This I Believe

Marion - New Orleans, Louisiana
Entered on February 1, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: science

I believe in science

Using hypothesis, experimentation and theory, science advances human knowledge. In this essay, I present a personal meaning of the word “science.”

I have been a biology research scientist, specializing in virology, the study of viruses, for almost 20 years. All organisms, including viruses, use DNA or RNA to transmit genetic information. Transmission may be faithful or not faithful. Accurate transmission, the most common kind, is required for species preservation. However, a small number of errors, or mutations, occur continuously. It is thought that most organisms have biochemical mechanisms to ensure accurate genetic transmission. A friend once said to me: “the electron doesn’t lie.” He meant that everything in the universe (from electrons to genetic material) behaves exclusively according to its underlying natural properties. Although mutations are errors, infidelity of genetic material is, paradoxically, an axiomatic property of life.

The rate at which mutations occur can be measured experimentally. Organisms vary widely in their mutation rates. Humans have relatively low rates, while RNA viruses, such as HIV, have high rates. However, despite the ubiquity of mutation, there is an upper limit to mutation rates. A theory called the “error catastrophe” explains the loss of viability at extremely high mutation rates. Therefore, although mutations are intrinsic to genetic behavior, limits to mutation are also inherent. Parenthetically, understanding this may help conquer viral drug resistance.

Although scientists elaborate theories about the universe, just as important is the truthfulness of their methods. If scientists are not truthful, scientific truths cannot be discovered. This fact is so fundamental to me that untruthfulness itself, for me, is almost like a violation the laws of the universe. The variable fidelity of genetic material is a powerful metaphor for human truthfulness. Just as mutations inevitably occur, deceitfulness by people happens.

I recently taught science at a college where the level of student cheating was extremely high, well-organized and included the use of clandestine high tech devices. From my point of view, every falsified answer, whether correct or not, is a like mutation in the integrity of the learning process. I hypothesized that if these students were an evolving species, they would not survive, since their infidelity was so high it would cause an “error catastrophe.” The cheaters should become extinct. In reality, the consequence of cheating is that these students, sadly, will be unprepared for their future endeavors. I found that I could not tolerate the mockery that the students were making of my teaching and resigned.

Despite this unpleasant experience, I still believe in science. The human brain has evolved to seek underlying, unifying principles; this inquisitiveness mediates science. The requisite truthfulness of science usually overrides human deceitfulness. I still try to live my life by principles of science and veracity.