Social and Political Constraints on Science
We briefly touched on this topic the other day in class, but I think it is important that we recognize that science and especially scientific advancement does not exist in a vacuum devoid of political and social restraints or “norms.” This is apparent not only in some of the readings for the class but also is a common feature of scientific discussions throughout society today.
The arena of scientific advancement, which grows exponentially everyday, is often influenced by social or political groups wishing to curtail or to ban certain scientific explorations due to prevalent, mainstream social concerns. More often than not, there are two loud and divisive sides on the issue with a quiet middle searching for common ground. An obvious and relevant example would be the federal funding of stem cell research. The very question of whether or not it should even be allowed much less how it can be used creates a sharp division between the American public. The idea that stem cell research violates the sanctity of human life due to its use of embryonic stem cells and the possible effects it could have on the advancement of human cloning ignites opposition from conservative and religious groups while medical professionals and more socially progressive factions advocate its enormous potential in curing diseases in humans. Unlike in a lab, real life is not black and white.
Andrea Barret’s story “Rare Birds” in her book Ship Feveralso addresses the tension between science and, well, society. The main character Sarah Anne Billopp is an educated, articulate, and curious young woman who is interested in exploring scientific questions and participating in well-informed debate. Unfortunately, she lives in the year 1762, when none of the previously listed attributes are considered lady-like and acceptable behavior. Her older brother lectures her on the inpropriety of her outspoken behavior (heaven forbid she have an opinion!) and demands that she “wear [her] learning modestly” (Barrett 61). Apparently, “modestly” is synonymous with silent as far as her brother is concerned. Regardless of the repressive familial dynamics, Andrea Barrett emphasizes the “be seen and not heard” role of women two hundred years ago in deference to societal norms.
Whether in literature or in Washington, D.C., a scientific breakthrough will not always translate into mainstream acceptance due to social and political concerns about its use. While I am not advocating for the unlimited utilization of all scientific possibilities, I wanted to highlight the role that science plays in other important facets of life.