Why Haven't Y'All Cured Cancer Yet?
“Wow. Why haven’t y’all cured cancer yet?”
That’s what a STEM-averse friend of mine asked me after I gave her a brief overview of some of the scientific research I’m currently working on. And I completely get it.
To most people, scientific research is a black hole. All the time, money, and intellect that goes in just vanishes.
Science mostly happens outside the public eye. The picture of the scientist gawking at cells on a microscope slide or light patterns in the sky feels so far removed from the business of day-to-day living.
Only sometimes does scientific research sidle up to center stage.
On a weekly basis, the public sees report after report on the science of why coffee is good for you, why coffee is bad for you, why coffee is sometimes good and sometimes bad for you. When a new disease breaks out, the public is welcomed into the scientific arena for the play-by-play.
It’s easy to think that science is only useful as indisputable fact: F=ma. We know it to be true, and it gives us a way of making sense of this world.
But scientific fact is really only the tip of the iceberg. Science is a messy process roiling underneath the glassy surface of the water. Science is the dark ice forming the foundation of the berg; science is the ecosystem thriving in all its crannies; science is the life-giving water itself.
Scientific discovery floats in bits and pieces to the surface, chunks of flotsam that make no sense and might easily be discarded as useless. But these wisps of knowledge hint at a bigger picture that we as humans can’t help but dive after, can’t help but fear, can’t help but respect.
As scientists repeat experiments and build consensus, ask new questions and postulate alternative possibilities for reality, we slide through facets of the human condition. What the public sees as a scientific breakthrough is actually just one more piece of the puzzle slotting into place.
All that to say, science is not very well understood. Science can’t even make up its own mind about what it is, so I don’t find it surprising that people undervalue science, and I don’t find it surprising that my pre-law friend can’t conceptualize the significance of what she believes must always be concrete and self-affirming.
But back to the original question: why, if we try so hard, don’t we yet have a cure for cancer?
I didn’t give my friend a real answer because I didn’t take her words as a real question, but I see now that she was getting at the heart of the dilemma of science — a topic well worth discussing. Here’s my attempt at an actual answer.
In a sense, we already have a cure for cancer. Theoretically, scientists know how a cure might work. Experimentally, it’s been implemented in model organisms.
Even so, the problem of cancer in humans persists.
This isn’t a scientific failing; it’s a societal one.
Genetically engineering a cure for cancer is prohibitively expensive for most patients, and it doesn’t really work all that well anyway. It’s also the first in a horde of bioethical concerns.
Okay, what even is the point of science, then? People often say that science expands our knowledge of the universe, which gives us the tools to fix the parts of our world that get broken. Well, that answer doesn’t fit in the case of cancer.
Fundamentally, scientific pursuits test the limits of our humanity.
Scientific advancement goes hand in hand with societal advancement, but since science is a product of this imperfect society, science is also its enabler. For as long as we turn only to science for the solutions to broader societal issues, we will always set ourselves up for failure.
If science perpetuates societal inequities, then something has to be done about science.
But science is vitally important. And I’m not saying that just because I was raised on MythBusters reruns the way cattle are raised on cud. The vital importance of science is something we all know intuitively — even haters put energy into formulating a stance on science because they think it matters.
So how do we rationalize it?
Well, just as Americans constantly strive towards a more perfect union, scientists must strive for a more conscientious process. Maybe that comes in the form of behind-the-scenes tectonic shifting; maybe that calls for an utter reinvention of science. All I know is that the striving never ends because it is what makes us human.
We will always fail at transcending failure. Ultimately, we can only try to break the loop.
And try we must.
It feels a bit like a cop-out to end this here, having answered only some questions and hinted at so many more, but what is a human life without existential questions to ponder while brushing your teeth? Now, dear reader, go search for your own answers and contemplate your own questions.
Today, I thank you for it, and somebody else — maybe even you, yourself — will too someday.