Friday, October 1, 2010

We scientists are freaks! - Part 3

... again, picking up the thread ...

No matter how non-scientists view us, it can't be denied that science (which arguably began in Greece, long ago) has become enormously successful. The new knowledge we've gained has made new technologies possible that have transformed our lives dramatically. Compare today's world with that of 200 years ago! The changes over the last 200 years are vastly greater than the changes over the preceding 2000 years, by far!!

Of course, some might justifiably say that many of those changes have not been for the good of humanity. Technologies have been used to cause pain and death. Some have carried with them unanticipated penalties that have been responsible for degradation and suffering. The question has been raised, "Just because it's possible to do something, does that mean we should do it?" Numerous examples come to mind: nuclear fission, genetic manipulation, global climate change, environmental destruction, etc. There are many important issues in today's world related to the use and abuse of science and its associated technology. Our world must make choices about what to do and what not to do. To make intelligent choices, people need to have an accurate understanding of the issues they confront.

It's a source of constant frustration for non-scientists to discover that science is nearly always incapable of offering black-and-white answers to vexing questions. Scientists always talk of probabilities, not certainties. They hedge their interpretations with numerous qualifications because that's the way science actually works. Scientists are not truthsayers, although they have a deep commitment to truth. We don't claim to have all the answers - in fact, we often emphasize that our knowledge is quite provisional and limited. Nevertheless, those societies which support science because of the value of its contributions, would prefer that we give them simple answers to hard questions. If the questions are simple, perhaps science can offer more compelling results, but hard questions don't lend themselves to simple answers.

There also are non-scientific aspects to many of these hard questions. Scientific understanding isn't the only important part of the modern challenges we confront. Economic aspects of these questions may be as challenging as the science. And ethical issues are almost always problematic in the "big questions" now demanding decisions. Even aesthetic concerns can be involved. At a time when the world is facing serious difficulties, it will take multidisciplinary involvement to work out satisfactory, practical solutions. I believe the pattern of scientific thinking can be a valuable tool, even when applied to other aspects of these problems. Successful scientists think for themselves, rather than blindly following the consensus, and I believe that even children not destined for careers in science need to know how to think for themselves. Scientists question the validity of assumptions. Scientists look to evidence, not preconceived ideas. Political slogans and selfish misrepresentations are rampant now, and it can be hard work to know what to believe. In these days of TV and the Internet, people are buried under an avalanche of "information" - some significant fraction of this information is just plain garbage. Children need to be taught how to sift the wheat from the chaff, to ignore the garbage and use the information to make decisions (large or small). Scientific thinking is a good pattern to follow in learning how to think for yourself.

All scientists should consider themselves to be educators, whether or not they are actually employed as such. We need to learn how to explain ourselves more effectively and to show why what we do is important. That importance is not just for society as a whole, but for every man and woman on the planet. It's ever more important for scientists to make the effort to be able to explain what they're doing to a 12-year old (which is not an easy thing to do). Unfortunately, some scientists who have made serious efforts to educate the public (Carl Sagan, Jacques Cousteau) wind up being criticized and demeaned for being "mere popularizers"! As if being a "popularizer" is some sort of inferior version of a scientist!! The need for popularizing science has never been greater.

One of the concerns I have for education is that it seems that most people come out of the process with little or no appreciation for, nor any substantial understanding of, how science works and the role it plays in their lives. They say things like "Science is boring!", or "Science is too hard for me!", or "Why should I care about science?" If this is happening as I perceive it, then something is tragically wrong with education. Children are born with natural curiosity, eager to understand the world around them. But only a few retain that child-like curiosity about the natural world for their entire lives. Most people have lost their love of learning by the time they're 12 years old. School is day prison for them, and day-care for their parents. It's a business for the educators, not a place where a new generation is imbued with a love for free inquiry. I think back to my elementary school days, and I can't recall a single teacher who reinforced my love of learning. I learned mostly at home, not at school, because what happened at school was boring, difficult, and not obviously of any interest to me. My own experiences has shown me why most people lose their love of learning - school mostly sucks!! I'm unusual because school couldn't kill my curiosity.

This mostly negative impact of education is intolerable in a world where science and technology are so important. Science is of critical importance to people if they care about the future of their society, and the world they will pass on to their children. We need better educators, and they need the resources to make science come alive for their students; to show their students why learning about how the natural world operates can add value and a sense of wonder to their lives.

For me, science has been a lifelong adventure. Going to "work" as a scientist has always seemed like play to me, and I've been able to earn a living for myself and my family in the process. I've had the chance to travel and meet fantastic people around the world because of my science. If I could, I'd take that curiosity and joy of learning I've had all my life and give it to every man, woman, and child on the planet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the statement "To make intelligent choices, people need to have an accurate understanding of the issues they confront." And it was made clear by the weather gods to accept parameterizations!