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.