I can recall biology lectures during college where the information presented was never questioned. And why would it be? The theories and facts came down almost as if from on high, from our wise professors and dense textbooks. There was no discussion of the context of scientific history, only the highlights—this is how we learned DNA forms the basis of life, that is how we learned to cure a disease. The participants mattered only in the sense of having a name to chisel onto the Nobel Prize. But that isn’t how science works in the real world. Reducing science to its highlights prevents many of us from understanding that science is as fractious and colorful as the rest of life. Moreover, it prevents us from realizing that we still have the opportunity to play a part in modern science. We make implicit value judgments when we buy smartphones, video game consoles, and organic food, and this in turn helps determine what fields deserve more research money. BetterBio exists to make those connections clearer, and to provide all of us a chance to more consciously contribute to the course of scientific progress. What exactly do I mean by that? Just look around you!
The fruits of our collective human struggle to make the world more hospitable to our leisure time lay in literally every object in our homes. The fruits in your refrigerator have a specific shape and flavor crafted by human hands for ease of collection and heightened enjoyment. The ink on the pages of the books on your shelves was decided to have the right balance of readability, cost and longevity of use. The clock on your wall has a history stretching back to the beginnings of human experience. The very way we carve up life into days and seconds may seem like a fundamental fact about life, but the system was crafted through thousands of years of use and muddled through alternate versions that could very well have become the standard themselves. In short, science is our struggle to understand our lives. In that sense science is more than a history of dusty knowledge—science is a reflection upon how well we desire to know ourselves.
These examples also point out how even the things we sometimes think of as unchangeable are human-created, and so always subject to change. They are actually our relatively recent attempts to better accommodate the world as it actually is, with our vision of how we would like it to be. Not understanding the very human reasoning behind our modern world can lead one to ask what would at first appear to be reasonable questions: will the aspartame in my diet soda cause cancer? Will the vaccination the state requires my child to get put her health at risk? Does my birth control lead to breast cancer? Without the scientific literacy to parse which sources of information are likely to provide valid answers to these questions can lead to unfortunate and incorrect “answers.” A very understandable plea for information can instead lead to forgoing some of the pinnacles of human achievement. For my own part, I worry about a blossoming anti-intellectualism that threatens to discredit advances before they would otherwise be rightly trumpeted. So how can BetterBio help craft your ability to sift through competing sources of information?
Our system of education teaches children more than mere facts. At its best, our schools help children construct a system of how to think, and inspire a lifelong commitment to learning about and interacting with the wider world. But the same curiosity we reward in children is often derided in adults. It is not wrong to ask questions about the world—the failure comes not in asking the question, but in deciding on an inappropriate answer. Simply put, no one person can know everything. Historians have argued that a few individuals could lay claim to the title of “the last person to know everything” but I will tell you that all candidates died in the early 1800s. No one today could claim to be that well-read, and certainly not in terms of science. And while the internet provides the raw tools necessary for truly democratic access to understanding our modern world, the internet has also leveled the intellectual field—every kernel of information, no matter how poorly researched or illogical in fact, is a click away. It has never been more important to understand how information is created, how science corrects itself even as it expands what we know about the universe and ourselves, and the sometimes faulty ways in which we attempt to come to terms with that knowledge. These reasons are why BetterBio was started. At every single moment, the internet provides us access to more and more information. Without the proper search tools on the internet and between our own two ears, that repository of knowledge would remain as uninviting to the lay reader as the average graduate-level science textbook.