I don’t watch much TV, but I recently found myself watching a rerun of the popular History Channel show, Ancient Aliens. I figured it would be good for a laugh, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. The episode in question focused on regions that have historically been plagued by violent conflict, what the show refers to as “Forbidden Zones”. The show focused heavily on the Middle East, and suggested that aliens may somehow be inciting violence in Middle Eastern countries to prevent them from discovering some extraterrestrial secret hidden in the region. All of this is set to ominous music and over-dramatic narration. So far, pretty standard fare for Ancient Aliens.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more insane, the show cuts to an interview with a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology discussing optogenetics. I won’t go into a long explanation of optogenetics here, but the short and sweet version is this: light-sensitive proteins normally found in algae are inserted into neurons using a virus, allowing the neuron to convert light energy into a change in electrical potential. The result is researchers’ ability to selectively and instantaneously “turn on and off” different populations of neurons in the brain using light. The approach is revolutionizing our understanding of the structural and functional organization of the brain, and how this organization ties into behavior and disease.
The researcher goes on to explain a study that identified a region in the mouse brain that, when stimulated optogenetically, incited aggressive behavior. The show then cuts to a description of a 2015 study demonstrating that 5-8% of the human genome consists of exogenous viral genes. The logical, totally-reasonable-for-broadcast-on-national-television conclusion of Ancient Aliens? Long ago, aliens implanted viral DNA in human beings so they could optogenetically manipulate our behavior via a gigantic, invisible laser beam they’re controlling from the next galaxy over. I mean, why else would there be so much violence in the Middle East?
Once I caught my breath after laughing with my roommate (who is also training to be a neuroscientist) for a few minutes straight, the sad reality of what I was watching set in. I know Ancient Aliens is mindless trash (as is the vast majority of television), but the fact that such important technologies and discoveries were being bastardized and presented to a wide audience as evidence for conspiracy theories was yet another obnoxious symptom of a much bigger problem.
Science and Politics
Innovations in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), such as optogenetics, are dramatically changing our everyday lives, and present a huge number of ethical and social dilemmas. Successfully navigating these dilemmas requires a scientifically-informed public, and yet more and more misconceptions about science are spread and accepted in popular culture. Perhaps most disturbingly, the individuals who control the funding sources that make STEM innovation possible, and are responsible for the policies that will decide how these dilemmas are to be navigated, seem to be the ones that understand it the least. Politicians, I’m looking at you.
I probably don’t need to tell you that the current political landscape in the U.S. is a complete mess. Politics, which are largely driven by emotions and special interests, are more polarized today than at most other times in recent history. The role of science (at its best) is to make observations and draw conclusions about the world based on logic rather than subjective view points. From the “debate” over the causes of climate change (it’s human activity, guys) to the insistence by some that intelligent design be taught in public schools, it should come as no surprise that science and politics don’t exactly play nice. A recent NPR opinion piece by astrophysicist Adam Frank sums up this issue perfectly:
“The problem is that we appear to be stumbling in our attempts to deal with the supremely difficult collective choices science and technology continually shove in our faces. Since the operative phrase here is ‘collective choices’ — decisions made through democratic processes — here are a few questions to consider:
- What group gets to tell us if (and how) we’ll live with genetically modified foods?
- Who decides if (and how) genetically modified humans are OK? Cloning?
- Where does the policy determining limits for electronic surveillance get set?
- Who decides if we can use robots in warfare or for police work or in the home?
…The political battle over the science of climate change makes it clear how vast the chasm is separating how science understands the world from how politics acts in the world…
What makes this gulf all the more frightening is that the climate issue is only one of the existential questions we face. Genetics, robotics, big data, artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, energy modalities — each one has the capacity to drive radical shifts in our culture. All of these may — in fact — pose fundamental dangers to human culture. Or they may lift us all up. It depends on the choices we make.”
– Adam Frank, “A Problem Like No Other: Science And Politics”, NPR.
Adam goes on to make the important point that the solution isn’t simply for politicians to pay more attention to what scientists are saying – scientists are being heard, and in many cases, are ignored. The key is to bridge the gap between how science actually works and the public’s perception of it. This is especially critical in a presidential election cycle where the policies of each candidate lean towards the more extreme views of their respective parties, and the winner will likely have a huge role in determining the answers to the questions above. So what can you, as someone who is interested in science and/or at least understands the magnitude of this problem, do about it?
Don’t Believe Every Headline You Read
This one might seem obvious, but I’m always amazed at how often I see popular science articles that distort the facts posted and re-posted by smart people. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s common practice in journalism to come up with headlines that grab readers’ attention. These headlines are prone to overstating or fudging facts, and when it comes to science news, this can be especially problematic. A great example is this recent article (and many others like it) that claims scientists can now erase painful memories. A careful read of the article (and if you’re feeling ambitious, a quick glance at the study it describes) makes it obvious that this isn’t exactly true. But in today’s scroll-happy, clickbait culture, the headline is likely to be the only thing that sticks in the mind of most readers. Rule of thumb: if a headline seems too fantastical to be completely true, it probably isn’t.
Support Open Source Scientific Publishing
One of the biggest reasons for the scientific knowledge gap is the fact that most of the latest studies are hidden behind paywalls. Thanks to the Internet, having to either attend a major university or pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to get access to high-impact scientific journals is becoming a thing of the past. PLOS One is a great example of a journal not only making scientific information free to the public, but providing quality content about STEM innovation written in plain English. Until the rest of the scientific publishing world catches up, we’ll probably continue to see more stories like this one about a Russian neuroscientist who illegally shared millions of scientific journal articles online to spread knowledge.
Demand More From Politicians
It’s all fine and dandy that so much of the current political climate centers around issues like which presidential candidates get their money from where. But let’s not forget that if we don’t decide what to do about climate change or the eventual rise of human genome editing, none of that is going to matter. There are plenty of polls out there showing voters want to see more debate around scientific issues, and signing petitions like this one is a simple contribution towards making this happen. If you’re really feeling motivated, consider writing about these issues to politicians that represent your area. And most importantly (and I shouldn’t have to tell you this), vote.
If You’re A Scientist (or anyone working in a STEM field) , Get Out of the Lab and Into the World
This one is obviously geared towards those of you who studied or are studying science, although it’s probably a safe bet that that’s most of the people reading this. Adam Frank makes the point that formal scientific training includes next to nothing in the way of teaching scientists to communicate their work to wide audiences and thinking critically about the social and cultural impacts of their work. If you’re involved in STEM, find time to step away from the bench and tell people what you do. Get involved in science writing or start a blog. Give public lectures. Share your research with friends and family. Blur the line between science and art. Hell, get involved in politics. We need scientists working in science policy now more than ever.
Take Your Science Education Into Your Own Hands
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a genius to understand what’s going on in the science world (I’m definitely not). Taking free, entry-level science courses on Coursera or MIT OpenCourseWare are great ways to enhance your basic understanding of topics you care about. Also, chances are good that someone in your immediate circle of friends and family understands more about science than you do. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions.
Don’t Learn About Science From Ancient Aliens
I can’t overstate this enough.
Currently Reading: At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen. Set in the South American rain forest, this 1965 novel follows the story of a clash between a Christian missionary and a stateless mercenary over the fate of a native hunter-gatherer tribe. Matthiessen deals expertly with heavy issues surrounding religion, imperialism and the human need to belong, and still manages to weave an entertaining and fast-paced narrative.
Currently Watching: Rick & Morty. I know I spent the first half of this article bashing on television, but this show is absolutely hilarious, bizarre and surprisingly profound. Nihilists and hedonists in particular will empathize with a lot of the show’s themes and ideas.