-called normal individual, and we compared bits and pieces of the sequence from a person with some disorder, then we could locate the genetic defect that causes the disease.” (Lewontin 49). The end result is that by completing the genome sequencing project, scientists could treat diseases with effectiveness and efficiency like never before. Another benefit, the book states that scientists claim, is that we could locate the differences between humans and apes. Or in the dramatic words from the book, “we would know what it means to be human” (Lewontin 49).
            While these claims seem powerful, the book grounds us in reality. The problem with what scientists say is that they treat all humans as if they were alike. Conversely, the book says, “there is an immense amount of variation from normal individual to normal individual” (Lewontin 49). The reality is that scientists can claim whatever they want, but there are numerous problems in the claims. The trouble is that anything stated as fact from a scientific source will be accepted as such by the general public. This book shows that these are merely theories, and that we should treat them that way, taking everything with a grain of salt.
            Another reason scientific claims should be questioned is that science often doesn’t operate for the sake of pure science, but instead in the name of profit. The book’s example of this comes from corn production. The debate for decades in the 20th century was whether hybrid corn or high-yielding plant seeds was the more effective method for producing corn. Hybrid corn was eventually decided as the most effective method. However, scientists eventually discovered the truth of it in the past 30 years. They realized that “By method of selection, plant breeders could, in fact, produce varieties of corn that yield quite as much as modern hybrids.” (Lewontin 56). Because the hybrid method has greater benefit in the national economy, both the United States and Canadian Departments of Agriculture have convinced many that the proper method is the hybrid one. What was called science has been revealed to be of purely commercial interest, and in the words of the book, “Once again, what appears to us in the mystical guise of pure science and objective knowledge about nature turns out, underneath, to be political, economic, and social ideology.” (Lewontin 57). Again, book reveals to us the reasons why we should be more skeptical of scientific “facts”.
            Armed with this understanding from the book, how can we apply it to other scientific sources? We could test it on an article from the New York Times titled “Can Answers to Evolution be Found in Slime?”. The article discusses the other-worldly nature of these slime molds and the interesting, human-like decisions that the amoeba make. While it seems objective and factual, the lesson taken from the book is to question what you read as it relates to science. So, could there be some ideas in the article that are misleading, just as there were in the human genome sequencing project (and still are)? Or there could be some information the article is attempting to convince readers of for the sake of economic profit, just as there was in the case of hybrid corn? Possibly, as at one point the article discusses current research of the slime molds. It states “By analyzing the DNA of different slime mold species, researchers are reconstructing their evolutionary history, which turns out to reach back about a billion years.”
Since research costs money, this DNA analysis is what will cost money in the case of these slimes. Perhaps the article is an attempt to defend the need for research money for slimes, since it then discusses the interesting features of the slimes, which would convince readers of the usefulness of the research. The article shows its usefulness when discussing how the slimes can simulate effective highway systems and solve complex mathematical problems. While it is difficult to accuse the article of being manipulative or misleading in any way, the possibility certainly exists, and the book “Biology as Ideology” encourages us to continue to think along that path. Be skeptical of science.

Works Cited
Lewontin, R. C. Biology As Ideology. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991. Print.

Zimmer, Carl. "Can Answers to Evolution Be Found in Slime?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Oct. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. Your introduction is a little vague. It’s right, as far as it goes, but it’s too long, since it says so little. L. does want us to be skeptical, but that’s a pretty general description which could have been presented very quickly. You spend several paragraphs summarizing some important aspects of Lewontin’s thought. You’re showing that you understand some important material from Lewontin, but this is simple summarization, without a focus - it would be better if you applied Lewontin more directly (and earlier) to his article.

    I could have done with a *brief* summary of the article. I’m totally sure you picked a good topic (who doesn’t like slime molds?).

    What you’re not really doing here is engaging with the details, or using Lewontin to analyze the details. Talking about the finances is ok, but that avoids talking about the details of the article.

    So I read the article to give you some possible ideas. Did you notice how the metaphor of “police” is used for the slime mold’s weird proto-immune system? Also, note the strict division between lab-friendly and lab-unfriendly species of slime mold. Guess which ones are going to get sequenced? (The structure of laboratory science is such that we tend to study questions which are easily studied in laboratories, which skews things pretty badly). Also, did you note the comparisons between humanity and slime molds in terms of “values”? None of this is *easy*, but any of these moments in the text could have been discussed using Lewontin.


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