A SCIENCE PRIMER
By JIM NICHOLS
These are perplexing times for a scientist, at least they are for me. First, we have lived through a decade when a few otherwise perfectly logical people have questioned the value of childhood vaccinations. To virtually every medically connected scientist, vaccine availability has been one of the top two or three most important and, frankly, wonderful historical events of modern medical history. To have people question such a spectacularly positive scientific contribution is basically unfathomable.
Now with COVID-19 we see some serious misunderstandings of science again. Let us think about the strengths and weaknesses of science a bit by dealing with a few definitions.
At the very beginning of most biology courses, the instructor will introduce some definition of “biology.” It will probably be something like “. . . the science of life.” This, of course, calls for further definitions. What do we mean by “science?” What do we mean by “life?”
Perhaps surprisingly, defining “life” is not as straightforward as one might guess. About the best we can do is to suggest that something is “alive” if it demonstrates certain characteristics. Those would include such items as the ability to reproduce, a unique structure (such as constructed of cells), an ability to grow and develop, a host of interrelated biochemical reactions (metabolism), a responsiveness to their environment, and some evolving and adapting capabilities.
On the other hand, defining “science” can be as succinct as “the study and collection of knowledge in an orderly fashion.” Obviously, there are different versions of natural science such as astronomy, geology, biology, chemistry, and physics, but in a general sense, they would all fit under this same general definition.
To dissect this definition a bit more, note that science involves two activities. First, observations are made. Second, conclusions are drawn based on those observations.
In the purest sense, note that only matters susceptible to observation can be considered by science. Science has largely advanced through the decades as better observational techniques were developed. Imagine, for example, the wonder of the earliest users of telescopes or microscopes. What had been invisible was now, quite clearly, another whole domain.
There is limitation of science that becomes obvious here. If I read a poem or hear a symphony, it would be possible to observe and measure changes in my blood pressure and heart rate. However, that would not really address what that poem or symphony was doing to my soul. Clearly, there is a set of quite “real” topics that are not truly observable. That would include not only literature and music, but also morality, religion, even love. For instance, we might observe acts of courage, but we would not really be observing the courage itself.
I used the word “conclusion” tentatively before when I said that science involves making conclusions based on the observations. I emphasize that the accuracy of the conclusions is only as solid as the completeness of the observations. What I am doing here is using the word “conclusion” in a way different from how a person on the street might. To that person, “conclusion” sounds definite. To a scientist, “conclusion” is not nearly so definite since new observations are continually being made. These new observations may cause an earlier “conclusion” to be adjusted or even scrapped.
Scientists expect this and it does not upset them. They know that subsequent experiments and observations may well indicate that some earlier “conclusions” were dead wrong. If you went to a 1955 encyclopedia (remember those?), you could find an explanation for the rings around the planet Saturn. Since then, satellites have flown through those rings and taken numerous measurements; our conclusions about those rings have changed greatly.
The COVID-19 pandemic is allowing us to see science at its working best. There is no telling how many individuals and groups are scratching their heads and devising explanations of how this virus exists and behaves. Despite the trauma caused, many investigators are, frankly, energized by this significant problem and its offshoots. Numerous observations are being made and tentative conclusions are being devised. And then more observations are made, and the conclusions are re-evaluated. That is the way science works.
What bothers me is that many of those at the top of the governmental chains seem to fundamentally misunderstand the steps that science demands. Clearly, there is urgency here in terms of healthcare and the economy. However, it is not a time to second guess the proven scientific steps that are needed to allow science to do what it does best. What it does best is accumulate repeatable observations and draw conclusions that have the highest probability of being correct and, ultimately, helpful in this difficult time.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain