Science and society

The professor teaching my Water, Development, and the Environment class is a biology professor.

Today, we were talking about the social effects of large-scale water projects, and he was explaining all these science-y stuff that relates to water such as water pressure, polarity of water, that kind of stuff. Then he ended the class with something that I completely agree with, and I think it’s something that everyone should keep in mind, or at least, ponder over.

He said that you can only go to a certain extent with science, beyond that, it can’t be about science anymore. It’s about people, and public values, and community good.

Take dams and reservoirs, for example. These things were built with good intentions — better irrigation for farming, source of hydropower, etc. Groups can come in with all the science they want — where is the best place to build it, what kind of structure is longest-lasting, how it can be most effective.

But science can’t be all there is to it. Whatever you do, you always have to think about the social impacts.

It turned out that building these dams benefitted some people, but a lot of other populations were negatively affected by it (for example, the people who live downstream). Some of these impacts were obvious — people have to be relocated, they lose their homes, etc. Then there are impacts that are not so obvious, impacts that only someone who paid reeeaaalllyyy close attention, who carried out reeeaaallly detailed studies, would realize. For example, when the Kariba Reservoir was built in Zambia, there was a dramatic rise in sexually transmitted diseases. It turned out that this was due to the male laborers who were brought in to build the reservoir and the close living quarters.

I mean, seriously, who amongst us would think that one of the social costs of building a reservoir is turning an area into a high STD-risk area?

You cannot separate science from social science. No matter what science you are studying, you have to be aware of the social science behind it.

My friend is taking a Sociology of Health and Illness class, in which she learns that doctors are socialized in medicine school to behave a certain way and have a certain belief when they come out to work with patients. And that, in turn, affects how ill people view their illnesses, and how the rest of society perceive health and illness. Medicine can’t escape sociology.

In my Immigration and Citizenship class, we talk about how biotechnology breakthroughs have been affecting how people perceive their own identity. For example, India is scanning the fingerprints and eyes of their people and creating what is touted to be the world’s largest people database. Each of their citizens will be given an identification number, which they can use to open bank accounts, apply for welfare, etc. This is possible only with advancement in science and technology. How does this change modern society’s way of identification? How does this affect perceptions of personal identity, when people are reduced to their physiological traits?

In science, every breakthrough you make, affects someone, somewhere. Every invention and discovery you make changes society in ways you may not detect. But it always does change something. You can’t do science and not do society. Science and society is incredibly closely connected.

The thing about studying sociology is, I realize how something that may seem small and inconsequential at the time, could change the society at the time, and eventually, could change the rest of history.

During colonial times, shapes of regions were drawn on paper and shaded out with different colors signifying which colonial power it is under. British colonies were one color, French colonies were another, Dutch, Spanish colonies were another. And the result of that? The birth of the idea that regions are separated by “borders”, that regions have “shapes”, like the way Malaysia looks like a banana. Before that, land was just that–one big mass of land. You couldn’t tell where one place ended and where the other place began.

Can you see how something so simple can change the way the future perceives certain things, and as a result, change the way they act and behave?


The point of my post is that we should all be responsible people, okay? Do your science stuff, but don’t forget the society. Think about the social effects of what you are doing. You can build a really nice tower, you think it would improve communication, so it’s a good thing. But THINK AGAIN! Where are you getting the funds from? Would you be using up resources that could be used for a better, more sustainable development project? Would your communications tower benefit only a small group of people? Would it bring larger, unobvious social costs that would be very detrimental to larger groups of people? When you enter the communications market, how would that affect consumer patterns, and how would that in turn affect perceptions about communications? Is there somewhere else to which you can channel your funds so that you can create more sustainable benefits to more people?

Think about it. Not all social costs are obvious, but they could be very detrimental.

Think about it!

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