Tom McKone: It’s time to re-embrace science

By | November 11, 2020

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tom McKone, of Montpelier, who is a retired English teacher, principal and library administrator.

“It is a great day for science. It is a great day for humanity when your vaccine has 90% effectiveness.” That was part of Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla’s response to the announcement Monday of the promising trials of the Covid-19 vaccine that his company and the German drugmaker BioNTech have developed. The results are based on early analysis and more is in progress, so this is not a fait accompli; however, it appears that this vaccine will be submitted for FDA approval later this month and will be more effective than scientists had hoped for. Some vaccines are only 50% effective; this may, indeed, be a great day for science and humanity. 

After four years with a president who has been antagonistic towards science and has actively undermined it, Americans are ready to re-embrace it. In his acceptance speech, President-elect Joe Biden said that the people had given him a mandate “to marshal the forces of science” in the battles to stop the coronavirus and to save the climate. Tens of millions of us are with him. Unfortunately, the political reality is that, as a society, we tend to pick and choose when we want listen to science. Even with the pandemic and climate change — two very serious and obvious problems for which science has some solid answers — Biden is in for a fight.

The pandemic and climate change are just the beginning. The current administration has rolled back scores of environmental and health regulations, restricted the freedom of government scientists, reduced the participation of scientists on advisory committees while increasing industry representation, made numerous unscientific statements, reduced international scientific cooperation, belittled scientists, undermined scientific institutions and damaged America’s reputation as a leader in science. Biden has his work cut out for him.

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Why should we trust science? Science has a long, proven record of successes that go back for centuries and that have enabled doctors, engineers, technicians, inventors, designers and builders and makers of all kinds to create the modern world we live in. It has enhanced and enriched almost every aspect of our lives, allowed us to live longer and in better health, and provided us with our high standard of living. All day long we are surrounded with proof that science works.

Science — the objective effort to understand the world around us — is an ongoing process of collecting and evaluating information and making constant updates. Not every bit of info or every conclusion is correct. We sometimes get frustrated with reports about what to eat or not eat and other popular news stories that seem to keep changing; the problem is that those reports haven’t yet passed scientific muster and the media are jumping the gun when they treat them as though they are proven science, which they usually are not.

Today’s scientists include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and atheists. They include Democrats, Republicans, Communists and Social Democrats. They live on every continent and in most countries around the world. As a group, in terms of politics or religion, they don’t have much in common, because science is not about politics or religion. When scientists let politics, religion or other types of personal opinion or preference — or a corporate paycheck — affect their work, the result is bad science, which the self-critical scientific community weeds out. The Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is a good example of the importance of international scientific cooperation: in addition to being developed by American and German companies working together, and the CEO of the American company was born in Greece and began his career working in Pfizer labs there. (Pfizer, by the way, notes that it took no federal money to support its work.)

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Of course, science is by no means perfect or a panacea. Sometimes individual scientists or even large numbers of them have gone astray. A significant part of the scientific community has sometimes made horrid errors, such as promoting eugenics, the existence of race and the superiority of white people — none of which came close to actually being science. Notably, all were promoted by socially prominent white men. Today, the scientific community is larger than ever before and includes far more women and people from around the world, providing a diversity that strengthens the scientific community and makes it more secure and trustworthy. Scientists have sometimes learned things that we wish were not true, such as how nuclear fission can be applied; however, the terrifying application of that knowledge — nuclear weapons — is the result of political decisions.

This year, worldwide, hundreds of thousands of people have died who didn’t need to, because science was ignored. It has been worse in places like the United States, where science hasn’t consistently been taken seriously. Since Gov. Phil Scott and most Vermonters have committed to “following the science,” we have done much better with Covid-19 than the nation as a whole; we need to maintain that commitment and to strengthen our efforts in other areas, including climate change. Climate scientists sounded alarms on global warming decades ago, and what they said would happen is now happening. But we didn’t listen.

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Science doesn’t tell us what to do, but it’s pretty good at laying out the likely results of our actions or inactions. Albert Bourla’s connection between a great day for science and a great day for humanity is right on target. When used properly, science can enable us to improve our lives and quality of living and to ensure the same for our children and grandchildren. For the sake of humanity, it’s time for us to re-embrace science and to vigorously use it to inform our decisions about how to live on this tiny, deeply interconnected and interdependent planet.

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