Association Affairs

Symposium briefs religion writers on science topics

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Science  25 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6255, pp. 1466
DOI: 10.1126/science.349.6255.1466-a

The discovery of several thousand exoplanets over the last three decades has had profound implications for scientists and nonscientists alike, potentially rattling our understanding of humanity's place in the universe, according to Jennifer Wiseman, director of the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program.

“What does that mean for our sense of human identity that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each filled with billions of stars and potentially billions of planets?” Wiseman asked an audience of religion writers at a 27 August symposium at the 66th Religion Newswriters Association conference in Philadelphia.

Crash courses in astrobiology, artificial intelligence, and gene editing were on the program at the DoSER-organized event, which was part of an initiative to strengthen communication between scientists and religious communities.

“We wanted to create a safe space where [religion reporters] can hear about some of the more interesting developments in science and feel free to ask questions, so they'll feel more confident in writing about science for their audiences,” said Wiseman. The symposium was the first step of DoSER's new Science for Religion Reporters awards program, which will send up to 12 religion reporters to the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.

The symposium exposed religion writers to several cutting-edge science topics that raise modern ethical and philosophical questions about human identity, technological enhancements, and manipulations of life. The writers also learned how the scientific enterprise operates today, including the processes of funding, peer review, and publication.

While Wiseman introduced the writers to the state-of-the-art methods astronomers use to find and study planets outside of the solar system, Robert T. Pennock, a professor at Michigan State University, presented on artificial intelligence and robotics. Each new technological advancement developed by science, from advanced prosthetic limbs to the drones of modern warfare, makes people consider what it means for them to be human, he said.

“We can really shape ourselves,” Pennock said. “I think we're going to have to make choices not just about whether to use things as weapons, but what kind of people we will be.”

Ethical and moral choices also abound in genetic engineering, another forefront science topic at the symposium. Gene-editing technology has the potential to stop many diseases at their source code before a person is born. But does it go too far if parents get to pick their children's eye color—or enhance their intellect? What happens if some people can afford those enhancements while others cannot?

Due in part to these ethical questions, said MIT Professor Doug Lauffenburger, the National Institutes of Health does not currently fund gene-editing techniques on human embryos.

“Technology always moves faster than one guesses,” said Lauffenburger, who provided an overview on genetic engineering technologies like CRISPR/Cas9. “This is not something that the scientific community is trying to sweep under the rug.”

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