The Strength of Science and the Vulnerability of Humanity

Last week, the first week of November 2023, I attended the 2023 World Laureate Association (WLA) meeting in Shanghai. This was the group’s first live meeting after the pandemic, and as usual, it was enjoyable and educational[1]. I enjoyed this meeting as an economist as I got exposed to the frontiers of science, where leading scholars thoroughly explained complex phenomena. This meeting also provides opportunities to interact with scientists from many countries and disciplines and discuss various topics. I cherish this open dialogue in a world full of conflicts and suspicions, and I’d like to comment on several themes that emerged at the conference.

Suspicion of Science in an Era of Unprecedented Discovery

While we live in an era of unprecedented scientific discoveries and applications, people seem increasingly suspicious of the benefits of science[2]. We are all aware of the anti-vaxxers, yet vaccines have saved millions of lives in every generation since they were discovered.  Similarly, there is evidence of significant losses from the limited use of agricultural biotechnology despite scientific evidence of its benefits. I am unsurprised that many people do not trust science. Diffusion is the time-consuming process describing the pace at which technology is spread, and the number of its adopters increases. The process of adoption is gradual. People first become aware of a new alternative, evaluate it, make a choice, and continue to reassess their choice. New practices are adopted when individuals have incentives to switch from one practice to another. The likelihood of adoption increases when individuals observe that the new practice performs better than the traditional one and when the transition cost is not too high.

The adoption incentive, like convenient personal transport, may satisfy an economic need but have an unintended environmental consequence (greenhouse gas emissions). Science designed the automobile to solve a transportation problem, which was a stunning success. More science is needed to solve the transport emission problem, but we are getting there as EV adoption becomes EV diffusion. 

When it comes to accepting science, we must realize that people have their original beliefs frequently introduced by religious education and traditional culture, and science and other higher education present an alternative perspective. Many can integrate religious beliefs with modern science. Fortunately, a large share of the population gets an education, providing them with tools to incorporate scientific knowledge and methods into their lives productively. However, some factors can slow the acceptance of science. Scientific reasoning and information are challenging and intuitive. Frequently, the young encounter traditional and easy-to-digest knowledge first (it’s much easier to grasp the creation story than evolutionary concepts). 

Furthermore, leaders of traditional societies may restrict access to scientific knowledge and methods. One example is the orthodox educational system in Israel, which bans modern science from its curriculum. Fortunately, people “adopt” science when exposed to its fruits. As my mother told me, “You start believing in modern medicine and science once you realize that penicillin works better than prayer.”

Diffusion processes take time. The diffusion of literacy has proceeded for hundreds of years; still, many people cannot read and write. The diffusion of modern scientific knowledge has been relatively fast, even though suspicions of science and scientists remain widespread. Scientific knowledge will be more widely accepted, scientific thinking will spread further as educational opportunities expand across human societies, and science’s predictions and benefits become more apparent. 

Unintended Consequences of Modern Technologies

Another cause for the lack of trust in science is the unintended consequences of modern technology. The discovery of synthetic fertilizer increased agricultural productivity but resulted in water contamination. Some people attribute environmental degradation and climate change to scientific progress. There is no gain without pain. The discovery of fire has been crucial for human civilization, but the misapplication of this technology caused a lot of pain. Frequently, the gain of new technology is apparent before the pain. The gain from using fossil fuels was quite immediate, and it took time for greenhouse gases to accumulate. But science has consistently recognized some of the pains, developed technologies to address them, and called for policies to control unintended consequences. One of the significant contributions of economics is the discovery of market failure and the need for government intervention to provide incentives to reduce pollution and adopt cleaner technologies. Science may identify solutions, but politics can stand in the way and slow their implementation. Adopting new technology, like convenient personal transport, may satisfy an economic need but have unintended environmental consequences (greenhouse gas emissions).

Science designed the automobile to solve a transportation problem. Science was the first to identify the climate change challenge and developed solutions resulting in electric vehicles, wind power, and other technologies discussed in Shanghai. We need investment and implementation of new knowledge, science-based regulation, and enlightened policymaking to benefit from growing human capabilities while reducing risk. 

Global Risks Facing Humanity

The world faces multiple global risks that need to be contained, and this theme received much attention at the meeting. Professor Martin Hellman suggested that the risk of a nuclear war is around 1% a year, and the expected damages, in terms of loss of lives, are more significant than anything humanity has ever experienced. He promotes an ongoing dialogue between scientists from the great powers (US, China, Russia) who critically evaluate how their national policies can contribute to increasing and reducing risks of global carnage. Analogously, humanity has continuously faced pandemic risks, and large fractions of humanity have been wiped out in pandemics past (Spanish Flu, Bubonic Plague, The Plague of Justinian). In our lifetime, we have witnessed several potentially devastating pandemics that have been drastically curtailed thanks to our scientific capabilities. Humanity now faces a third source of catastrophic risk – climate change. The cost of climate denial is ever-increasing, and lessons from other crises should remind us that delayed response and reduced effort in mitigation will be much more costly in terms of adaptation. We must collaborate to mitigate catastrophic risk and improve our capacity to adapt to climate change that cannot be avoided. 

I was encouraged to learn about recent scientific developments providing new tools for addressing climate change. Significant progress in carbon capture and storage, including new metal-organic frameworks (MOF)that embody unique chemistry and show immense potential to capture carbon and harvest water from the air. There is progress in developing more affordable batteries, e.g., replacing lithium with sodium, and new prospects for producing liquid fuel from hydrogen. In my presentation, I argued that the potential to produce biofuel from sugarcane and other crops could be enhanced immensely if science-based agricultural biotechnology regulations were introduced to allow it to be applied globally. An increase in agricultural productivity will allow us to reduce the footprint of food and fiber production and expand the bioeconomy so agriculture produces more biofuel and chemicals without decreasing food security. Large-scale adoption of technologies to mitigate climate change requires substantial and transparent economic incentives. A meaningful carbon tax (say $150/ton) can do the trick. Unfortunately, carbon pricing is not widely exercised for political economics and technical means. I was delighted to participate in a session on precise measurement of carbon emissions with participation from global organizations and Chinese government officials. Direct attribution of carbon emissions to companies or individuals is challenging, but progress in this area is essential to equitable and efficiently target carbon prices. 

Basic Research and Scientific Freedom

The importance of basic research and scientific freedom cannot be overstated. Many attendees commented that the ideas that fueled their careers and led to their recognition were considered unreasonable and wrong at the time. Scientific achievement, in many cases, consists of making unintuitive discoveries. The ideas of Katalin Kariko, a 2023 Medicine Nobel laureate who laid the foundation for the COVID-19 vaccine, were downplayed and ignored for a long time. Support for basic research is essential for fostering discovery. Scientific sharing of knowledge through publication and personal interaction enhances research productivity. Basic research and applied research are complementary, as used research builds on discoveries made in basic research, and the growing emphasis on competitive grants targeting specific technological outcomes and reduction in support for basic research is alarming. There is a large body of evidence showing the high rate of return to investment in public research in agriculture and life sciences, where the vast benefits of basic research take many years to realize. As the world faces growing risks, support for basic research must continue, and scientific knowledge exchange is perennially encouraged.

The WLA meetings were enriching and enjoyable. The meeting strengthened my appreciation of the beauty of science and my belief in its capacity to enhance humanity’s progress and secure peace on Earth. I also noticed that we are still divided by disciplinary barriers and found that discussion on key topics could have benefited from more social science and humanity inputs. Scientific discoveries and new technologies can only make a difference once they’re implemented by society. Biophysical scientists specialize in obtaining outstanding results in the lab. Still, they will further understand the challenges of bringing technologies from the lab to the consumer. 

[1] I appreciate the exceptional accommodations and the support of Yuhui Pie and my assistants, Dantong Liu and Qianru Li.
[2] These observations are due to Serge Haroche, 2012 Physics Nobel Laureate.

5 thoughts on “The Strength of Science and the Vulnerability of Humanity”

  1. Ruslana R Palatnik

    Great overview. Thank you for sharing your thoughts David. Do you think we witness a change in global sentiment from science-based judgement, liberalism and globalization to fundamentalism and nationalism? Was this topic a part of the discussion in this forum?

  2. Thank you. Very thought-provoking. Through continued efforts in effective science communication, investment in education, and responsible governance, people can really cultivate a society that embraces the wonders of science while being mindful of the potential risks.

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