Over my years as a journalist, I’ve written about many intractable problems: international conflicts, environmental crises, and culture wars. People have slaughtered one another for worshiping the wrong deity. The world’s most powerful country has fallen into the grip of a sociopath. So it kills me when scientists and science journalists fret that science is “broken.”
I’m not disputing that science has its troubles. Slate’s Daniel Engber has made that case persuasively: Many recent studies can’t be replicated, some have turned out to be fraudulent, and pranksters have proved that nonsense findings can get published. But put these concerns in perspective. Science examines and corrects itself. It constantly tests itself against external realities. It studies its failures and rethinks its assumptions. Science is a learning machine. For this reason, science is less broken than any other institution. It’s exemplary. If religion and politics were more like science, the world would be a much better place.
I’ve been thinking about this since February, when I went to Austin, Texas, for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There, at a conference session on gene editing and a luncheon hosted by the AAAS program on science, ethics, and religion, I reconnected with ethicists I’d met during the stem-cell wars of the George W. Bush years. I found that religion hadn’t advanced much since I covered the politics of science a decade ago. But science had.
Listening to the bioethicists felt like old times. Their perspectives and worries were familiar. The ideas they proposed for why we ought to limit biotechnology—human dignity, consensus, precaution—still seemed vague and poorly grounded. The nightmares they projected about designer babies were still just magazine covers. In an exchange of presentations and arguments, religious ethicists, like secular ethicists, still didn’t seem to take seriously their opponents’ scruples. The stalemate had hardly moved.
Science, by contrast, has raced ahead, opening new possibilities. A nascent technology, CRISPR-Cas9, has accelerated gene editing. Scientists are assembling microbes the way electrical engineers design circuits. They’re modifying mosquitos to fight Zika and malaria. They’re engineering viruses to kill tumors. They’re using artificial intelligence to teach surgery to humans. Scientists don’t care that viruses or robots are scary; they care about what works. It’s hard to fret about designer babies when you learn that in a recent experiment, reported by Gang Bao of Rice University, gene editing all but wiped out sickle-cell anemia in the target sample.
In a session on “generation of human organs in livestock animals,” researchers described their work on “human-porcine chimeric embryos.” Yes, that’s a cross between a human and a pig—though the human cells, when properly controlled, form just one nonbrain organ or another. It sounds like a horror movie, but the logic is impeccable. Pablo Ross, an animal scientist at the University of California–Davis, pointed out that in just nine months, a sheep or pig embryo conceived in a dish can grow to 200 pounds, yielding a kidney or heart of adult human size. That’s less than the average wait for a human transplant. By seeding the target organ with the DNA of the intended recipient, we can prevent the patient’s body from rejecting the organ as foreign. Would you rather let people die waiting for transplants? Or force them to buy kidneys on the black market?
Science isn’t here to confirm your intuitions. It’s here to challenge them. In a lecture on memory research, Robert Bjork of UCLA presented evidence that when learning feels easy, it’s not sinking in. In another session, speakers demonstrated that higher levels of education don’t correlate with belief in climate change or disbelief in conspiracy theories. (Even avid flat-earthers are as scientifically literate as the general population.) In a discussion of cognitively high-functioning octogenarians, Emily Rogalski of Northwestern University noted that nearly three-quarters of the people in her study are women. But Rogalski questioned whether women were more likely to be high-functioning or just more likely to volunteer for the study. Good science always looks for alternative explanations.
Religious people sometimes think scientists are dogmatic. But nobody dissects the failures of science more ruthlessly than scientists do. In Austin, I watched them interrogate their own methods. Panelists debated whether rat experiments could really explain human behavior. They discussed how research could be constructed not just to measure processes in the brain, but also to learn which processes to measure. David Poeppel, a neuropsychologist at New York University, dismantled the “methodological imperialism” of his profession. Reductionist neuroscience, he observed, has developed “parts lists,” such as neurons and dendrites. But it hasn’t made sense of animal behavior.
One theme came up again and again: plasticity. Through the epigenome, a layer of chemicals associated with genes, scientists are learning that stressful experiences in animals can shape their offspring. In that respect, contrary to the crude model of evolution, environmental conditions are heritable. Evolution also turns out to be complex in other ways: Animals can switch from predator to prey mode, depending on environmental cues, and this gear-shifting can be chemically triggered in the lab. Human brain structures nominally assigned to one function can adopt another—for example, the visual cortex, which in blind people can assume verbal and mathematical functions. And although such rewiring was thought to be limited to “critical periods” early in life, it now seems possible—based on research reported by Takao Hensch of Harvard University—to chemically “reopen a window of plasticity in adulthood.”
By exploring these dimensions of complexity, science learns how to intervene more effectively. Pills, for instance, are a clumsy way to boost mental acuity. They affect your whole body, and they don’t take account of the brain’s propensity to change through activity. Exercise is a better approach, and video games can provide it. They capitalize on human motivation: We don’t like to take medicine, but we like to play. They can also integrate artificial intelligence with human intelligence, by monitoring each player’s performance and adjusting the task or the level of difficulty. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California–San Francisco described a series of such games, now in research and development, to help old brains function more like young ones. He called it “neuro crossfit training.”
What scares many people about science is its boldness. Hiro Nakauchi, the featured speaker at the session about growing organs in animals, recalled with sadness that in Japan, his research was blocked by rules against implanting partially human embryos in animal hosts. “So,” he continued blandly, “I decided to move to Stanford.” Nakauchi doesn’t even have to worry about U.S. restrictions on federal funding of stem-cell research, since he gets his money from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
And labs like his are just the tip of the iceberg. At another session, experts in synthetic biology reported that thanks to the plummeting cost of DNA sequencing, people around the world, unaffiliated with universities, are tinkering with microorganisms. With every rinse or flush, a new creature can enter the water system.
It’s sensible to fear that kind of power. The conference’s concluding lecture on climate change, by Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, underscored the damage technology can do. But many solutions to what’s wrong in science, and in the rest of the world, can also be found in basic scientific principles. Test your assumptions against reality. Question simple explanations. Consider alternatives. Re-examine your methods. Study nature. That’s one lesson I saw again and again at the AAAS meeting: The best way to understand the perils of messing with nature is to learn how nature works. If you increase mental plasticity, one speaker observed, you can destabilize the brain. If you help people remember everything, said another, you can clutter their minds with useless things they need to forget.
Imagine a world in which politics and religion worked this way. What if spending more money than the government takes in, or waging optional wars in faraway places, were treated as an experimentally falsifiable proposition? What if the idea of homosexuality as an “illness” was subject to open-minded encounters, clinical or pastoral, with people as God made them? What if we asked not just what the Bible can teach us about human origins, but what the study of human origins can teach us about how to read the Bible?
Good people in religion and politics are already thinking this way. At lunch in Austin, I found myself sitting across from Nicanor Austriaco, a bioethicist I had met 13 years ago at a Vatican conference in Rome. Austriaco is a Catholic priest. He’s also an MIT-trained biologist at Providence College. Father Nic, who is pro-life, told me about his pastoral work with women who have had abortions. I often hear pro-lifers insist, with unshakable faith, that all such women have clinical symptoms of moral regret. But Father Nic said this was true of only 1 in 3 women. You can quarrel with his number, but the key thing is: It’s a number. We can do studies to check it out. Now we’re talking.