Culture vs. Science

Science has clashed with culture throughout history. From Galileo battling the Church to global warming, there have always been disagreements based on scientists challenging the norm. Here, we discuss various times when scientists have challenged a culture, for the better, but been shut down by those in power.

The traditional example of this is Galileo. Born in 1564, he championed Copernicus’ Heliocentric model of the solar system, much to the disdain of the Catholic Church. Such a model would broaden our horizons, quite literally, as we went about investigating the world above our heads. Had we still believed in the old model, we would never have had a successful space programme, never been to Mars and never decided to fly drones on a moon thousands of miles away (Dragonfly mission - do check it out). Yet, instead of seeing progress for what it was, the culture of the time rejected it and commissioned an inquisition to brand it heretical, foolish, and absurd.

Another, more serious, rejection of ideas came from the scientific community itself. Standard medical practice was to operate on patients after carrying out autopsies with the same tools, without washing your hands. Now, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot imagine going around with unwashed hands, spreading disease between dead bodies and patients. However, when a doctor named Semmelweis theorised, with evidence, that the unhygienic doctors were killing their patients, he was met with rejection and died in an insane asylum. The scientific culture of the time did not want to admit to being wrong in such a serious way, and so chose to continue the lie.

Before the 1940s, smoking tobacco was not only commonplace but considered beneficial for health. Cigarette companies had medical doctors on their adverts, promoting the benefits of smoking. In retaliation against the publication of studies in the 1940s that linked smoking to cancer, the tobacco companies, instead of re-evaluating their product, insidiously commissioned their studies to ‘prove’ that smoking was safe. It was not until the U.S. Surgeon General himself released a report, concluding that smoking caused cancer, that the public took the dangers of smoking seriously. This was in 1964, after over 7,000 articles had been published in the medical literature about smoking. Despite the piling evidence, companies refused to change their ways until forced by law - and the issue still plagues us today. The development of vaping and e-cigarettes shows how the tobacco industry has simply re-branded, rather than society truly tackling nicotine as a public health issue. While our culture has turned on smoking, commercial industries still refuse to learn the ethical lessons taught by science, and popular culture prefers an attractive product to scientific fact.

Another area where the wider culture refuses to help itself and industry ignores denies, and discredits the scientific community is climate change. Research into the impact of carbon dioxide (CO2) on the global temperature started over a century ago in 1909 when the term ‘greenhouse effect’ was first coined. By the late fifties, more scientists were arguing that our CO2 emissions were harming the environment, including Edward Teller, who declared that the temperature rise associated with just a 10% rise in CO2 would be enough to put New York underwater. He further warned that atmospheric CO2 was increasing at an exponential rate, and yet he was ignored, and nothing was done for years. Despite the scientific consensus and accumulation of evidence over the past century, we have continued using fossil fuels ubiquitously; the cultural norm was, and still is, one of burning fossil fuels to power our every need. Even though there have been cultural movements, like Extinction Rebellion, and global agreements signed, the world still gets over 80% of its energy from fossil fuels. [1] Had we acted sooner, rather than blindly accepting the status quo, had we listened to the warnings of science rather than adhering to the voice of business and power, we would not be in today’s dire situation.

While, in the twenty-first century, many in the public choose to listen to science, rather than companies that happily kill their client base to make a few extra bucks, the clash between culture and science continues. There have been some infamous situations where culture and science have fought, and culture has won (at least temporarily). Just because a view is popular, does not mean it is true. [2] If everyone could learn to be open to alternative viewpoints, while respecting the research that develops scientific theories, many of the issues that have troubled us for years would never have been issues at all.

By Eleanor & Ella

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/energy-mix

[2] https://conservapedia.com/Confirmation_bias

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