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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Science: Seductress or Saviour

From the time of cave dwellers fashioning flints and hunting tools, to today’s modern communication systems, science has played a part in serving the human condition in its quest to better itself. I see science as an overall benefit to society; however it is only when you cast a retrospective eye upon the seductress that is embodied by science that you realize it’s not all rosy round the edges.

It is fair to say that contemporary western culture holds science up as one of the pillars of society, far outstripping the role of the church as an authority of how and why our world works. So it is perhaps unfortunate that when we look at the world’s current predicaments the blame can almost be put squarely at the foot of science.

Take for instance the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that was recently opened in Norway. Built for the sole purpose of storing the seeds of all plant life on Earth, it is heralded as a step forward in ensuring that in times of famine, war or GE contamination we can reproduce food continuously. But think for a moment. Isn’t it science that came up with genetic engineering in the first place, or science that caused changes in farming to the point of destroying the land? And Victoria students shouldn’t find it too hard to connect the dots between science and munitions advancement.

Science has a way of providing new and interesting methods of bettering ourselves, but at what cost? How much accountability are we placing on the scientific community? How much accountability do we hold against the dairy farmer mixing a cocktail of pesticides to rid his farm of pests, or the plastics manufacturer who makes that pump bottle you’re sipping?

The easy answer for most is that the government will be there to intervene if a threat is present. But can you rely upon policy having enough forethought to protect you, or the generations to come? The truth is society chooses to look at life through ideological lenses and as a result many of the costs can be rationalized and marginalized to accommodate a technology that will advance the nation. Even worse is when a new scientific breakthrough occurs and there is no guide to what the repercussions will be.

Think DDT, BZP, LSD, Asbestos, CFCs (the stuff that was in your fridge, but ate the ozone) all these products were legal until it became clear they (maybe) shouldn’t be.

Science can be seen as the wheel that the hamster of society is constantly treading. A cyclical event which humanity has never tired of, and in all probability never will. Science is endemic to human survival, while conversely being one of the things we try to survive the effects of.

Climate change is our generation’s cold war, played out on a battlefield far from the everyday hum drum of life. We don’t get information, not through lack of reporting but rather from lack of knowledge, and every step of the way we are told of the dangers that we face.

Over two hundred years ago the world underwent transformations never imagined before, by virtue of the industrial revolution. beginning with steam powered machines, it was to start a golden period for the globe. Throw in a splash of coal and a dash of nuclear. Mix in the combustion engine, a must have item in NZ, and spice it up with an electric car, fast becoming a viable alterative to fossil fuels.

If you connect the dots you see a movement towards better science initiatives. Wiki Fusion if you don’t already know what it is and see the future.

What you might not see is the energy and expenditure that is going into these advancements. I asked my mechanic how much cheaper and easier it would be to fix my old, yet trusty 1986 Hyundai Excel over my old man’s 2007 V8 Holden and after words unprintable even to this publication I was told about how difficult new engines are and how expensive new parts can be.

The science that is solving our problems through intuition is also requiring us to use more energy to do it. The question I ask is where is this energy going to come from?

The need to reduce the emissions caused by fossil fuels is seen as an urgent issue by governments around the world. So scientists came up with Bio-Fuels, I can hear you say great, awesome, wish I had thought of it. There’s just one slight problem with Bio-Fuels. The crops used to feed much of the world have now been siphoned off to the subsidized, read profitable, market of alternative fuels.

This highlights another issue with science and its offspring – externalities, the annoying 3rd party add on’s you get as a result of your first problem.

As Professor Jonathan Boston of the school of Government the points out, policy changes in environmental legislation have had unintended consequences for business, “Business went from, oh my state intervention, to oh my, a new economy”. He is of course talking about food miles and carbon credits.

I believe in capitalism, without it we wouldn’t have, um investment in, ah science. It does however hijack the road to restoration that is a necessity in climate science. So now not only do we have more hurricanes and the delightfully pleasant El Niño (other than the farmers, who’s complaining about the sunny weather?), we now have to buy back the miles we fly through whatever airline we are on, so we can feel as though we are doing the right thing. The cost of exporting our meat also increases due to artificial costs associated with food miles.

Science though is a business. Technological, physiological, sociological issues are increasingly seen as issues that can be dealt with in a clinical, scientific manner. Prescribe a pill here and there and whamo, you have fixed somebody. Better yet, let’s do a spot of neurosurgery, that’ll fix em up right. Anyone remember lobotomies being seen as sound scientific procedure?

Prescription medicine has increased the immunity to diseases that were once a bane on human life. It also gave rise to an industry devoted to fixing anything from erectile dysfunction to depression, the latter of which has only last month provided a source of much contention over the supposed benefits of antidepressants, after an international team of researchers disputed their efficacy.

A visiting Canadian nurse completing at stint at Wellington hospital is amazed at the lower threshold for prescribed medicine in New Zealand as apposed to North America, where ads for pep pills are as common as bank ads.

She explained that the availability of drugs allows for easy access to a plethora of mood enhancers or cancer inhibitors. Thankfully, or not if your mother needs Herceptin, the industry for meds in NZ is yet to begin in earnest.

Though this brings out bigger dilemmas for the medical fraternity globally. When you get a large swath of the world’s bacteria becoming immune to penicillin or argumentin (the stuff you got when you slept with that person you shouldn’t have) infections and diseases become more formidable and yet another issue begins.

We feed truck loads of antibiotics to cattle to keep them free from disease; this raises the chance of a pandemic being transferred to you via your food source. You see, the bacteria that infect you also infect animals, and bugs don’t care if they become immune from animals or you.

It’s not all gloom and doom though. The Montréal Protocol devised in 1987 to halt ozone depletion has seen a more than 95% reduction in the use of ozone-depleting substances between 1986 and 2007, according to a paper released at last year’s Climate Change forum in Bali. However that exact same paper highlights that there are differences between the rather simplistic issues afforded to ozone depletion and the multi-spectrum issues of climate change. More time and resources must be spent to see the right path.

Policy can work to secure results that will in the long term reduce the impact our science has on the environment and ourselves; this is clearly illustrated by the Montréal Protocol. It’s the offshoots of the advancements we have to contend with that create uncertainty, the false starts and tonic remedies that offer quick fixes to an issue that has no easy answer. For how does one foresee the dangers of science? The answer is you simply don’t. You can learn from your mistakes and hope for the best.

However when it’s all said and done, science is just a study, an undertaking of theoretical possibilities that can lead us to the top of Everest and to the deepest sea trenches, even to the farthest reaches of space, but also into a period of stagnation where we must focus our energies to fix problems arising from our advancement. It’s your job to think, to gather the information needed to make informed decisions. It’s your future, they will be your children, don’t you want to give them what you have?

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