American Journal of Medicine, internal medicine, medicine, health, healthy lifestyles, cancer, heart disease, drugs

Is Science Important? A Recent Lecture

Joseph S. Alpert

Joseph S. Alpert, MD

Recently, I was invited to give a lecture in honor of MDs/PhDs graduating this year from Aarhus University in Denmark. The requested topic was “Is science important?” When I first received this invitation, I thought “Come on!! Is there really an educated, rational person living in the 21st century who thinks that science is not important?” However, on reflection, I realized that there are individuals who reject science, the scientific method, and rational skepticism. They are a small but vocal minority in the United States. This group rejects science despite the fact that just about every human being living on Planet Earth at this time is a recipient of multiple benefits that come from scientific investigation. Indeed, there are people living in our highly sophisticated technological society who believe that Adam and Eve lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. One does not have far to look in our daily lives, considering our current level of health and mobility, to realize the many benefits of science and technology that surround us. Of course, some individuals are advantaged more than others, for example, those of us who live in technically resourced societies. Nevertheless, human beings living in less developed countries still have many benefits that are the result of science and technology.

As I prepared my talk, I thought over all the advantages that have accrued over the centuries as a result of scientific work. And, it is important to remember that technology is the child of science. For example, without a sophisticated understanding of chemistry, none of the lifesaving pharmaceutical products available today would ever have been developed. Or, without an understanding of the physics of energy, none of our current transportation options would be available. I told the many biomedical scientists and physicians present at my lecture that had science and technology not existed, my trip to Denmark would have taken weeks instead of hours. In addition, this trip would have been extraordinarily dangerous without modern transportation and communication technologies. Although my comments in this editorial would seem obvious to any educated person today, there are still people who deny scientific evidence—for example, families that deny their children the benefit of vaccination against many illnesses that in the past resulted in childhood mortality and disability. Denying science in this setting is, in my opinion, looking for trouble.

Public health is a critical field where science has allowed the majority of us to live long and healthy lives. Imagine cities without toilets, sewers, and potable water. This was the case in Europe during the Middle Ages, a time when infectious gastrointestinal and pest-transmitted illnesses were rampant and often fatal. If we did not have current science and its offspring, technology, bubonic plague, “the black death,” would still be ravaging much of the world. I jokingly ask my trainees, “What has been the most important scientific discovery in the history of the world that has led to long and healthy human lives?” My answer is “the toilet,” accompanied, of course, by the entire sanitation infrastructure. One evident example: In Elizabethan London, human waste, as well as other garbage, was tossed in a small canal-like groove in the middle of the street, where it certainly fostered a thriving community of disease-bearing pests, for example, rats. And, of course, drinking water was often filled with disease-causing bacteria. One reason that beer is such a popular beverage is that drinking this beverage instead of water in previous times was associated with a reduced chance of developing a life-threatening gastrointestinal illness. The situation in medieval London would be unthinkable today in most countries because of scientific investigation coupled with technological advances.

Human beings today are living longer, healthier, happier, and more fulfilled lives because of scientific investigation coupled with technological development. Indeed, each of us today is considerably taller and healthier than our ancestors who lived without the advantage of plentiful potable water, edible food, and modern health care.

My conclusion is simple: Only an uneducated or irrational individual denies the many daily benefits that are the result of science and technology. Long live Science!!

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-Joseph S. Alpert, MD

This article originally appeared in the March issue of The American Journal of Medicine.

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