Over my years as a journalist, I’ve written about many intractable problems: international conflicts, environmental crises, and culture wars. People have slaughtered one another for worshiping the wrong deity. The world’s most powerful country has fallen into the grip of a sociopath. So it kills me when scientists and science journalists fret that science is “broken.”
I’m not disputing that science has its troubles. Slate’s Daniel Engber has made that case persuasively: Many recent studies can’t be replicated, some have turned out to be fraudulent, and pranksters have proved that nonsense findings can get published. But put these concerns in perspective. Science examines and corrects itself. It constantly tests itself against external realities. It studies its failures and rethinks its assumptions. Science is a learning machine. For this reason, science is less broken than any other institution. It’s exemplary. If religion and politics were more like science, the world would be a much better place.
I’ve been thinking about this since February, when I went to Austin, Texas, for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There, at a conference session on gene editing and a luncheon hosted by the AAAS program on science, ethics, and religion, I reconnected with ethicists I’d met during the stem-cell wars of the George W. Bush years. I found that religion hadn’t advanced much since I covered the politics of science a decade ago. But science had.