TV Review: Helix—How Far Should Science Go?

Matthew Bulger checks out the new Syfy television show Helix and delves deeper into the show’s portrayal of scientific and medical research.

Syfy, the science fiction TV channel that has enthralled millions with classics like Sharknado and other cheesy B-movies, is finally making a stab at a compelling science fiction TV series with the launch of its new show Helix. Without giving too much away, Helix is about a team of scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who are called to a mysterious research facility to investigate a new disease. This research facility is located in international territory and thus exempt from regulation and governmental oversight, which frees the scientists who work and live at the facility to engage in scientific research that might be discouraged or even banned in civilized nations.

The show has left audiences wondering about the contemporary limitations on scientific and medical research, with many feeling that the show’s dramatic and dystopian approach to unregulated research proves that science must be regulated.

When discussing governmental oversight of scientific research it is important to distinguish regulations that limit the methodology of scientific research from laws that ban scientific research on certain topics. For example, laws which exist to prevent scientific testing on human subjects are part of a ban on certain types of research methodology. These bans exist in order to protect human beings from adverse health effects which are caused when test subjects are exposed to unknown or previously untested substances, and some critics of scientific research want these bans extended to other animals that are frequently experimented on, such as monkeys and rats.

These regulations limit how scientific research may be done, but do not limit what scientists may research. Bans on specific fields of scientific study, such as state bans on cloning research, are another matter entirely. While I find myself agreeing with many of the people that advocate for limitations which are designed to prevent human and animal suffering during scientific research, I emphatically disagree with those who wish to limit what may be studied and researched. I especially disagree with those who support the bans of scientific research on certain topics for entirely religious reasons and who make arguments like “Stop messing with God’s creation” or “God doesn’t want us to have knowledge of this.”

In order for us to know more about ourselves and the physical world we inhabit, scientific research must not be limited to certain fields of study that certain individuals find to be morally palatable. To do so would signal a surrender to religious conservatives and others that are afraid of scientific inquiry while limiting our ability to truly understand our universe and its machinations. These bans on what may be researched will also have untold consequences on our ability to devise medical and scientific innovations that could greatly improve our quality of life and potentially save the lives of those who have a terminal medical condition.

Helix is, at the very least, an interesting sci-fi program and catalyst of conversation, but we should remember as we watch it that scientific research is easy to demonize and underappreciate. It is likewise easy to get caught up in the drama of the series and get lost in the potentially Orwellian implications on unfettered scientific research, but to equate the scenarios presented in the show with actual scientific research being done in order to limit what may be researched would be a major error with pragmatic and philosophical consequences for us all.