Science in the context of our culture


The latter part of this year was a time of triumph for science. We had a series of positive results for Covid vaccines, in development only since March and all done at an unprecedented speed. We have seen the production of artificially created chicken tissue, although at the moment only for supermarkets in Singapore. We saw the announcement of a programme capable of predicting the three-dimensional structure of a complex protein. This allows the creation of other molecules capable of interacting with the protein in a predictable way. It could therefore allow, for example, with a speed that has been impossible until now, the development of drugs or, perhaps, chemicals to degrade otherwise non-recyclable plastics. A Japanese mission to an asteroid to recover some rock (which returned to Australia last Sunday morning) may shed light on how the earth came into existence. After 7 years of observation, the Gaia satellite has created the first accurate 3D map of the Milky Way. This can help resolve the question of whether or not dark mass and energy exist. The Chinese have put a probe on the moon to collect even more lunar rock and return to earth with it - although I'm not sure why. And the latest news is that some Oxford researchers - from the same Jenner Institute that produced the vaccine against the Covid virus - have also produced an effective vaccine against malaria, a disease that is at least 10 times more dangerous than Covid.

At the same time we know that there are many who do not have a positive attitude towards science. They have doubts. We know that there are even those amongst them who think that vaccines are a real disaster for us as a human race. Apparently, the injections actually consist of rare metals (which will make us antennae to receive the 5G signal) and a microprocessor. The Bill Gates and the global elite will then abolish physical currency in favour of digital currency for which the injected microprocessor will be key. But without having explicitly accepted this new global government, it will not be possible to use the microprocessor. This means that resistance will be futile because you would have no money to buy food. Obviously these people have a stronger belief than mine that any government would have the ability to organize such a system.

There are others who believe that the vaccine is the work of the devil and/or will change our genetic code. We learn from his online video of the wise thoughts of an influential pastor in London, Tomi Arayomi: "I don't understand vaccines from a medical point of view, but I've always been a bit sceptical. The pastor and his followers are concerned that a bio-luminescent chemical known as luciferase was used in the development of the now-approved vaccine. Clearly this implies that it is the work of the devil. He goes on to say that regulators have rushed the authorisation of the vaccines, saying: "Let's hope it doesn't cause more limbs to grow, that we don't end up with children who have 11 fingers and 12 toes". Apparently, they have in mind the fact that a significant group of vaccines is based on messenger RNA. Their extensive understanding of science is such that they believe that RNA is the same as DNA. After all, it is easy to confuse the two when they’re only different by one letter.

But it is not only that there are individuals who believe in conspiracy theories as a result of ignorance of science. A detached attitude from reality exists with regard to science in many people and also in the laws of the European Union. We all accept that despite the triumphs of science, there are examples of science when it has not worked for our good. Therefore, especially when we are urged to have a vaccine, it is reasonable to ask for confirmation that it is safe. This is why we have organisations to regulate these things. But there is nothing that is one hundred percent safe. So we have to accept a minimum level of risk because in its absence we can do nothing. But this is where we encounter 'the precautionary principle', something written into European law. Of course, the law is incapable of being framed in order to tell us in any given case how cautious we should actually be. It can only wag a finger at us and say “Do you really think that’s wise?”. Which means that the judgement made in the name of the principle is not scientific, but cultural.

We see this in action in the EU’s comprehensive 'no' to the consumption of transgenic products, those modified by a specific change to their DNA. We can grow them in Europe and, presumably, export them, but we cannot eat them ourselves. For many people this approach is fully justifiable. We talk about 'Frankenfood' and so on. As I have pointed out in the past, however, other countries - the larger part of the world - have decided to do the opposite. So there is an abundance of experience from which we can determine whether or not there is really a problem.  Culturally, however, it would be very difficult to change public opinion now.

There are though other food products that are themselves the result of a change in DNA, but are approved by the EU. In 2017 the European Court decided that any product of the super-precise type of chemical editing called CRISPR-CAS9 is subject to regulations that actually prevent their sale for human consumption. They are all classified as GMOs - genetically modified organisms. On the contrary, the older methods used to induce genetic change to improve the quality of a plant are not subject to these rules.  The Crispr method has very predictable and visible results. However, the older methods are much less precise because they depended mainly on the exposure of seeds to nuclear radiation to cause purely random mutations which then may or may not be found to be useful when the seeds germinate. It is not possible to predict where the mutation will be or what it will do. It could be anywhere and therefore very difficult to find. This approach is also used for products sold as 'organic'. 

However, the Court has decided that these techniques have been "conventionally used in a number of applications and have a long history of safety". Therefore, they should be exempted from the rules on GMOs. This decision was directly in opposition to the scientific evidence, but not that of environmental groups. These activists have a horror of intervention by scientists in nature. Evidently the Court did not want to prevent all progress - breeding more productive or disease-resistant crops is obviously a good thing in itself - but at the same time it felt the need to recognise the cultural pressure that the environmentalists' case represented. There is now a discussion in the European Commission about the possibility of changing the law.

But every vaccine against Covid is clearly the product of interference by science in nature.  We may not be talking about the genetic code itself, but we will certainly be injected with an artificially created substance, something designed to mimic part of the chemical composition of the virus and, therefore, trick our immune system into recognising the virus itself when it arrives. We have tested each product on perhaps 30 thousand people to establish that it works and has no undesirable effects. We will continue to check the health of everyone who has the vaccine. In contrast, the products which we eat and which are the result of exposure to nuclear radiation to produce mutations are not subject to any systematic control for harmfulness.

Evidently there is a paradox. We have no confidence in scientists who can provide techniques to increase our food output and so decrease the amount of starvation in the world, but at the same time we praise those who have brought us our freedom from the isolation created by the virus. Especially British scientists! It seems that we do not think consistently about science. We are constrained by our culture, by the memes that affect our thinking and which we do not question sufficiently. And we are disadvantaged as a result of our inconsistency.

Paul Buckingham

7 December 2020

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy