When the March for Science happened in Flagstaff two Saturdays ago, I was not there. I wasn’t one of the local Science advocates parading down the street, banging on a drum, and shouting generally pro-Science things at the top of their voices. I wasn’t there, partially because I was at the Thin Air community writing workshop, but the fact is that I’m not sure I would have gone even if I was free.
Our workshop was held in the community room of the public library, which is right along the route that the March took as it circled downtown Flagstaff. We’d opened the windows to let in some fresh air, and as the warm breeze filtered into the room, so did the screams for Science and drumbeats in the not-so distant distance. As I listened, I thought about why I wasn’t willing to lend my support to “Science” in general.
It’s not because I don’t realize what good Science has done–furthering humanity’s understanding of the Earth we live on, enabling people to overcome deadly diseases, etc. It’s that I’m unable to overlook all the bad that Science has left in its wake as it powers forward, toward those impressive achievements.
For every life saved, there is another life that has suffered in the name of Science.
Imagine a close friend or family member of yours has a mental illness, maybe severe depression. Maybe you don’t even have to imagine this. But now imagine that when they go to a doctor to receive medical care, they are told that to treat their illness, a doctor will first need to sedate them and then drive a sharp ice pick-like instrument up through their orbitals, behind their eyes and into their brain, until their frontal lobe has been effectively killed.
Scientists, neurologists, and doctors believed that lobotomies were the cure for mental illness starting in 1936 in America. They held onto this belief for long enough that they were able to complete about 2,500 lobotomies.
Maybe thinking about the world with a scientific, analytic mindset allows for a certain remove from the human aspects of life–allows a scientist to view participants in an experiment as subjects and not people.
In the same era of lobotomies, there was also forced sterilization of the disabled, the non-binary gendered population, intersex populations, indigenous people, and ethnic minorities. There was the development of the H-bomb and atomic bomb, which allowed for the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I’d like to think that Science has learned valuable moral and ethical lessons from the horrors of its past. Ideally, scientists are more aware of both the positive and negative effects their work can and does have on the world. I’d hope that there’s more of a priority on slowing down, and thinking about things from every angle–appreciating the perspectives of those that their work directly impacts.
But it’s possible that Science will always inherently be at odds with less quantitative elements–like compassion, tolerance, and understanding.
I’ve been listening to a podcast that traces the fight for Mauna Kea, a sacred Hawaiian mountain that sits at over 13,800 ft elevation. While astronomers are desperate to construct a Thirty Meter Telescope at the top of the mountain in order to observe planets and stars and ancient galaxies with an eye sharper and more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, the local community is tired of having its sacred mountain defaced by scientists. Astronomers have already built sites on the mountain, and left the environment in disarray as a result. It’s a fight over the importance of Science’s quest to understand humanity’s origins and a community’s prioritization of preserving the culture and nature we already know about, immediately surrounding us.
Science has been and will continue to be a complicated arena, and while I understand that the March was in response to our President’s recent defunding of several different scientific programs and entities, and do not in any way support that defunding, it’s imperative that we remember the complexities that have arisen at the hands of Science. The lives of lobotomized and sterilized people, the damage caused by atomic bombs–were those sacrifices worth it? My inability to answer this question is what holds me back from championing Science as an inherently good cause.