Communicating Science

Biological Engineering

Survival of the fittest. A succinct, elegant tenant of life—and perhaps the most famous words to be uttered in all biology. Uttered by whom, though?

You might be surprised to learn it wasn’t Charles Darwin. It was Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist.

Spencer "lifted" survival of the fittest out of Darwin’s Origin of Species and planted into his own preconceived notions of society. A new, popular, and purportedly, science-backed philosophy called Social Darwinism emerged.

Atrocities that plagued the twentieth century—blatant racism and discrimination, involuntary sterilization, selective breeding in humans, and Nazism—were sometimes committed in the name of this philosophy. In the name of science.

How could this have happened? More important, as academics and scientists, what can we do now to remedy similar distortions? Here are my thoughts.

Telling Half the Story
Two years into my PhD in Biological Engineering at MIT I’m exasperated by my own field’s insistence on esoterica. (Quick quiz for any bioengineers: Define Bayesian, Boolean, basal, benthic, basophilic, and beta-pleated.)

Can we blame non-scientists for not understanding or misinterpreting what we’re saying? What about when such misinterpretations are promulgated by famous people?

Let’s turn back to our historical example. Herbert Spencer conceptualized Darwin’s theory as environmental selection, or namely that only the organisms best adapted to an environment can survive and reproduce. But Spencer missed half of the story, as only the environments best suited for an organism will be settled.

Pretend you’re a Darwinian finch seeking out real estate in the canopy. If it is too low to the ground, predators will eat your eggs. If it is too high, the sun will cook your eggs. A pleasant mid-canopy tree hole, however, will do nicely. What comes next is Extreme Makeover: Nest Edition: You transform your tree hole into the perfect home.

What’s the point of all this? Spencer conceived of our environment—society—as a single, passive entity that selects for the best of humanity. He failed to recognize a principal lesson of nature: The environment is as diverse and dynamic as the organisms that inhabit it. Had he embraced this perspective, maybe Spencer would have called for a society that offered a diverse set of niches catered to a diverse set of humans.

Confronting the Core Question
Like me, most MIT students are scientists and engineers; but we rarely confront the question at the core of our existence and our livelihood.

What is the purpose of science? To illuminate the shadowed truths of the universe? To solve any imaginable theoretical problem? To make sense of convoluted data? To advance technology and medicine?

This is certainly what scientists do but not what scientists are for. To me, the purpose of science is to inform and shape society. This power endows us with an incredible responsibility to communicate our science clearly with the world. I worry, however, that we’re failing again to do this.

We live in an age when even the most basic biological facts are not being adequately communicated. Accordingly to a recent survey, 80% of Americans think DNA-containing food should be labeled as such—to say nothing of genetic modifications and their safety.

An article in the Washington Post about the study goes on to explain the obvious flaw: "Nearly all food contains DNA, and there is no good reason to warn consumers about its presence.

As McFadden and Lusk and explain, the survey answers on this subject are an indication of widespread scientific ignorance, proving that many of the respondents 'have little knowledge of basic genetics.'"

What’s truly heartbreaking is when this kind of ignorance translates to action. Examples, in my mind, include the anti-vaccination movement and the denial of climate change.

Turning the Tables
What’s worse is when our work turns on us before we have a chance to intervene. For example, given that many members of the general public may not understand the concept of a gene, things get even more complicated when you are talking about gene therapy or new technologies such as CRISPR.

Scientists at the Broad Institute talk about how CRISPR will usher in the genomic revolution in medicine. That seems like welcome news. And yet, this message is being warped.

Instead of Herbert Spencer, the accidental spokesperson is none other than singer-actress Jennifer Lopez. She’s producing a new show called CRISPR. The show, however, has nothing to do with how CRISPR will save lives. Science reports:

Each episode…will investigate a criminal bio-attack based on the CRISPR gene-editing technique, from a genetic assassination attempt on the president to the framing of an unborn child for murder…. The drama will center on a scientist and her former mentor as they battle for control over the human genome, the culmination of which could mean life or death for the entire human race.

This is a laughable description to anyone that knows anything about CRISPR technology. While this could be dismissed as just another bit of pop culture, there may be a point when false public understanding of the technology, influenced by her show, might prevent research advances into CRISPR, akin to what has already happened in areas such as GMOs, vaccines, and environmental protection.

Let geneticist Mike Eisen’s bid for the US Senate inspire you. "I’ve long thought that there’s been a dearth of scientific engagement with politics in general," he said. "Spouting on Twitter just feels inadequate. People are saying, 'Where are all the senior scientists to stand up and defend science?'. I just sort of felt like, they’re right."

Like him, I believe it is not enough to do science. We must also communicate it and defend it. After all, what’s the point of being a scientist if few understand science?