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Alison Despathy: Science and technology — the double-edged swords

This commentary is by Alison Despathy, a resident of Danville.

Science and technology have offered so much to the world. They are often associated with progress, convenience and lifesaving products and developments. 

However, it is absolutely essential that we acknowledge and remember that science and technology are double-edged swords and they have also brought destruction, damage, despair and abuse as well. 

Ethics must be the guiding force with science and technology because advances can help or harm depending on how they are implemented and incorporated into use and the world.

There is so much historically that science has gotten wrong and has misunderstood and so much technology that has left pain, death and damage in its wake. The list is endless, but here is a start: 

Thalidomide; DDT, lead and arsenic pesticides; diethylstilbestrol (DES); atomic and nuclear bombs; Dr. Semmelweis and hygiene; eugenics; Tuskegee experiment; arsenic, lead and mercury treatments; bloodletting; shock therapy; aspartame; genetically modified organisms; hydrogenated oils/trans fats; geocentric versus heliocentric worldview; Vioxx; opioids; asbestos; cylert; accutane; bextra; chlorpyrifos; radium used in industry (watches); paraquat; experimentation on people, especially in Africa and Asia, with medication and vaccines, such as trovafloxacin experimentation on Nigerian children in Africa by Pfizer; experimental dengue fever vaccines on children in the Philippines; butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT); lobotomies.

Science is driven by peer-reviewed research and this takes time. We have to ensure that we do not have blind faith in science and technology. Faith does not even belong in the realm of science — science must always strive for concrete evidence and apparent truth based on results that are reproducible. These are its primary tenets. 

Science must be contested, argued, and held to the highest standards of scrutiny to continually assess if it passes the test of truth. If not, then another door opens for new and deeper attempts at understanding. This is in effect the actual scientific process and the path has been a winding course of exploration, curiosity, many fallacies, and current truths that have withstood the test of time thus far. 

We must embrace the friction and contention inherent and essential to science. It is indeed how we reach truth. 

We also must hold caution and a healthy dose of skepticism based on the reality of abuses and corruption in both industry and academia. We must hold respect and patience for the process of seeking truth and knowledge. 

The precautionary principle developed due to the historical track record of error in science and the fully warranted demand for the role of ethics and informed consent to be considered and respected in all areas of the scientific process — research, development, experimental trials, transparency regarding known and unknown short-term and long-term complications and side effects, product approval standards and specified use and applications. 

Erring on the side of caution has repeatedly shown to be a worthy and wise path in the realms of scientific and technological concepts and innovations. Understanding is a work in progress and the science is evolving, always unsettled and typically complex.

Add to this the fact that we have corporate entities and markets that want to gobble up innovations and ideas to drive an industry and ultimately profit. We must be wary of these attempts by invested and greedy companies that desperately want to latch onto a concept or product and patent and sell it as an ultimate truth or solution to the people in order to build and secure future markets. 

Advertising, narratives and propaganda are all part of this game and it is up to the people to be aware and keep an eye to ensure truth, safety and accountability. As we all know, more is spent on public relations and marketing than we can even imagine, and unfortunately much of it is hyped, blatant lies and twists of the truth. Humanity has unfortunately learned this the hard way through the ages. 

It is of utmost importance that the necessary scientific process of debate and dispute be allowed to happen and further it must be highly encouraged in order to reach as clear an understanding as possible. Historically, this absolutely essential component of science has gone on in the confines of academia and science journals, but more recently this scientific quest for truth and its requirement for parallel and unrelenting debate has been front and center to the public. 

Although many appreciate witnessing the process and its natural roller coaster-like ride, this has also led to many misunderstandings, unnecessary divisions and impulsive actions based on the current yet transient moments of clarity. As information based on research emerges, this understanding can shift greatly, especially during times of intensive research as the global, scientific community seeks answers and the rarity of scientific consensus. 

History has taught us innumerable times that it is quite possible that many of the existing and current scientific paradigms will be overturned as research evolves. We must allow science and all of its failed and successful attempts at truth to take its natural course and be subjected to rigorous questioning and demands — we cannot block or interfere with this process. We can sit back and enjoy the debate but the practice of science must not be impeded, directed or abused by the spectators, politicians or those set to gain from research results and specific outcomes. 

As always, industry and corporations are powerful and money can drive a path and, as we have seen in the past with corporate greed, monopolies, consolidation of power and control over a market is the ultimate goal. Securing their industry and product is a dream come true — and this is yet another reason that legislation related to an industry, based on science, must be heavily scrutinized and cannot be impulsive, ideological or destructive in its means to reach the desired outcome. 

There are multiple paths to reach real solutions — assessing the paths and respecting the nature of science and its imperfect yet noble quest for truth must happen in order for humanity to attempt real understanding of our world.

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