Dr. Science Redux
You might recall “Ask Dr. Science,” a radio sketch in which a faux caller would ask Dr. Science a question and he’d come up with an off-the-wall answer. “He knows more than you do,” was the show’s motto, along with the disclaimer “He’s not a real doctor, but he has a Masters Degree…in science!”
Around our house, Mom’s the real doctor. Suffice it to say, Dad’s not. A source of family humor. My wife got the science brain, majored in bio, earned her doctorate, practiced decades of dentistry. She can remember and pronounce words like dioxyriboneutronicalitholeneocane. I can say “low dose aspirin” and weather strip a basement door. Our children always knew who the go-to was in a medical emergency: Mom! (Once at a restaurant we watched as Mom, calm and forceful, restored breathing to an infant choking at the table next to ours.)
Some science brains live within caregiving personalities. Those folks are a gift to public health care. Have you noticed that a caregiver-plus-science person is often modest and unspoken about the medical risks they encounter? They do their job. These are the daily images we are seeing, right? Doctors, nurses, hospital workers robed in PPE working long hours at personal risk to help and treat and save. 2020 isn’t the first time we’ve seen this. In the early 1980s when the HIV crisis hit, we saw humble, task-oriented health care heroes don masks and PPE and continue to treat patients. I got used to seeing my wife working daily in a blue mask, goggles, hair covering, gloves and white coverall. (My uniform, easy by comparison, was coat, tie and brief case.) As I worried about her exposure risk, her science/caregiver brain focused on protective procedures and treatment plans for patients.
Science! Who knew how 2020 would compel thoughtful people to push the reset button on how they think about science? Scientists, after all, are the ones whose dedicated minds have been at the front line of vaccine research. Scientists can’t do it alone, but without their know-how, politicians would be about as reliable as Dr. Science.
Science is, after all, not just a Masters Degree! It’s an idea, a practical and intellectual discipline, a mode of thought. A perspective and way of understanding the world. Science as an idea, a discipline of thought, is accessible to us even if we can’t explain the Krebs Cycle without asking Dr. Siri. 2020 challenges us to ask ourselves a science question. How teachable are we? What new things can we learn and how open are we to learning from others, like a health care worker, a physician, a researcher, a public health expert, a scientist? When we listen to the opinions of others, how well-informed and non-political does that person sound from a public health standpoint? Less politics. More science.
A science mind asks not only what we know but what we don’t know. Knowing what we don’t know helps form the right questions. Of course, during a crisis, we all want yes-or-no answers. Who likes uncertainty? But a science-minded person is asking: what evidence do I have that this or that is right? Often, a scientist thinks in terms of probability rather than either-or duality: i.e. “how likely is it that A is true and what else might we need to know?” versus “there’s only two sides, A or B, choose one.” A political mind tends toward either-or duality that slots into pre-existing we-versus-they divisions of parties, electioneering and fundraising.
“Science” is a key word in the text of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution is the longest-existing, written constitution in the world to expressly say that one of the purposes of the republic is to “promote the progress of science.” Yet ironically, few Americans associate the word “science” with the Constitution. Try this. Ask a friend: “Which of the following words appear in the U.S. Constitution: a) science; b) arts; c) two-party system.” (Answer: a and b.) Without the constitutional framework for science in America, we would have nothing like what we have today: decades of government-supported funding, research and development, education, invention and innovation, intellectual property, medical leaps forward, trips to the moon, computer technology and on and on.
The founders rightly believed that promoting the progress of science would be more important to the future of the new republic than promoting one faction (one party) over another. In 2020 that is turning into a prophetic priority. It will be scientific progress, humanely applied and honestly promoted through public health, that brings America out of this pandemic.
Let’s welcome back Dr. Science. New and improved version.