TED Conversations

Samantha Massengill

Engineer, Southwest Research Institute


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How immune should science be from the political environment of its time?

Many scientists have been affected by the political environment of their time. Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, protested the German treatment of Jewish scientists and professors as he watched his friends become dismissed from their positions. Similarly, Walther Nernst openly voiced criticisms of the Nazis and was forced to end his career as a scientist. More recently, President Obama overturned the Bush administrations' limit on federal tax dollars towards stem cell research. President Obama also supports scientific efforts towards a clean energy economy. If political leaders do not encourage scientific research, proper funding will not be allocated. However, much research has been made possible by involvement due to politics. Do you think there should be a separation between science and politics?


Closing Statement from Samantha Massengill

Thank you all for joining me in this conversation. It really helped me to solidify my own beliefs towards political involvement in my scientific endeavors. Hopefully others have gained from this experience as well!

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    Feb 4 2012: Great question and some great answers and points made! There are a couple of ideas that I want to float. First, science, just like anything else cognitive, cannot be divorced from our preconceptions. There are cognitive biases that we all have, and it is very difficult to disentangle ourselves from their web. Yes, even scientists come at their science with these biases, and more often that not they just get propagated. It is nearly impossible to publish anything that diverges from the narrow path of the current dogma for this very reason. On the other hand, stuff that is radical should be scrutinized more closely. It is this tight rope that we all walk in science, and I contend that we all fall victim to bias and conflict. But should science really be elevated above all other modes of thought? This seems short-sighted, as the human brain requires a great variety of inputs to think well. Furthermore, a national and global conversation that is needed about how to advance our knowledge cannot and should not be limited to science alone. There should be no hierarchy in how we approach learning -- humanities, social sciences, music, science, and yes, even religion, all give context to what we learn. Finally, someone asked what science is. To me the best way to answer is by referring to Karl Popper, who defined scientific questions as those questions that are disprovable.

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