Biomedicine – science for health and wealth
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Plato and Aristotle stand shoulder-to-shoulder, one pointing at the heaven and the other spreading his hand over the earth.  Their postures in the Renaissance fresco The School of Athens express the bond between idealistic and worldly philosophies, wonder- and utility- motivated sciences.  Related but not identical, the two views often emphasize different aspects of people and things.  This is apparent in their stories about Thales of Miletus.  Plato told how Thales fell into a well while gazing at the stars and was teased by a pert maid for attending only to what was overhead and failing to see what was underfoot.  Aristotle told how Thales deflated the accusation that he was poor because his philosophy was useless.  With his meteorological knowledge, Thales predicted a bumper crop in olive.  So he invested his little saving to contract beforehand, when prices were low, all the olive presses in Miletus and neighboring Chios.  At harvest time when everyone scrambled for olive presses, he made a bundle because his monopoly enabled him to charge high fees.[i]


Thales is reputed to be the first Western philosopher.  His insistence that the universe be explained in terms of not gods or spirits but a natural principle – water – made him a natural philosopher, which was what scientists were called until the 1830s.  Aristotle’s account shows that applicability and worldliness have contributed to the pride of science from the beginning.  Nowadays economists call themselves “worldly philosophers” and engineers call themselves “worldly scientists.”  Biomedical sciences cling to this-worldly flesh.  A significant portion of physics and a much larger portion of chemistry and biology are application oriented.  Schools of applied science thrive in many universities.  The United States spends more on applied than on basic research.[ii]


Many professionals apply available scientific knowledge to address specific practical problems, as to design a specific product or diagnose a specific patient.  Such applications generate new knowledge, because real-world situations are replete with complexities that surprise current science.  The applied sciences go much further in knowledge production.  As sciences organized for systematic research and discovery, they are equals to the basic sciences.  The only major difference is that their topics answer to certain areas of human needs and wants.  The areas may be as broad as fighting cancer or as narrow tracking down a particular cancer-causing gene; they may be as remote to commercial products as stems cell research or as close as drug discovery.


This book examines applied sciences, stressing the relations between their scientific nature and their applicability to worldly problems.


What are the general characteristics of scientific research and knowledge, basic and applied?  What are the peculiarities of applied sciences that make them so effective in addressing some human needs and wants, and less so in others? 


Real-world problems are often urgent and demand timely actions.  What pressure does urgency put on applied science?  How do applied scientists provide timely answers to urgent problems in situations of incomplete knowledge and uncertainty?


Applications can be profitable.  How does potential profitability influence the cultures of applied science?  Increasingly, worldly allures spawn conflicts of interests that may undermine the integrity of scientific research.  Are worldly sciences in danger of becoming all-too-worldly?


To prevent ideas from being lost in abstractness or diversity of applications, here I focus on how they work in areas related to health care.  How does research in biology, biomedicine, and clinical and other fields of science contribute to promoting human health?  Each chapter investigates a peculiarity of scientific thinking as exemplified in an episode in the history of biomedicine. . . .




[i].          Plato’s story is found in Theaetetus 174, Aristotle’s in Politics 1259a.

[ii].          In 2002, United States spent about $ 50 billions in basic research, $ 65 billion in applied research, and $ 162 in development, according to NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2004.


by Sunny Auyang