"Biotechnology Research" by Idaho National Laboratory is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Biotechnology Research” by Idaho National Laboratory is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We can criticize the institutions that employ them without dismissing their vital work

Late every December, I join colleagues at DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism in looking back at the year that has passed and looking forward to the coming year. I typically focus on big issues that affect the entire planet, not just the Hub. Sometimes my observation, analysis, and admonition to our broad audience is more positive, sometimes it’s more negative, but I always remain hopeful that humanity will muddle through the many crises that we face.

However, muddling through requires that we listen to fellow humans that devote their lives to studying the root causes of those crises. And act based on their recommendations. Understanding that we live in an imperfect world and that there are rarely simple solutions to any of the problems that confront us.

So in thinking over what I’d like to say about the year to come based on the year that is drawing to a close, I decided that I don’t want to double down on discussion of the existential crises of global warming and the coronavirus pandemic that I write about frequently.

Instead, I’d like to reflect upon the importance of supporting the scientists and other highly trained researchers like public health specialists that are studying those linked crises. Not blindly and not uncritically, but with the humility required toward those experts that know far more than the rest of us do about the subjects in question.

Furthermore, speaking as a journalist, I’d like readers to think about the importance of being fair and accurate when it comes to considering the credibility of the institutions that make the work of those scientists and researchers possible. 

That is, we can criticize political and economic problems with nonprofit, government, and commercial institutions while still accepting the science they produce. Assuming we understand science as the best process that humanity has for determining what is really happening in the world around us and how best to deal with it. A process based on unending debate between our top experts in any given field. A process where dominant theories are only ever conditionally approved until a demonstrably superior explanation of material reality comes along and supplants it.

This is why I can write an article like my column “The Omicron Syndrome” of last monthwhich takes major pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to task for trying to rigidly control the intellectual property rights of vital discoveries like vaccines and medications that help humanity beat back the coronavirus pandemic in the interest of increasing their profitswhile at the same time saying that the science being done at such corporations is often top notch. 

Because I understand that science is currently being produced in a capitalist system. A political economic system that I inveigh against precisely because it creates a handful of rich powerful winners and a multitude of struggling losers. And even when it develops goods like vaccines and medications to effectively fight a global pandemic, it distributes them so unevenly across nations that they don’t work as effectively as they would if everyone had access to them in a timely fashion. Yet everyone would only have access to them at speed if Big Phrma put the profit motive aside and said the right thing to do is use all the massive resources at our disposal to save humanity and profits be damned.

It is that very profit motive that correctly makes many people across the political spectrum distrust institutions like pharmaceutical corporations.

Unfortunately, that distrust makes the same people more likely to then distrust anything the pharmas do—including the excellent scientific research being done by the tens of thousands of scientists that work for them. Since many scientific research jobs are in corporations in our capitalist system. A lot of said jobs are at public universities and government labs, yes, but a lot are also in the private sector. Most of the researchers aren’t doing what they do for money, but for the love of knowledge and from a desire to help humanity. Even when they work for institutions that do some bad things. But this fact gets lost in an ever-growing array of conspiracy theories propagated by people who have any number of axes to grind with the world. Few of them having anything to do with the betterment of humanity.  

My message for the coming year, then, is to look for news organizations—imperfect though all of them are—that do a good job of popularizing the research of top scientists studying existential threats like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. Then check them out regularly. Also, try reading the original scientific research you hear about from such news outlets. It’s sometimes hard to grasp, but the best way to really understand what’s going on. Discuss and debate what you learn with your friends and family. Get everyone you know involved in the construction and transmission of human knowledge in real time. 

A critical and engaged public is absolutely vital to surviving any existential threat to humanity in good order. And it is the greatest bulwark against ignorance and disinformation being propagated by charlatans of every description—for any number of reasons including money, power, ideology, or psychiatric disorder. If we want 2022 to be a better year than 2021, supporting the best scientific research and spreading word of it far and wide is one thing we can all do to make that outcome more likely. Good information can only defeat disinformation with all of our help. It’s harder than praying, true, but its real world effects are much more tangible.

Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.