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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Touché 2008

Two weeks ago, on the 8th of June, I was invited to speak at the inaugural session of Touché 2008. I gave a talk about the use of the internet for communicating science and introduced the goal of Clearthought Singapore as an avenue to promote rational thinking in Singapore.

During my presentation I emphasized the importance of asking questions as an integral part of the scientific process.

To my delight, the audience raised a number of good questions during the Q&A session. However, I don't think I answered some of them adequately. Clearly I need more practice to think fast and think widely on my feet, practice that rarely comes by when giving routine presentations to a group of bored fellow specialists.

Thus I would like to go over three of the most interesting questions in detail here - two of these are easier to address while the third is a really difficult one.

But first - a quick summary of the event!

Professional illusionist Nick Sin kicked off the event with his opening performance, inviting the audience to pick one out of five envelopes that contains a $1000 dollar bill.

It's an impressive demonstration that reminds me of a question that I once asked a neuroscience post-doc during my first job:

"If everyone thinks in the same way and chooses the same choice, do we really have free will?"

To which she replied (in a very annoyed tone) ...

"If they can freely choose then they have free will LAH!"

... before resuming her conversation with other lab members about shopping and housing applications.

Over the years I've learnt to accept that basic inquisitiveness is not a requirement for a successful scientific career. Indeed, scientists who hate their jobs or believe in anti-scientific woo will still succeed in their fields as long as they can produce consistent experimental results and publish in good journals.

This reality is far removed from my initial idealism. But I digress.

Dotbox founder / executive director Glenn Goh Cheng Ze and director Serene Yeo gave an animated talk about the key achievements of the social enterprise that they created.

Cheng Ze candidly revealed that his main motivating force is money - resources which he can then use to help make changes in society.

Cheng Ze and Serene were not business graduates - they actually graduated with diplomas in biomedical science, and their accomplishments highlight the fact that motivated and ambitious individuals can forge their own paths to success in spite of difficulties along the way.

It also made me wonder if they ever had an opportunity to try doing scientific research, or were the authorities too busy inviting foreign attachment students into our research labs to give our own students a fighting chance.

The third speaker of the day was Tan Jian Xiong (left in photo), a project director at the Moral Welfare Home. He combined his love of volunteerism and photography to showcase many heart-felt images that he took during some of his overseas community expeditions.

Overall, the event was a great success. Kudos to Touché 2008 chairperson Edgar Kieu (right) and his team for creating an important forum for the discussion of new ideas and social issues.

And now - time to discuss those three questions I was talking about earlier!

1. Does ethics slow down the progress of science?

That depends on what you consider "progress".

If we are talking about the progression of a research project or a field of research, then the answer is yes. The best recent example of this: US government policies limiting their own embryonic stem cell research that has allowed other countries to proceed further in this field.

Science is a societal endeavour and thus scientists can only investigate what society deems acceptable to study. Ethics boards such as the Bioethics Advisory Council in Singapore, in consultation with the public, makes the decision if a particular line of research is acceptable. These organizations consists of professional ethicists, doctors, social experts, lawyers and senior scientists.

On the other hand, if you think of "progress" in science as a matter of increasing benefit to humanity, then it's much harder to say.

To give a positive example, ethical constraints in Europe during the Middle Ages disallowed the dissection of the human body and thus blocked the progression of medical science for hundreds of years.

It was not until the 1500s that mavericks like anatomist Andreas Vesalius forcibly pushed the field forward by engaging in ethically outrageous activities such as snatching the bodies of executed prisoners and performing public dissections - ultimately producing the Fabrica, the first accurate anatomy book in history, which would also help spark off the scientific renaissance.

For a dismal negative example we need to look no further than Second World War-era Japan, when maverick microbiologist Shiro Ishii established the infamous Unit 731 in northern China to study bacteriological warfare. Without any ethical objections to hinder his projects, Ishii tested the use of deadly bio-warfare agents such as the bubonic plague, cholera and anthrax using live human subjects, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Chinese civilians.

From the perspective of the development of bio-weapons it was a resounding success, but in terms of benefit to humanity it was an grevious setback, both in terms of human cost and negative repercussions. Although biological weapons were formally banned in 1972, in the current climate of fear over terrorist attacks, bio-weaponry is an issue that still resonates today.

2. How can scientists of different cultures genuinely cross-pollinate their ideas?

This is possible because of two main reasons.

Firstly, the core aspect of scientific thought - rational inquiry backed up with observable evidence - transcends cultural differences.

The rules of the game are the same.

In addition, the scientific process can discover facts about human beings, for example our perception of beauty, that is cross-culturally relevant. In an international conference, scientists may have a greater emphasis or bias towards the fields that are more valued in their own culture, but they generally accept that rigorously obtained scientific knowledge is true no matter where the research is conducted.

In fact, some scientists consider science itself to be the first form of international "culture" in human history.

Of course there will always be criticisms, valid or not, on the issue of whether science is truly independent of its local cultural context. In the past critics have voiced objections over "Jewish science" or "capitalist science" or "feminist science", today it's still quite common to hear opposition towards "Western science".

To address these criticisms, scientists have to incorporate the necessary controls in their research strategy to rule out cultural biases.

The second reason is that people in general, and not only scientists, can be interested in new ideas generated in other fields and other cultures because there is a unity of knowledge.

Our brains share a common mechanism for gaining, processing and expressing information that allows us to compare the ideas of others with our own ideas and integrate them into our existing framework of knowledge.

3. Is competition or cooperation more important to the progress of science?

This deceptively simple question is really, really difficult to answer.

It is better directed to an established historian of science than to a struggling grad student, but I'll do my best to address it.

It is trivial to state that both competition and cooperation are crucial to the scientific endeavour.

Without cooperation, research groups will fall apart as individual researchers withhold common reagents or critical information from each other and engage in petty politics with their colleagues. Cooperation is gradually becoming more important nowadays as scientific projects become bigger and require large amounts of manpower and expensive resources.

Without competition, project progression may be slow since researchers will think that their line of research is not hotly-contested and thus the novelty of their work is not at risk. In addition, for some scientists, personal rivalry adds a strong emotional motivating force towards defeating their academic opponents using ingenious strategies or pure-dogged hard work. Having no competitors at all would dull their performance.

I would say that competitions in science, especially feuds involving two prominent scientists of similar stature, is highly over-represented in the popular culture, simply due to the sheer drama of such stories. Books have been written about these feuds, for example Hal Hellman's Great Feuds series is a good introduction to these historic events.

A classic example is the "Great Race" between Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin to develop the first safe and effective polio vaccine. The result of their competition is that since 1955 hundreds of millions of children, including your humble narrator, have been saved from the "Crippler" - a massive benefit to humanity.

Nonetheless, I don't think I can conclude either way. We will need a lot of data in order to tease apart the relative importance of competition and cooperation to science. I'm not even sure if this sort of information is useful for science historians.


onlooker said...

Well Dr Sabin drank his blended animal parts that speak volumes about his dedication to Science.
DNA is discovered when the Nobel prize winner used LSD to enhance perception and abstract thinking.
Heck The researcher who discover LSD is the first to use it in higher doses.
That why It's okay to share what already known (through publishing that knowledge) but ....
Result can sometime be used by corps to advertise their product which can distance science from people.

angry doc said...

"How can scientists of different cultures genuinely cross-pollinate their ideas?"

I think that's a rather stupid question that stems from postmodernism, or the belief that different cultures possess equally valid 'different ways of knowing' the physical world apart from science.

Ironically, despite the cultural divide between the west and China and the Muslim world, Iran is trying to make nuclear weapons, something based on 'western' science, and you can bet that when the Chinese sent a man into space they used 'rocket science' and not 'yin and yang'.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Onlooker:

Indeed the actual practice of science is quite unlike the sanitized version usually shown in textbooks - fierce debates and fruitless approaches are omitted, while the colourful personalities and questionable behaviour of notable scientists are simply glossed over.

It almost seems as if society insists on believing that only evil scientists can be immoral, egomanical and insane fanatics, whereas good scientists must be nice, wise and grandfatherly old men.

No wonder so many young people think that science is boring!

To Angry Doc:

Not so surprising when you observe that political leaders often consider science as tool to gain resources, achieve power and exercise dominance over their adversaries.

In this perspective, science must be forcibly confined inside a conceptual box such that it will not be allowed to question the cultural and moral supremacy of the authorities.

Effective ways to do this include ethnocentrism and insisting that science is "limited" to its own little space due to methodological naturalism.

They want the technological benefits that science provides but are not willing to expose their power structure to the open inquiry and criticism that science requires in order to thrive.

Essentially, they want to use scientists like high-class technicians.

This is not a sustainable position - scientists stuck in a society that opposes free inquiry will be compelled to ask fewer and fewer questions, until they stop asking questions altogether.

Then they either switch to another career or leave the country.

And thus a scientific enterprise ends.