The SU Faculty continually encounter fascinating developments, stories, and news items that prompt stimulating discussions and learnings among ourselves and with those of you who attend our programs. Here’s a look at what we’ve been intrigued about lately.
As a biologist who spends a lot of time talking with nonscientists, I’m challenged—and fortunate enough—to spend time grappling with the impacts of science and technology on culture, society, and identity. Writing in Nature, historian Nathaniel Comfort reflects on the ways that science can both inform and complicate the way we view ourselves. Is evolution really a dash to the top? Does the way we scientifically conceptualize our bodies inherently reflect our social conceptualizations of self? And how much of the essence of you is really defined by your DNA? This cleverly constructed essay shines a light on the complications that arise when we use science as a lens to think about more than the natural world. I, for one, am guilty as charged … and grateful to Comfort for bringing these issues to the front of my mind.
Hand a scientist a beer, and about 20 minutes later you’ll get an irked earful about things people don’t understand about science. Yes, ok, I’m talking about myself here. But it’s a symptom of the far-larger issue of the lack of scientific literacy in so much of modern society. Here, Caltech Magazine takes a light-hearted look at a small sample of how folks can just get it wrong. One of my personal pet peeves appears here; that’s right, the scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe for human consumption—and people have been looking for evidence to the contrary for a long time. Information is not knowledge. This article helps us remember that reading something online does not necessarily make it true.
While I’m a big believer in the power of technology to make the world a better place, it’s easy to get sucked into the “technology makes everything awesome” mindset. That’s why I was deeply moved by Jarhead author Anthony Swofford’s brief essay in MIT Technology Review. Here, Swofford takes an unsettling foray into his mindset as an active soldier. He painstakingly highlights the moral distancing from the atrocity of war that technology can enable, arguing that “When we believe the lie that war can be totally wired and digitized, that it can be a Wi-Fi effort waged from unmanned or barely manned fighting apparatus, or that an exoskeleton will help an infantryman fight longer, better, faster, and keep him safe, no one will be held responsible for saying yes to war.” Whatever your perspective on issues from the personal to the political, this essay is worth confronting. I was also moved by another article in this issue about the gathering of evidence of chemical warfare in Syria; this entire War and Peace issue is deeply thought-provoking, especially if you tend to technological optimism, as I do.
It’s unfortunately wildfire season here again in California, as well as in other places around the world. Plus flu season is right around the corner, and traffic isn’t exactly solving itself. So are you one of those people who thinks wearing a gauze face mask gives your health a bump? Check out this Comment in Nature—you may be better off without the mask.