Wednesday, January 28

Seed magazine...heard of it?

I was wondering if anyone is familiar with Seed magazine (subheading: "Science is Culture"). It features articles and reviews on current topics in science from a social (and sometimes ethical) perspective. I guess it's kind of a layperson's version of Nature or Science, although I've only read a few issues at this point so I may be wrong in drawing this comparison. On the whole, the topics and viewpoints featured seem to be pretty substantive, and there's certainly a lot of material relevant to our class.

An interesting theme I've noticed in many of the articles I've read so far is this notion that science "must progress" or "must overcome some barriers"... obviously different scientists have different ideas of what these barriers are and whether we should overcome them at all. This does, however, seem to be a pervasive "ideology" (what a loaded term!) in the scientific realm and thus deserves some comment. It occurred to me that perhaps this barrier is what Rollin claims is the failure of science to consider ethics ("Ethics2", that is). Following from that, perhaps many scientists view the non-scientific community as a "barrier" because they feel like they're just not getting their message across. Evidently scientific progress is a two-way street. What are your thoughts on this?

On another note, and what triggered this late-night post in the first place: for those of you who took Matthew's Philosophy of Science class last semester, you'll remember Steven Shapin, author of The Scientific Revolution. He wrote a short article for Seed's December 2008 issue entitled "The Scientist in 2008." He discusses historical and modern perspectives of how society views science/scientists and what the role of science/scientists is or ought to be, and (most importantly, I think) he also suggests that an "adjustment of the boundaries between the natural and social sciences" is imminent as we enter the 21st century with "new scientific agendas and new conceptions of what it is to be a scientist." I guess I'm bringing this up mainly because I'm happy to see that a consideration of ethics and social values (whatever the hell that means) is starting to make its way into the mainstream dialogue of science.

I guess one thing I find a little disturbing about the magazine is that Craig Venter's (credited with sequencing the first entire human genome; founder of Celera Genomics) name has appeared on the covers of all three magazines I've read so far (not as an author, but as a featured scientist). For those of you not familiar with Venter, his team used a method of "shotgun sequencing" to determine the sequence of the human genome years before the set goal, and he stepped on a lot of other people working on the Human Genome Project in doing so (sorry--that's a personal value judgment, but in my opinion he played a little dirty).

Anyway, that's my spiel for now. I hope it was coherent enough for you to garner something from it. I welcome your responses and comments.


  1. Interesting thoughts... In response to your question concerning the idea that science "must progress" or "must overcome some barriers"... It seems that the general understanding in science over the last few centuries is that "if we can, we should." In other words, the simple fact that we have the capability or ingenuity to study a certain area of the natural world or invent some technology is worthy and sufficient motivation to engage in that research. If we CAN send a man to the moon, then we WILL send a man to the moon. If we CAN split the atom, then we WILL split the atom. If we CAN sequence the human genome, then we WILL sequence the human genome.

    I can see the day coming when the “Can we?” question must be replaced by the “Should we?” question. Instead of asking, “Can we clone a human being?” we need to be asking “Should we clone a human being?” Science loves to ask the first question, it loves to push the boundaries of human knowledge and capability. It is not so adept at asking the second question, because this question involves imposing limits on yourself, your own research and your own curiosity. It’s not natural.

    I think that this ethical “should we?” question is going to be seen as a barrier in the scientific community and those who are advocating this approach will face some hostility in our current scientific culture. But, this is the question that must be asked. In fact, this needs to be the primary question that individual scientists must ask themselves in regards to their own research areas. Because of the exponentially increasing power of our scientific capability, this paradigm shift is going to be necessary to ensure the continued fulfillment if not survival of our culture.
    Just a to clarification or objection.

  2. Justin Wrote: I can see the day coming when the “Can we?” question must be replaced by the “Should we?” question.

    It seems to me that we're WAY past that day. Think about game-changing research like the Manhattan Project. I'm not saying that, given the political situation, we SHOULDN'T have engaged in this this research; just that the obvious significance of the knowledge gained and its application raised clear questions of whether to get this knowledge.

    But you're right that it seems to be increasingly recognized that questions about the potential uses of scientific knowledge raises difficult ethical questions.


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