Deborah Blum detailed the consequences of technology and advancement in her blog over the Radium Girls (http://blogs.plos.org/speakeasyscience/2011/03/24/the-radium-girls/). The radium girls is a about a group of factory workers that painted watch faces with a special radioactive paint so that they glowed in the dark. The watches were to be used by soldiers at war so that they could tell time in the dark. While this seems to be a very noble deed, the whole picture is not so pretty.
The radioactive paint had terrible side effects that led to bone loss among many other things. Many of the girls who worked in the factory died because of the side effects. However, this is not the picture we see when discussing the origin of radium. History reports tell us of the health benefits from radioactive elements. We see how they helped to cure cases of cancers or were a part of bombs used to win wars. We read about the noble prizes associated with these discoveries. We tell the stories of accomplishment not of a failure.
This sort of accounting of history is common beyond the realm of science. We leave out horrid details of Americans treatment of Native Americans or African Americans but paint vivid picture of the horrors related to Nazi run concentration camps. Ultimately, people commonly record history in a way with the group telling the story’s best interest in mind.
The consequences or side effects of scientific discoveries are numerous but are not commonly emphasized. This is most easily seen in the pharmaceutical industry. “Each year, about 4.5 million Americans visit their doctor’s office or the emergency room because of adverse prescription drug side effects. A startling 2 million other patients who are already hospitalized suffer the ill effects of prescription medications annually, and this when they should be under the watchful eye of medical professionals.”
However, the side effects are obviously not emphasized. A commercial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogyC9rEjxDM) for the drug “Lipitor” talks about all the benefits of the cholesterol medicine. It talks about the drug’s ability to prevent strokes and heart attacks. It mentions the drug is not for everyone but never really get’s into the possible side effects. The list is very long (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0045523/#DDIC601517.side_effects_section).
Society/media is criticizing the pharmaceutical industry more and more for the adverse effects of many drugs, but still less than all the benefits. Optimism and positivity are qualities to be admired, but altering the truth is not.
Learning the consequences of discoveries are just as important as learning the benefits. The radium girls are an integral part of history, they unknowingly sacrificed their lives to improve the lives of soldiers. American history classes tell the positive stories of America’s founders but often leave out really important details of the negative impact they had on the lives of the people already inhabiting this land. Pharmaceutical industries are often praised for how they benefit patients and not how they negatively impact them. History is a double-edged sword and we must show both sides. If nothing else we can at least learn from our mistakes.
Photo link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/60952363@N07/5556139325/