Ideas are cheap, theories are hard

In the context of public discourse, there are times when one is driven to simple, reflexive and often disproportionate (exasperated) responses.  That happens to me whenever people talk about the various theories that they apply to a process or event.  I respond by saying (increasingly silently to myself), that what they mean is really that they have an idea, a model, a guess, a speculation, or a comforting “just-so” story. All too often such competing “theories” are flexible enough to explain (or explain away) anything, depending upon one’s predilections. So why a post on theories?  Certainly the  point as been made before (see Ghose. 2013. “Just a Theory”: 7 Misused Science Words“). Basically because the misuse of the term theory, whether by non-scientists, scientists, or science popularizers, undermines understanding of, and respect for the products of the scientific enterprise.  It confuses hard won knowledge with what are often superficial (or self-serving) opinions. When professors, politicians, pundits, PR flacks, or regular people use the word theory, they are all too often, whether consciously or not, seeking to elevate their ideas through the authority of science.    

So what is the big deal anyway, why be an annoying pain in the ass (see Christopher DiCarlo’s video), challenging people, making them uncomfortable, and making a big deal about something so trivial.  But is it really trivial?  I think not, although it may well be futile or quixotic.  The inappropriate use of the word theory, particularly by academics, is an implicit attempt to gain credibility.  It is also an attack on the integrity of science.  Why?  Because like it or not, science is the most powerful method we have to understand how the world works, as opposed to what the world or our existence within the world means.  The scientific enterprise, abiding as it does by explicit rules of integrity, objective evidence, logical and quantifiable implications, and their testing has been a progressive social activity, leading to useful knowledge – knowledge that has eradicated small pox and polio (almost) and produced iPhones, genetically modified organisms, and nuclear weapons.  That is not to say that the authority of science has not been repeatedly been used to justify horrific sociopolitical ideas, but those ideas have not been based on critically evaluated and tested scientific theories, but on variously baked ideas that claim the support of science (both the eugenics and anti-vaccination movements are examples).   

Modern science is based on theories, ideas about the universe that explain and predict what we will find when we look (smell, hear, touch) carefully at the world around us.  And these theories are rigorously and continually tested, quantitatively – in fact one might say that the ability to translate a theory into a quantitative prediction is one critical hallmark of a real versus an ersatz (non-scientific) theory [here is a really clever approach to teaching students about facts and theories, from David Westmoreland 

So where do (scientific) theories come from?  Initially they are guesses about how the world works, as stated by Richard Feynman and the non-scientific nature of vague “theories”.  Guesses that have evolved based on testing, confirmation, and where wrong – replacement with more and more accurate, logically well constructed and more widely applicable constructs – an example of the evolution of scientific knowledge.  That is why ideas are cheap, they never had, or do not develop the disciplinary rigor necessary to become a theory.  In fact, it often does not even matter, not really, to the people propounding these ideas whether they correspond to reality at all, as witness the stream of tweets from various politicians or the ease with which many apocalyptic predictions are replaced when they turn out to be incorrect.  But how is the average person to identify the difference between a (more or less half-baked) idea and a scientific theory?  Probably the easiest way is to ask, is the idea constantly being challenged, validated, and where necessary refined by both its proponents and its detractors.  One of the most impressive aspects of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the accuracy of its predictions (the orbit of Mercury, time-dilation, and gravitational waves (link)), predictions that if not confirmed would have forced its abandonment – or at the very least serious revision.  It is this constant application of a theory, and the rigorous testing of its predictions (if this, then that) that proves its worth.  

Another aspect of a scientific theory is whether it is fecund or sterile.  Does its application lead to new observations that it can explain?  In contrast, most ideas are dead ends.  Consider the recent paper on the possibility that life arose outside of the Earth, a proposal known as pan-spermia (1) – “a very plausible conclusion – life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets” – and recently tunneling into  the web’s consciousness in stories implying the extra-terrestrial origins of cephalopods (see “no, octopuses don’t come from outer space.”)  Unfortunately, no actual biological insights emerge from this idea (wild speculation), since it simply displaces the problem, if life did not arise here, how did it arise elsewhere?  If such ideas are embraced, as is the case with many religious ideas, their alteration often leads to violent schism rather than peaceful refinement. Consider, as an example, an idea had by an archaic Greek or two that the world was made of atoms. These speculations were not theories, since their implications were not rigorously tested.  The modern atomic theory has been evolving since its introduction by Dalton, and displays the diagnostic traits of a scientific theory.  Once introduced to explain the physical properties of matter, it led to new discoveries and explanations for the composition and structure of atoms themselves (electrons, neutrons, and protons), and then to the composition and properties of these objects, quarks and such (link to a great example.)   

Scientific theories are, by necessity, tentative (again, as noted by Feynman) – they are constrained and propelled by new and more accurate observations.  A new observation can break a theory, leading it to be fixed or discarded.  When that happens, the new theory explains (predicts) all that the old theory did and more.  This is where discipline comes in; theories must meet strict standards – the result is that generally there cannot be two equivalent theories that explain the same phenomena – one (or both) must be wrong in some important ways.  There is no alternative, non-atomic theory that explains the properties of matter.  

The assumption is that two “competing” theories will make distinctly different predictions, if we look (and measure) carefully enough. There are rare cases where two “theories” make the same predictions; the classic example is the Ptolemaic Sun-centered and the Copernican Earth-centered models of the solar system.  Both explained the appearances  of planetary motion more or less equally well, and so on that basis there was really no objective reason to choose between them.  In part, this situation arose from an unnecessary assumption underlying both models, namely that celestial objects moved in perfect circular orbits – this assumption necessitated the presence of multiple “epicycles” in both models.  The real advance came with Kepler’s recognition that celestial objects need not travel in perfect circular orbits, but rather in elliptical orbits; this liberated models of the solar system from the need for epicycles.  The result was the replacement of “theories of solar system movement” with a theory of planetary/solar/galactic motions”.  

Whether, at the end of the day scientific theories are comforting or upsetting, beautiful or ugly remains to be seen, but what is critical is that we defend the integrity of science and call out the non-scientific use of the word theory, or blame ourselve for the further decay of civilization (perhaps I am being somewhat hyperbolic – sorry).


1. Although really, pan-oogenia would be better.  Sperm can do nothing without an egg, but an unfertilized egg can develop into an organism, as occurs with bees.  

Humanized mice & porcinized people

mouse and pig

A new and relevant news link: “US FDA declares genetically modified pork ‘safe to eat‘”

A practical benefit, from a scientific and medical perspective, of the evolutionary unity of life (link) are the molecular and cellular similarities between different types of organisms. Even though humans and bacteria diverged more than 2 billion years ago (give or take), the molecular level conservation of key systems makes it possible for human insulin to be synthesized in and secreted by bacteria and pig-derived heart valves to be used to replace defective human heart valves (see link). Similarly, while mice, pigs, and people are clearly different from one another in important ways they have, essentially, all of the same body parts. Such underlying similarities raise interesting experimental and therapeutic possibilities.

A (now) classic way to study the phenotypic effects of human-specific versions of genes is to introduce these changes into a model organism, such as a mouse (for a review of human brain-specific human genes – see link).  A example of such a study involves the gene that encodes the protein foxp2, a protein involved in the regulation of gene expression (a transcription factor). The human foxp2  protein differs from the foxp2 protein in other primates at two positions; foxP2 evolution these two amio acid changes alter the activity of the human protein, that is the ensemble of genes that it regulates. That foxp2 has an important role in humans was revealed through studies of individuals in a family that displayed a severe language disorder linked to a mutation that disrupts the function of the foxp2 protein. Individuals carrying this mutant  foxp2 allele display speech apraxia, a “severe impairment in the selection and sequencing of fine oral and facial movements, the ability to break up words into their constituent phonemes, and the production and comprehension of word inflections and syntax” (cited in Bae et al, 2015).  Male mice that carry this foxp2 mutation display changes in the “song” that they sing to female mice (1), while mice carrying a humanized form of foxp2 display changes in “dopamine levels, dendrite morphology, gene expression and synaptic plasticity” in a subset of CNS neurons (2).  While there are many differences between mice and humans, such studies suggest that changes in foxp2 played a role in human evolution, and human speech in particular.

Another way to study the role of human genes using mouse as a model system is to generate what are known as chimeras, named after the creature in Greek mythology composed of parts of multiple organisms.  A couple of years ago, Goldman and colleagues (3) reported that human glial progenitor cells could, when introduced into immune-compromised mice (to circumvent tissue rejection), displaced the mouse’s own glia, replacing them with human glia cells.iPSC transplant Glial cells are the major non-neuronal component of the central nervous system. Once thought of as passive “support” cells, it is now clear that the two major types of glia, known as astrocytes and oligodendrocytes, play a number of important roles in neural functioning [back track post].  In their early studies, they found that the neurological defects associated with the shaker mutation, a mutation that disrupts the normal behavior of oligodendrocytes, could be rescued by the implantation of normal human glial progenitor cells (hGPCs)(4).  Such studies confirmed what was already known, that the shaker mutation disrupts the normal function of myelin, the insulating structure around axons that dramatically speeds the rate at which neuronal signals (action potentials) move down the axons and activate the links between neurons (synapses). In the central nervous system, myelin is produced by oligodendrocytes as they ensheath neuronal axons.  Human oligodendrocytes derived from hGPCs displaced the mouse’s mutation carrying oligodendrocytes and rescued the shaker mouse’s mutation-associated neurological defect.

golgi staining- diagramSubsequently, Goldman and associates used a variant of this approach to introduce hGPCs (derived from human embryonic stem cells) carrying either a normal or mutant version of the  Huntingtin protein, a protein associated with the severe neural disease Huntington’s chorea (OMIM: 143100)(5).  Their studies strongly support a model that locates defects associated with human Huntington’s disease to defects in glia.  This same research group has generated hGPCs from patient-derived, induced pluripotent stem cells (patient-derived HiPSCs). In this case, the patients had been diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia (SCZ) [link](6).  Skin biopsies were taken from both normal and children diagnosed with SCZ; fibroblasts were isolated, and reprogrammed to form human iPSCs. These iPSCs were treated so that they formed hGPCs that were then injected into mice to generate chimeric (human glial/mouse neuronal) animals. The authors reported systematic differences in the effects of control and SCZ-derived hGPCs; “SCZ glial mice showed reduced prepulse inhibition and abnormal behavior, including excessive anxiety, antisocial traits, and disturbed sleep”, a result that suggests that defects in glial behavior underlie some aspects of the human SCZ phenotype.

The use of human glia chimeric mice provides a powerful research tool for examining the molecular and cellular bases for a subset of human neurological disorders.  Does it raise a question of making mice more human?  Not for me, but perhaps I do not appreciate the more subtle philosophical and ethical issues involved. The mice are still clearly mice, most of their nervous systems are composed of mouse cells, and the overall morphology, size, composition, and organization of their central nervous systems are mouse-derived and mouse-like. The situation becomes rather more complex and potentially therapeutically useful when one talks about generating different types of chimeric animals or of using newly developed genetic engineering tools (the CRISPR CAS9 system found in prokaryotes), that greatly simplify and improve the specificity of the targeted manipulation of specific genes (link).  In these studies the animal of choice is not mice, but pigs – which because of their larger size produce organs for transplantion that are similar in size to the organs of people (see link).  While similar in size, there are two issues that complicate pig to human organ transplantation: first there is the human immune system mediated rejection of foreign  tissue and second there is the possibility that transplantation of porcine organs will lead to the infection of the human recipient with porcine retroviruses.

The issue of rejection (pig into human), always a serious problem, is further exacerbated by the presence in pigs of a gene encoding the enzyme α-1,3 galactosyl transferase (GGTA1). GGTA1 catalyzes the addition of the gal-epitope to a number of cell surface proteins. The gal-epitope is “expressed on the tissues of all mammals except humans and subhuman primates, which have antibodies against the epitope” (7). The result is that pig organs provoke an extremely strong immune (rejection) response in humans.  The obvious technical fix to this (and related problems) is to remove the gal-epitope from pig cells by deleting the GGTA1 enzyme (see 8). It is worth noting that “organs from genetically engineered animals have enjoyed markedly improved survivals in non-human primates” (see Sachs & Gall, 2009).

pig to humanThe second obstacle to pig → human transplantation is the presence of retroviruses within the pig genome.  All vertebrate genomes, including those of humans, contain many inserted retroviruses; almost 50% of the human genome is retrovirus-derived sequence (an example of unintelligent design if ever there was one). Most of these endogenous retroviruses are “under control” and are normally benign (see 9). The concern, however, is that the retroviruses present in pig cells could be activated when introduced into humans. To remove (or minimize) this possibility, Niu et al set out to use the CRISPR CAS9 system to delete these porcine endogenous retroviral sequences (PERVs) from the pig genome; they appear to have succeeded, generating a number of genetically modified pigs without PERVs (see 10).  The hope is that organs generated from PERV-minus pigs from which antigen-generating genes, such as α-1,3 galactosyl transferase, have also been removed or inactivated together with more sophisticated inhibitors of tissue rejection, will lead to an essentially unlimited supply of pig organs that can be used for heart and other organ transplantation (see 11), and so alleviate the delays in transplantation, and so avoid deaths in sick people and the often brutal and criminal harvesting of organs carried out in some countries.

The final strategy being explored is to use genetically modified hosts and patient derived iPSCs  to generate fully patient compatible human organs. To date, pilot studies have been carried out, apparently successfully, using rat embryos with mouse stem cells (see 12 and 13), with much more preliminary studies using pig embryos and human iPSCs (see 14).  The approach involves what is known as chimeric  embryos.  In this case, host animals are genetically modified so that they cannot generate the organ of choice. Typically this is done by mutating a key gene that encodes a transcription factor directly involved in formation of the organ; embryos missing pancreas, kidney, heart, human pig embryo chimeraor eyes can be generated.  In an embryo that cannot make these organs, which can be a lethal defect, the introduction of stem cells from an animal that can form these organs can lead to the formation of an organ composed primarily of cells derived from the transplanted (human) cells.

At this point the strategy appears to work reasonably well for mouse-rat chimeras, which are much more closely related, evolutionarily, than are humans and pigs. Early studies on pig-human chimeras appear to be dramatically less efficient. At this point, Jun Wu has been reported as saying of human-pig chimeras that “we estimate [each had] about one in 100,000 human cells” (see 15), with the rest being pig cells.  The bottom line appears to be that there are many technical hurdles to over-come before this method of developing patient-compatible human organs becomes feasible.  Closer to reality are PERV-free/gal-antigen free pig-derived, human compatible organs. The reception of such life-saving organs by the general public, not to mention religious and philosophical groups that reject the consumption of animals in general, or pigs in particular, remains to be seen.

figures reinserted & minor edits 23 October 2020 – new link 17 December 2020.
references cited

  1. A Foxp2 Mutation Implicated in Human Speech Deficits Alters Sequencing of Ultrasonic Vocalizations in Adult Male Mice.
  2. A Humanized Version of Foxp2 Affects Cortico-Basal Ganglia Circuits in Mice
  3. Modeling cognition and disease using human glial chimeric mice.
  4. Human iPSC-derived oligodendrocyte progenitor cells can myelinate and rescue a mouse model of congenital hypomyelination.
  5. Human glia can both induce and rescue aspects of disease phenotype in Huntington disease
  6. Human iPSC Glial Mouse Chimeras Reveal Glial Contributions to Schizophrenia.
  7.  The potential advantages of transplanting organs from pig to man: A transplant Surgeon’s view
  8. see Sachs and Gall. 2009. Genetic manipulation in pigs. and Fisher et al., 2016. Efficient production of multi-modified pigs for xenotransplantation by ‘combineering’, gene stacking and gene editing
  9. Hurst & Magiokins. 2017. Epigenetic Control of Human Endogenous Retrovirus Expression: Focus on Regulation of Long-Terminal Repeats (LTRs)
  10. Nui et al., 2017. Inactivation of porcine endogenous retrovirus in pigs using CRISPR-Cas9
  11. Zhang  2017. Genetically Engineering Pigs to Grow Organs for People
  12. Kobayashi et al., 2010. Generation of rat pancreas in mouse by interspecific blastocyst injection of pluripotent stem cells.
  13. Kobayashi et al., 2015. Targeted organ generation using Mixl1-inducible mouse pluripotent stem cells in blastocyst complementation.
  14. Wu et al., 2017. Interspecies Chimerism with Mammalian Pluripotent Stem Cells
  15. Human-Pig Hybrid Created in the Lab—Here Are the Facts

After the March for Science, What Now?

Recently, I contributed to a project that turned healthy human tissues into an earlier stage of pancreatic cancer—a disease that carries a dismal 5-year survival rate of 5 percent.


When I described our project to a friend, she asked, “why in the world would you want to grow cancer in a lab?” I explained that by the time a patient learns that he has pancreatic cancer, the tumor has spread throughout the body. At that point, the patient typically has less than a year to live and his tumor cells have racked up a number of mutations, making clinical trials and molecular studies of pancreatic cancer evolution downright difficult. For this reason, our laboratory model of pancreatic cancer was available to scientists who wanted to use it to find the biological buttons that turn healthy cells into deadly cancer. By sharing our discovery, we wanted to enable others in developing drugs to treat cancer and screening tests to diagnose patients early. The complexity of this process demonstrates that science is a team effort that involves lots of time, money, and the brainpower of highly-trained individuals working together toward a single goal.


Many of the challenges we face today—from lifestyle diseases, to the growing strains of antibiotic-resistant superbugs in hospitals, to the looming energy crisis—require scientific facts and solutions. And although there’s never a guarantee of success, scientists persist in hopes that our collective discoveries will reverberate into the future. However, as a corollary, hindering scientific progress means a loss of possibilities.


Unfortunately, the deceleration of scientific progress seems likely possibility. In March, the White House released a document called “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” which describes deep cuts to some of the country’s most important funding agencies for science.


As it stands, the National Institutes of Health is set to lose nearly a fifth of its budget; the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, $900 million; and the Environmental Protection Agency, a 31.5 percent budget cut worth $2.6 billion. Imagine the discoveries that could have saved our lives or created jobs, which will instead languish solely as unsupported hypotheses in the minds of underfunded scientists.


Scientists cannot remain idle on the sidelines; we must be active in making the importance of scientific research known. Last weekend’s March on Science drew tens of thousands of people around more than 600 rallies across the world, but the challenge now lies in harnessing the present momentum and energy to make sustained efforts to maintain government funding for a wide range of scientific projects.


The next step is to get involved in shaping public opinion and policy. As it stands, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed ambivalence about the validity of science on matters ranging from climate change to childhood vaccinations. Academics can start tempering the public’s unease toward scientific authority and increase public support for the sciences by stepping off the ivory tower. Many researchers are already engaging with the masses by posting on social media, penning opinion articles, and appearing on platforms aimed at public consumption (Youtube channels, TED, etc). A researcher is her own best spokesperson in explaining the importance of her work and the scientific process; unfortunately, a scientist’s role as an educator in the classroom and community is often shoved out by the all-encompassing imperative to publish or perish. As a profession, we must become more willing to step out of our laboratories to engage with the public and educate the next generation of science-savvy citizens.


In addition, many scientists have expressed interest in running for office, including UC Berkeley’s Michael Eisen (who also a co-founder of PLOS). When asked by Science why he was considering a run for senate, Eisen responded:


“My motivation was simple. I’m worried that the basic and critical role of science in policymaking is under a bigger threat than at any point in my lifetime. We have a new administration and portions of Congress that don’t just reject science in a narrow sense, but they reject the fundamental idea that undergirds science: That we need to make observations about the world and make our decisions based on reality, not on what we want it to be. For years science has been under political threat, but this is the first time that the whole notion that science is important for our politics and our country has been under such an obvious threat.”


If scientists can enter into the house and senate in greater numbers, they will be able to inject scientific sense into the discussions held by members of legislature whose primary backgrounds are in business and law.


Science is a bipartisan issue that should not be bogged down by the whims of political machinations. We depend on research to address some of the most pressing problems of our time, and America’s greatness lies in part on its leadership utilizing science as an exploration of physical truths and a means of overcoming our present limitations and challenges.



Check out Yoo Jung’s book aimed at helping college students excel in science, What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press)

From the Science March to the Classroom: Recognizing science in politics and politics in science

Jeanne Garbarino (with edits by Mike Klymkowsky)

Purely scientific discussions are hallmarked by objective, open, logical, and skeptical thought; they can describe and explain natural phenomena or provide insights into a broader questions. At the same time, scientific discussions are generally incomplete and tentative (sometimes for well understood reasons). True advocates of the scientific method appreciate the value of its skeptical and tentative approach, and are willing to revise even long-held positions in response to new, empirically-derived evidence or logical contradictions. Over time, science’s scope and conclusions have expanded and evolved dramatically; they provide an increasingly accurate working model of a wide range of processes, from the formation of the universe to the functioning of the human mind. The result is that the ubiquity of science’s impacts on society are clear and growing. However, discussing and debating the details of how science works, and the current consensus view on various phenomena, such as global warming or the causes of cancer or autism, is very different from discussing and debating how a scientific recommendation fits into a societal framework. As described in a recent National Academies Press report on Communicating Science Effectively  [link], “the decision to communicate science [outside of academia] always involves an ethical component. Choices about what scientific evidence to communicate and when, how, and to whom, are a reflection of values.”

Over the last ~150 years, the accelerating pace of advances in science and technology have enabled future sustainable development, but they have also disrupted traditional social and economic patterns. Closing coal mines in response to climate predictions (and government regulations) may be sensible when viewed broadly, but are disruptive to those who have, for generations, made a living mining coal. Similarly, a number of prognosticators have speculated on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on traditional socioeconomic roles and rules. Whether such impacts are worth the human costs is rarely explicitly considered and discussed in the public forum, or the classroom. As members of the scientific community, our educational and outreach efforts must go beyond simply promoting an appreciation of, and public support for science. They must also consider its limitations, as well as the potential ethical and disruptive effects on individuals, communities, and/or societies. Making policy decisions with large socioeconomic impacts based on often tentative models raises risks of alienating the public upon which modern science largely depends.

Citizens, experts or not, are often invited to contribute to debates and discussions surrounding science and technology at the local and national levels. Yet, many people are not provided with the tools to fully and effectively engage in these discussions, which involves critically analyzing the scope, resolution, and stability of scientific conclusions. As such, the acceptance or rejection of scientific pronouncements is often framed as an instrument of political power, casting a shadow on core scientific principles and processes, framing scientists as partisan players in a political game. The watering down of the role of science and science-based policies in the public sphere, and the broad public complacency associated with (often government-based, regulatory) efforts, is currently being challenged by the international March For Science effort. The core principles and goals of this initiative [link] are well articulated, and, to my mind, representative of a democratic society. However, a single march on a single day is not sufficient to promote a deep social transformation, and promote widespread dispassionate argumentation and critical thinking. Perspectives on how scientific knowledge can help shape current and future events, as well as the importance of recognizing both the implications and limits of science, are perspectives that must be taught early, often, and explicitly. Social or moral decisions are not mutually exclusive from scientific evidence or ideas, but overlap is constrained by the gates set by values that are held.

In this light, I strongly believe the sociopolitical nature of science in practice must be taught alongside traditional science content. Understanding the human, social, economic and broader (ecological) costs of action AND inaction can be used to highlight the importance of framing science in a human context. If the expectation is for members of our society to be able to evaluate and weigh in on scientific debates at all levels, I believe we are morally obligated to supply future generations with the tools required for full participation. This posits that scientists and science educators, together with historian, philosophers, and economists, etc., need to go beyond the teaching of simple facts and theories by considering how these facts and theories developed over time, their impact on people’s thinking, as well as the socioeconomic forces that shape societies. Highlighting the sociopolitical implications of science-based ideas in classrooms can also motivate students to take a greater interest in scientific learning in particular, and related social and political topics in general. It can help close the gap between what is learned in school and what is required for the critical evaluation of scientific applications in society, and how scientific ideas can and should be evaluated when it comes to social policy or person beliefs.

A “science in a social context” approach to science teaching may also address the common student question, “When will I ever use this?” All too often, scientific content in schools is presented in ways that are abstract, decontextualized, and can feel irrelevant to students. Such an approach can leave a student unable or unwilling to engage in meaningful and substantive discussions on the applications and limitations of science in society. The entire concept of including cost-benefit analyses when considering the role of science in shaping decisions is often over-looked, as if scientific conclusions are black and white. Furthermore, the current culture of science in classrooms leaves little room for students to assess how scientific information does and does not align with their cultural identities, often framing science as inherently conflicting or alien, forcing a choice between one way of seeing the world over the other, when a creative synthesis seems more reasonable. Shifting science education paradigms toward a strategy that promotes “education through science” (as opposed to “science through education”) recognizes student needs and motivations as critical to learning, and opens up channels for introducing science as something that is relevant and enriching to their lives. Centered on the German philosophy of Allgemeinbildung [link] that describes “the competence for participation in critical dialogue on currently important matters,” this approach has been found to be effective in motivating students to develop the necessary skills to implement empirical evidence when forming arguments and making decisions.

In extending the idea of the perceived value of science in sociopolitical debates, students can build important frameworks for effectively engaging with society in the future. A relevant example is the increasing accessibility of genome editing technology, which represents an area of science poised to deeply impact the future of society. In a recent report [link] on the ethics of genome editing, assembled by an panel of clinicians and scientists (experts), it is recommended that the United States should proceed — cautiously — with genome editing studies on human embryos. However, as pointed out [link], this panel failed to include ANY public participation in this decision. This effort, fundamentally ignores “a more conscious evaluation of how this impacts social standing, stigma and identity, ethics that scientists often tend to cite pro forma and then swiftly scuttle.” As this discussion increasingly shifts into the mainstream, it will be essential to engage with the public in ways that promote a more careful and thoughtful analysis of scientific issues [link], as opposed to hyperbolic fear mongering (as seen in regard to most GMO discussions)[link] or reserving genetic engineering to the hyper-affluent. Another, more timely example, involves the the level at which an individual’s genome be used to predict a future outcome or set of outcomes, and whether this information can be used by employers in any capacity [link]. By incorporating a clear description of how science is practiced (including the factors that influence what is studied, and what is done with the knowledge generated), alongside the transfer of traditional scientific knowledge, we can help provide future citizens with tools for critical evaluation as they navigate these uncharted waters.

It is also worth noting tcorrupted sciencehat the presentation of science in a sociopolitical contexts can emphasize learning of more than just science. Current approaches to education tend to compartmentalize academic subjects, framing them as standalone lessons and philosophies. Students go through the school day motions, attending English class, then biology, then social studies, then trigonometry, etc., and the natural connections among subject areas are often lost. When framing scientific topics in the context of sociopolitical discussions and debates, stu
dents have more opportunities to explore aspects of society that are, at face value, unrelated to science.

Drawing from lessons commonly taught in American History class, the Manhattan Project [link] offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the fundamentals of nuclear chemistry as well as sociopolitical implications of a scientific discovery. At face value, harnessing nuclear fission marked a dramatic milestone for science. However, when this technology was pursued by the United States government during World War II — at the urging of the famed physicist Albert Einstein and others — it opened up the possibility of an entirely new category of warfare, impacting individuals and communities at all levels. The reactions set off by the Manhattan Project, and the consequent 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are ones that are still felt in international power politics, agriculture, medicine, ecology, economics, research ethics, transparency in government, and, of course, the Presidency of the United States. The Manhattan Project represents an excellent case study on the relationship between science, technology, and society, as well as the project’s ongoing influence on these relationships. The double-edged nature often associated with scientific discoveries are important considerations of the scientific enterprise, and should be taught to students accordingly.

A more meaningful approach to science education requires including the social aspects of the scientific enterprise. When considering a heliocentric view of the solar system, it is worthwhile recognizing its social impacts as well as its scientific foundations (particularly before Kepler). If we want people to see science as a human enterprise that can inspire rather than dictate decisions and behaviors, it will require resifting how science — and scientists — are viewed in the public eye. As written here [link]. we need to restore the relationship between scientific knowledge and social goals by specifically recognizing how

'So... cutting my funding, eh? Well, I've got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!'
‘So… cutting my funding, eh? Well, I’ve got a pair of mutant fists that say otherwise!’

science can be used, inappropriately, to drive public opinion. As an example, in the context of CO2-driven global warming, one could (with equal scientific validity) seek to reduce CO2 generation or increase CO2 sequestration. Science does not tell us which is better from a human perspective (although it could tell us which is likely to be easier, technically). While science should inform relevant policy, we must also acknowledge the limits of science and how it fits into many human contexts. There is clearly a need for scientists to increase participation in public discourse, and explicitly consider the uncertainties and risks (social, economic, political) associated with scientific observations. Additionally, scientists need to recognize the limits of their own expertise.

A pertinent example was the call by Paul Ehrlich to limit, in various draconian ways, human reproduction – a political call well beyond his expertise. In fact, recognizing when someone has gone beyond what science can legitimately tell us [link] could help rebuild respect for the value of science-based evidence. Scientists and science educators need to be cognizant of these limits, and genuinely listen to the valid concerns and hesitations held by many in society, rather than dismiss them. The application of science has been, and will always be, a sociopolitical issue, and the more we can do to prepare future decision makers, the better society will be.

Jeanne Garbarino, PhD, Director of Science Outreach, The Rockefeller University, NY, NY

Jeanne earned herJGarbarino Ph.D. in metabolic biology from Columbia University, followed by a postdoc in the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at The Rockefeller University, where she now serves as Director of Science Outreach. In this role, she works to provide K-12 communities with equitable access to authentic biomedical research opportunities and resources. You can find Jeanne on social media under the handle @JeanneGarb.