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Science is messier than you think...and that makes it exciting



Science is messy.


Hence the analogy I used in a recent piece on science communication likening the process of science to seeing how sausage is made.


Although textbooks like to present science as a neat orderly process functionally equivalent to following a recipe, how science works in the real world is anything but neat or orderly. In fact, as I talk about in my book, Biology Everywhere:How the Science of Life Matters to Everyday Life, it’s the messiness that makes learning about how science works in the real world so interesting. Here are three stories from the history of science demonstrating how everything from culture to cognitive bias influenced the process of science.


1. Rosalind Franklin’s story


One of the biggest discoveries in molecular biology, and arguably in science, was the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s. Knowing the structure of DNA, scientists could understand how it stored and transmitted information across generations. Understanding how DNA is copied is essential for understanding everything from human development to molecular mechanisms of cancer development.


Who made the discovery? Well, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery. What about Rosalind Franklin? If you’ve read Watson’s memoir, The Double Helix, Watson regularly disparages Franklin and likens her to a lab assistant. In truth, Franklin’s x-ray crystallography work was central to uncovering the structure of DNA. Franklin generated an image of DNA that was given to Watson and Crick without her knowledge or permission (which Watson admits in The Double Helix)—and that image ended being the missing piece they needed to solve the final structure.


If Franklin’s role in the discovery of the structure of DNA was so central, why don’t we hear about her more often? Even in modern molecular biology textbooks, her contributions are often reduced to a footnote (if that). Well, she didn’t receive the Nobel prize in 1962. But this was because the Nobel Prize can’t be awarded posthumously, and she had died of ovarian cancer (likely linked to exposure to X-rays while doing her work) in 1958.


The other reason is because of cultural attitudes towards women scientists in the 1950s. In the 1950’s women were not expected to work outside the home, let along earn advanced degrees in biology. Watson’s critiques of Franklin’s appearance in The Double Helix reflects 1950’s attitudes towards women as pretty things to look at, rather than intellectual beings.


If Franklin had been a man, would they have taken her work without her knowledge? Or been more likely to acknowledge her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA? Franklin came to the same conclusions based on her x-ray crystallography images around the same time as Watson and Crick – if her image hadn’t been stolen without her knowledge, is it possible she would have been credited as the sole person who discovered the structure of DNA because she would have published the result ahead of Watson and Crick?


Learn more about Franklin’s story in this TED-ED lesson.


2. Scientists don’t always agree…and what we know changes over time


In textbooks, science is often presented as a straight-forward unbiased process. The whole point of having a scientific “method” (not that there is a universal scientific method in real practice) is so that it’s a standardized process, right?


Although there are certain underlying principles that differentiate science as a domain of inquiry from others (like philosophy or religion), like the reliance on evidence to support a point, how that evidence is interpreted is influenced by biases.


Confirmation bias is when a person is more likely to interpret evidence or believe something that fits in line with something the already know.


A famous example of this was in 1906 when Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Camillo Golgi shared the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of the neuron. Although they shared the prize for the discovery, they actually gave contradictory presentations when accepting the Nobel prize. Golgi, presented the results in terms of reticular theory, the leading theory at the time, which posited that all neurons in the body were physically connected with one another.


Cajal on the other hand, based on his repeated drawings of neuronal cells, thought that neurons were not physically connected with one another. Cajal’s ideas were later supported in the 1950’s when electron microscopy was used to demonstrated that neurons were distinct from one another.


We see here that when looking at the same evidence (stained neurons), Golgi and Cajal came to two different conclusions. Golgi originally proposed reticular theory and interpreted data through this lens. On the other hand, Cajal was influenced by his background as an artist and applying that lens to see neurons in terms of their form and function.


This also exemplifies another aspect of how science works in the real world that can be considered messy – science knowledge is subject to revision in light of new evidence.


Although reticular theory was the leading theory for a time, new evidence presented by Cajal (and later through advances in microscopy) presented new evidence. This new evidence suggested a different interpretation – now known as the neuron doctrine - that laid the foundation for modern neuroscience.


You can learn more about Golgi and Cajal in this TED-ED lesson.


3. Development of Birth Control Pills


Birth control in one form of another has been around for a long time.


It’s documented in the book of genesis in the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament) and Aristotle talked about possible spermicidal chemicals in his writings.


But until the 1950’s, most efforts to prevent contraception were based on a variety of physical barriers (condoms, diaphragms) designed to keep semen in one place. And of course things like condoms or use of the withdrawal method meant that woman had to rely entirely on a man’s willing participation to prevent pregnancy.


How could women take control of their own sexuality and reproduction? Could a more effective form a birth control be developed?


Jonathan Eig’s book, The Birth of the Pill, chronicles the development of the first birth control pill, Enovid. As part of the story, we see many examples of the messiness of science – and several examples of cultural views impacting the process of science.


For one, when researchers had finally settled on a few final candidates to test in humans, one candidate had to be eliminated immediately. Why? Not for any scientific reason – just a cultural one. The owners of the company that made that compound had religious objection to developing birth control pills – so they refused to sell the compound to them.


Birth control pills work by capitalizing on the hormone fluctuations a woman goes through every month. Although many are familiar with a woman getting her period, menstruating is only the first part of a woman’s cycle. After menstruating, she enters into the follicular phase in preparation for ovulation (a period of higher estrogen). Once ovulation (or release of an egg) has occurred, progesterone levels begin to increase entering into the luteal phase. If the egg wasn’t fertilized, hormone levels begin to drop a woman gets her period – starting the cycle again.


Women can often tell what phase of their cycle they are currently in, especially towards the end if she suffers from pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS. In fact, cycle awareness (often a mix of tracking days, basal body temperature, and examining cervical mucous) is often used as a method to either get pregnant or prevent pregnancy.


If you fiddle with hormone levels, you can prevent ovulation. After all, women do not ovulate while pregnant. So, if you give hormones via a pill and trick the body into thinking its pregnant ovulation won’t occur – and with no egg present, conception can’t occur either.


In the beginning of this blog article, I mentioned 1950’s attitudes towards women scientists. And sure enough, although major supporters of the development of a pill included women—the scientists were men.


If women had access to labs earlier on and could apply the intimate knowledge of their cycles to the development of birth control pills, is it possible that birth control pills could have been developed earlier? Or faster? This highlights one reason why it is so important to have inclusive practices in all fields – the diversity of viewpoints is a valuable asset. It also fits into why women’s perspectives of science need to be treated as just that – their perspectives, and not a feminized version of male science, or “barbie science.”


There were also issues with bringing the birth control pill to market. It’s a medication for treating a naturally occurring condition – being a fertile woman isn’t a disease – so there was issue with getting Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Again, it had nothing to do with the science, and everything to do with the culture and definition of medication.


Today this discussion pops up with laboring women going to hospitals to deliver – being in labor isn’t an illness, so why go to a hospital? This has of course led to birthing centers popping up that provide medical support where needed and luxury hospital rooms that look far more like hotel rooms…but are down the hall from an operating room, should an emergency arise.


Final thoughts


As you can see, science is messy. I only presented a few stories showing that science isn’t the sanitary straightforward process presented in textbooks (or published research articles). The authentic process of science includes failures, setbacks, and influence of outside factors (like culture).


Presenting science as messy is important not only from science literacy perspectives, but also from an education standpoint. Understanding how and why science knowledge changes over time is important for understanding, for example, why recommendations about mask wearing changed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Science is more approachable when viewed through the lens of human-interest stories and history. It draws people in who would otherwise not wish to engage with science. Although not everyone is a scientist, we all need to engage with science for our own health and welfare, and for that of society. So many feel like they can’t engage with science – and presenting science through stories is one way of changing that.

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