The Biggest Lie In Science: Little Kids Changing The World
You might have seen this headline in the last week or so:
If you didn't, it's a story about ... well, a teenager who discovered a cost-effective method of turning saltwater into fresh, drinkable water. I don't know shit about FOX 12 Oregon, but I'll say this: their headline-writing game is tight AF. I bring this up because it reminded me about how those schoolchildren in Australia recreated Daraprim, the drug that was made famous when haunted ventriloquist doll Martin Shkreli hiked the price 5000 percent. This sparked speculation that this could be the end of his monopoly, a fact that I tell you because we're still in the early goings of this article, and should be full of optimism.
In fact, a cursory search shows that these aren't the only examples -- there's dozens of school kids giving up dabbing and peer pressure long enough to change the world. You might think that high schools are all emotionally traumatizing make-out sessions and weird goth phases, but surprise! The school system is pumping out Neil deGrasse Tysons, left and right. Status of the world? SAVED.
However, as reassuring as it is to think that the newest generation has their shit locked down, things aren't quite this simple.
Let's revisit the first story about the teenager with the low-cost method of desalinating seawater. What the story neglected to mention was that his work was cost-effective because he was a single high school student treating barely a mouthful of water. Will his method still be cost-effective when/if it gets rolled out on a larger scale? Will his method even work on a larger scale? We don't know, but reading the science section gives you the impression that the clean water crisis is over and we can all move onto more pressing age-old matters like where the beef went and what the deal is with that.
I also hate to be the one to stick up for the ferret-faced creep, but Shkreli was right to scoff at those schoolkids and the media -- he isn't getting away with his price gouging because he has a production monopoly, more that he abused loopholes in the regulatory system to create a distribution monopoly. Anyone with a working knowledge of pharmaceutical chemistry could recreate Daraprim, but attempting to sell it would land them in federal prison.
And so it's the same case for every media wunderkind. Jack Andraka invented a "revolutionary" test for pancreatic cancer and experts agree that it's practically useless at detecting cancer-specific markers. William Gadoury used star maps to discover an ancient Mayan city in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, an "unprecedented" technique that doesn't work according to archaeologists (the "city" is probably an overgrown field). Mallory Kievman invented "game-changing" lollipops that cure hiccups, despite the FDA telling her to market them as candy because there's no scientific proof to her claim. Param Jaggi invented a device to cut automobile emissions using algae, although cramming your muffler full of pond scum probably won't be enough to cut carbon dioxide in any meaningful way.
I'm going to wrap this up soon, I promise. I've got other things to do today than crush the hopes and dreams of you and literal children.
Boyan Slat invented a method that promises to revolutionize clearing all our garbage from the oceans; it'll wind up missing the vast majority and goes against research that says we need to focus on stopping garbage before it gets out to sea. A group of Nigerian schoolchildren developed a urine-powered electrical generator, but it's only capable of putting out a piss-poor (heh) amount of energy compared to the amount of energy the device consumes. Aisha Mustafa created a space thruster that a) hasn't been tested, and b) is already something that people are working on. Aiden Dwyer built a solar array that promised to boost energy output, but it turned out that he made a bunch of errors whilst testing the device and screwed his results.
The problem isn't that their inventions don't work as promised (or even work at all). Science is built upon trial and error and experimentation -- when it comes time to solve world hunger or the clean water crisis, it'll be accomplished following a myriad of small advancements, not gigantic leaps. On a more personal level, I spent my formative years shoplifting and marathoning Vice City. I have no place telling young people to science better, even though I know this article kind of makes me seem like I'm the mayor of a town that wants to ban Christmas and talking snowmen. Go forth into the world and kick its ass, you.
The issue is that journalists look at these class projects, hype up the smallest discovery, and perpetuate the idea that child-like whimsy, not decades of prior research and a forgiving grant, was the key all along. Maybe Donald Trump is right and maybe experts don't know anything and maybe science is a liberal conspiracy, but maybe, just maybe, things are a little more complex than they appear. Did the media just think that Shkreli's rivals were taking a really big nap and hadn't considered manufacturing Daraprim themselves? They could probably do it. They have the technology.
It's a cute notion and, as we've covered, kids can change the world. The trick, however, is to take everything you read about kids doing world-changing science with a planet-sized grain of salt. To do anything less does a grand disservice to the people tinkering with test tubes and doing back-breaking microscoping as we speak. They're not incompetent dicks with no imagination. They're trying to solve the world's biggest jigsaws with no idea of what the final pictures look like: an active imagination is pretty much a requisite of the job in those conditions.
If you let the media tell you otherwise, however, we could have our cure for cancer in two weeks, if science would only give the kid from Big a chance.
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