“We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces.” Carl Sagan
Science is of little value if ordinary people cannot understand it, cannot trust it, or cannot use it. Mistrust in scientific knowledge has existed throughout history and continues today. But, thanks to social media and the ever-increasing intelligibility of most scientific information, the pace of mistrust and misinformation is exponentially growing.The emphasis on the so-called “purity” of science, because science is the truth, unbiased, apolitical, or universally applicable, is where we are losing the people.
Science is the truth as we know it for the moment until proven or disproven by more science. That is how science works. Science tries to be unbiased, but bias naturally creeps in with all human activities: scientists are human. Politics and science have had a long and complicated partnership, often in detrimental ways. And finally, while science can be universally applicable, it is not universally applied. Large swaths of humanity suffer from public health crises that scientists in our developed countries have long solved. Vaccines and medicines sit on the shelves of pharmaceutical companies because they are for diseases only seen in developing countries. While there are serious efforts to improve the development and availability of drugs in developing countries, bottlenecks and little to no expected profits slow down the progress.
Humanitarian scientific organizations like Chemists Without Borders (CWB) work to break down the barriers to understanding science. We strive to help build trust within communities to see science for what it is and what it is not, and we empower people to use science to improve their lives. Primarily, we wish to change the binary conditions imposed on problems: those who believe vs. those who don’t. Science is not a belief system. It is a methodical approach to observing, measuring, and understanding our physical world.
In the pursuit of science for the common good, we have lost the conversation with the very people we wish to help. Science cannot just occur in the halls of academia, governmental institutions, or other elite settings. It must happen in communities, in daily service of humanity. But it requires a different way of interacting than we have thus far used. As Carl Sagan suggested so aptly, we have figured out how to confuse just about everybody with the complexity of scientific findings and their applicability to every conceivable human endeavor (capitalistic or otherwise). We have taken the inherent uncertainty in all scientific results and projected a sense of absolute certainty, endangering trust.
Our unceasing goal must be to make the tent of science voluminous, its walls fluid and permeable. But how to do this? Shifting the focus of the conversation to the understanding and appreciation of the scientific process will build more durable bonds. Most of us do not know engineering, architecture, or the various trades involved in building construction, but we see the process, understand the steps, and thus have the trust to step into a building to take cover amidst a storm. Education is a critical component in our arsenal as humanitarian organizations. It helps free up the observations and results from immediate emotional judgment. The scientific process is common-sensical and understandable by anyone. Its trial-and-error approach and analytical thinking give us a chance to understand. By appreciating the process, we build safety and trust to see the results in a new light.
Like the rest of us, scientists love learning and exploring because there is much we don’t yet understand; they are driven by a combination of seeking knowledge and a healthy respect for the awe-inspiring aspects of our natural world. The unexplainable phenomena do not disprove science; they are part of the process. Humility is a virtue that our best scientists have always exhibited and must continue to enlighten our scientific journey.
We at CWB, like most other humanitarian organizations, place respect for the culture of the people we work with as our prime directive. It is only in the blending of culture and science that we can build trust, scale, and sustainability. Innovation most often occurs in the adjacent space, where we can see the present and envision a slightly different tomorrow. Our goal is to help our communities define, plan, and execute projects that provide the most significant benefit to their people. Service, education, innovation, and connection are part of every project we undertake.
By some accounts, the global community of chemists, chemical engineers, and related scientists is over 20 million strong. If we can simply connect 10% of this community with projects that directly benefit humanity, we at CWB would consider ourselves successful. Students engaged in STEM in the K-12 community and science majors at our universities can form a CWB chapter, empowered to tackle projects, locally or globally. Whether you are a scientist in the global north or the global south, joining CWB can bring the world closer, narrowing the gap between inequality and access.
The challenges facing humanity, be they environmental, poor infrastructure, disaster-driven, or man-made, are beyond the reach of any one organization. Human migration due to the scarcity of basic resources, wars, and climate change is at an unprecedented rate. We stand at a pivotal moment in human history. On one end, we are exploring the very edges of our universe, and at the other end, we struggle to take care of our fellow humans. At CWB, we are confident we can turn the tide against hopelessness. Scientists working with us and in the various NGOs are crucial to our endeavor to serve humanity.
EVP, Chemists Without Borders
October 26, 2023
This blog is the first in a series to showcase CWB and other humanitarian organizations in their work to tackle humanity’s greatest challenges.