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.
If religion and politics were more like science, the world would be a much better place.
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?