On the cusp?

Do you think we are now as scientific as we will ever manage to be?

Let me explain what I’m asking.

Are we living in the age where more people know more science than ever will in the future?

Technologists don’t need to be scientists, and we can carry on for years on the technological momentum of the science we already know. Technologists ultimately follow processes within existing boundaries. If I want to make a new cheesecake with a recipe no-one’s cooked before, I follow an existing recipe with different ingredients et viola, branston pickle cheesecake. I’m still working within a cheesecakey world. I would categorise engineers, many dentists and doctors, some pharmacists, all software developers, and even some science teachers as technologists. Many are scientists, but you don’t have to be a scientist to do these technology-based jobs.

Scientists need a very specific mind-set to be scientists: put very briefly, a scientist should hold an open mind on a question until such time as enough good-quality evidence has been amassed to make the answer obvious. (Each of those terms could do with more definition, but you have a life gentle reader and so do I, so we’ll take them as read for now). The difference between a good scientist and a weak one shows in the questions that they ask and their skill in devising ways of gathering good-quality evidence. To do this they have to understand their subject area thoroughly, and assume nothing is true until it has been tested. Scientists work on what it is about the biochemistry of the digestive system and the chemistry of sugar, vinegar, onions and curdled dairy fats that make the idea of a branston pickle cheesecake so unpleasant.

To put this in terms of the divisive question of our times, an engineer can be a creationist and still design perfectly effective bridges. However a scientist cannot be a creationist, because the scientific evidence for evolution is too great and there is no evidence for creation at all. (This is not to say that a scientist cannot believe in a divine creator; many do and that is up to them, however they cannot believe in new earth creationism). This wouldn’t matter much if most people accepted scientific conclusions about the world most of the time. However most people don’t. Most people are scientifically illiterate, and far too many accept the validity of subjective comfort blankies such as feng shui, horoscopes and homoeopathy. There’s no shame in scientific illiteracy if you’ve had no education in science, but this is why it is so important that good science and real skills in critical thinking are taught (preferably by good scientists) to every person while they are at school.

So let me bring this back to the question I started with. We live in an age where more people know more science than ever before. My question is are we living in the age where more people know more science than ever will again? Are we going to retreat into cargo cult engineering and medical treatments, supported by medieval superstitions about creationism, mercury fillings, alien abductions and reikei healing?

I think it is possible that we may.

You see, we can get a long way on technology – we can continue to develop all sorts of big brothery surveillance and control techniques just riding on existing momentum. Government likes technology, government can control technology, and government can use technology to control us. But ask Galileo and he’ll confirm that government dislikes science.  Science changes what people think.  Science requires that people actually do think.

The Bush administration is doing all it can to undermine and cut back on science programmes, real, hard, empirical science programmes, and it isn’t the only one to do so. I can see a world where there are fewer and fewer tools for arriving at objective truth, and where subjective truth – gut feeling or god’s voice in the president’s head – decides on what is and is not illegal, what medicine will be developed, who lives and who dies. This last is not hyperbole: being gay carries the death penalty in Iran because god says so.

I don’t know. I really don’t. If you’ve got the time, and like entertaining and informative podcasts, I’m going to recommend Skeptoid by Brian Dunning. If you want to be terrified and sickened by the separation of reality and state in the US, read the NY Times Article by Ron Suskind with his account of a Bush aide who could talk scathingly about “the reality-based community” and claim to be part of an empire which can “create a new reality”. If you want to see this as a cultural and (small-p) political issue, listen to Point of Inquiry. And above all, you’ve got kids at school, keep them in their science classes.

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8 responses to “On the cusp?

  1. I often wonder something similar. Its an interesting idea, I tend to think that most of the science we’ve yet to discover we have little idea about right now, there may be some surprises around the corner. I expect the science we do already know will be refined down as far as possible and I suppose that doesn’t really count as ‘new’ science. I wonder what the future holds with regards to undiscovered science.

  2. The NY Times article is indeed scary. Brrr.

    Teaching science is important, I agree. So is teaching what I would call ‘evaluation’: the classical example in a Danish school class is to take an article on a major topic from a newspaper and then compare it to what the other papers and the TV (and nowadays hopefully the blogosphere) had to say about it. And discuss why they have different angles on it. And what the ‘real’ story might be.

    On the lighter side, my supervisor at the university had this saying posted on his wall: The tragedy of science: The slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact!

  3. I feel, as a comical engineer, slighted (slightly, politely) by the implication that I am a mere technologist. Granted, in earlier roles I wasn’t exactly at the cutting edge (it’s hard to grind a cutting edge onto a chocolate bar…) but one of my current projects has produced the very first material of its kind, anywhere, EVER. PTFE that melts. It’s agin nature, by all accounts. But jolly profitable, if and when I can get the damn process to work on the production scale.

    I’d like, speaking as a mere technologist, perhaps, to offer some reassurance. Sure, our present state of scientific knowledge has some momentum, and will keep “us” (i.e. the UK, perhaps the US) trundling along, something like competitive, for perhaps a decade. And the Stupid White Men in charge may think it a Good Thing that the masses are kept dumb. Meanwhile, about a billion people called things like Patel, and another billion or more called things like Chang, are being raised and more importantly educated in countries that know how important *knowledge* is, and in cultures that still value education.

    So yes, people called Cholmondley-Warner and Flex Plexico (remember him?) will, on average, get dumber and more superstitious, the gap between the rich and poor will widen, never to narrow again, and the western industrialised nations will decline into senescence.

    But… we were giants. And there are *already* people scrambling up our backs and standing on our shoulders.

    If your concern is for your particular 0.5% of the population, then yes, be a bit depressed. (A bit – I don’t think the worst of it will hit this century). But if your concern is for humanity, relax. The Indians and Chinese have it covered.

  4. When you think how much science advances in such a short time, little medic, it squeezes the brain. The grandmother of the one who turns up here occasionally had never heard of plate tectonics because it was a new fangled theory devised after she’d retired from teaching.

    SG V – that is indeed a useful skill, and one which should be taught in all schools. (I realised the other day, by the way, that the nationality I would most like to be is Danish, but I am not sure about living somewhere without mountains. Thought I’d just mention that, since you are the first Dane who’s crossed my path since).

    SoRB, I did say “Many are scientists, but you don’t have to be a scientist to do these technology-based jobs”. You I do categorise as a scientist. Especially if you are flyin’ in the face o’ nature. And yes, I am reassured. What’s to care about where the labs are and what language the scientists speak, so long as there are labs and scientists?

    Thanks all for dropping by. Two cents gratefully accepted.

    Cheers.

    Aphra.

  5. My goodness, that’s a coincidence: I just found the same podcasts yesterday and I’ve been listening to them all day. Must be the curent positions of the planets.. 😉

    Wow – it’s quite a question. On one hand you have the decrease across the board in students taking science subjects, while on the other hand you have the rise in prominence of skepticism and atheism through the works of Dawkins and Hitchens etc. The first is probably a bigger, more long term force than the second one, but once you become attuned to skeptical thinking, it’s hard to shake it off!

    I don’t think science is necessarily on the wane. Even if there is a fall off in the “west”, it will probably be more than compensated for in countries like China and India. I would be relatively optimistic about its progress in the future.

  6. Skepticism: the word used to describe rational logical people who don’t believe in unsubstantiated woo-woo nonsense.

    Why ‘we’ don’t call people who poo-poo rational fact based explanations to explain things and would rather explain things based on non-proven explanations is beyond me.

    Rational people really should start calling these woo-woo’s skeptics instead.

    Woo-woo weirdo: I believe that people can takl from the grave.

    Rational bod:’You skeptic, it’s simply people earning a fast buck or mental cases.’

  7. Hmmm – still turning the pages of Ben Elton’s “Blind Faith”.

  8. The future of science depends upon its continuing cultural acceptance as mainstream thinking. With such a strong surge of religious anti-rationalism in Western countries as well as other parts of the globe, we shouldn’t be overly optimistic unless all those committed to the accumulation of knowledge through scientific method rally strongly to its defence.

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