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Don’t keep the faith

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It’s clear in most walks of life that science is the new religion. This doesn’t mean people have stopped believing in God – or in a God of some form. It’s more that so many of us now ‘believe in science.’

More than this , countries and economies are fueled by it, and technology is selected because of it.

There can be no denying that science has carried human society a very long way. Fossil evidence suggests the stone hand axe was developed around 1.76 million years ago, and science is inseparable from the progress we’ve made since then.

But it’s important to distinguish science, the systematic approach humans use to understand the world around us, from technology, the tools we develop – using science – to change the world around us.

At its core, science is simply a methodology to answer questions, based on principles of hypothesis-testing, rigor and reproducibility.

Science has done extraordinarily well at some things, like technology, and not so well at others, like explaining the ‘big questions’ of why we’re here or how we got here. But the almost universal dependence of human society on technologies that few people really understand has made many of us ‘disciples.’

I’d argue it’s fine to be a disciple, just not a blind believer. Because then you’re open to being hoodwinked – and there’s an awful lot of that going on.

We must accept that science has done very little to answer the biggest questions that affect the survival of the human species in the coming generations – such as how humans can avert the current mass extinction linked to habitat destruction, climate change and pollution. Or how we’re going to provide food, water and healthcare to the 10 billion or so people expected on planet Earth by 2050.

But such is our belief in technology that the vast majority, including powerbrokers in governments and major corporations, are confident it will save us just in the nick of time. Relatively few are concerned about collateral damage to the world around us.

Science, ultimately, may tell us that in the tiny fraction of human evolutionary time that represents the period since the Industrial Revolution, humans did too little, too late.

The roles of science and technology are also often at odds in the field of medicine. Science helped identify the existence of penicillin as an antibiotic. Technology allowed for its mass production and the capacity to deliver antibiotics to anyone who might need them.

Science also first suggested that antimicrobial resistance might present a very real problem, even more so in developing countries where the infectious disease burden is high and there are cost constraints on testing for resistant infections. But the industry that controls the technology, the pharmaceutical industry, is firmly in the driving seat.

There’s money to be made, and the vision of a ‘a pill for every ill’ is still alive and well in the minds of millions. That’s despite multiple, continuously voiced concerns expressed by eminent scientists around the world over our extreme dependence on antibiotics.

I continue to be horrified when I hear of babies and young children being put on course after course of antibiotics with no communications from the prescribing doctors as to what the long-term consequences on the microbiome and other facets of health might be, let alone what other options could be deployed.

We must wake up to the fact that if we are blinded by science, we are also very susceptible to being manipulated by those who misuse it. And the most important rule of thumb that has emerged from decades of revelations in this area is that vested interests in a technology, which includes governments and corporations, have a great capacity to manipulate the science behind it.

In the medical sciences, we are simply meant to accept that meta-analyses and systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) should be the highest form of evidence on which clinical decisions are made.

That’s despite our knowing that RCTs reflect artificial conditions that are at odds with the complexities of the environment and myriad interactions that take place in the real world, and they’re also dominated by pharmaceutical interests because they’re too expensive for anyone else to carry out.

Science is nothing more than a problem-solving system that organizes knowledge in particular ways and allows hypotheses to be tested and validated by comparison with what we can observe.
It’s therefore utterly absurd to denigrate a system of medicine that has been demonstrated to deliver very positive outcomes, such as acupuncture, herbalism or homeopathy, simply because the mechanism isn’t yet understood at the level of general consensus.

Let’s get used to the fact that science isn’t magic, the universe is a very complex place, and we are only at the beginning of our journey of understanding.

Philosophers, theologists and physicists are just three groups of academics who will tell you we will probably never be all-knowing.

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