Science is a method for establishing truth based on observation, experiment, measurement, and syllogistic logic. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, science is a method of organizing your information so as to avoid being fooled. Science offers a reliable way of knowing about the physical world. It can establish facts, but not human values. Is that why much of today’s society—or at least today’s politics—seems to be anti-science?
We have a technical society in which many things, including buying, selling, and even intimate conversations occur by push-button. Unfortunately, much of that society is scientifically illiterate. Most Americans cannot distinguish science from advertising. One student in my class said, “My intuition is as good a way of knowing as your science.” Well, that depends on what you wish to know.
As a scientist, I acknowledge that science is not the only way of knowing. For example, we each have genetic information. We are born knowing how to breathe, how to eat, and how to learn. We become imprinted with information from our birth families and surrounding culture—how to meet, how to behave, how to assess another person. We feel uneasy, suspicious, when a person’s body language does not match his/her spoken language. That’s intuition. We don’t need a scientific treatise when choosing a mate. Intuition will do.
However, when dealing with the physical world, intuition won’t do. Science is more reliable than intuition at designing an airplane and at detecting contaminated meat. Unfortunately, a large fraction of the public responds to a scientific statement with an attitude of distrust or a helplessness. If I propose a logical argument using only high-school arithmetic, the other party may respond with “I don’t do math,” or “I don’t do science.” Well, a person can learn to use those tools. To deny technical knowledge is to disempower oneself. It’s a means of avoiding responsibility.
Without some knowledge of science, a citizen can’t make reasoned judgements in this complex, interconnected world. In response to the widespread scientific illiteracy, government programs and schools from grades through colleges are developing courses for “STEM,” Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. If these educational programs are to make a difference, the society must first overcome its social resistance to mathematics and science. You don’t have to become a scientist, but you need familiarity with scientific subjects and scientific methods to vote intelligently. Otherwise you cannot ask the needed questions of the candidates; you cannot judge the arguments for or against regulations, commercial proposals, or governmental projects.
About half of our congress and a fraction of our media strongly deny anthropogenic climate change. For example, Scientific American reported congressmen voting against recognition of global warming. I also would vote against legal recognition of global warming, but not for the same reason as the congressmen’s vote, which was to prevent scientific evaluation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Global climate change is a technical issue. We don’t need a law either to recognize it or to un-recognize it, any more than we need a law to recognize the moon. Why is it politically popular to deny an issue rather than to evaluate the data? The data can be understood by a non-scientist, but the polemics hide the facts with half-truths behind appeals to belief, as though ignorance were a virtue.
The religious and political arguments of belief versus science are meaningless—although unfortunately profitable for the purveyors. To form a society, people must have beliefs. We need a collective mythos to sustain a culture, to guide behavior, to establish shared values. But beliefs should not be contrary to tested knowledge of the physical world. If we employ a belief to hide a disquieting fact, if we deny there’s an elephant in the room despite the smelly presence of a large beast with a long nose, then eventually a disaster will follow. Jared Diamond* documents the painful collapse of previous societies that rigidly retained beliefs and customs contrary to the evidence before them, as compared with the survival of other societies that successfully adapted to their physical situations. Now, politics is driven by corporate ambition, and the corporate politicians oppose information and promote ignorance by inappropriate pandering to belief.
Let’s empower ourselves and our children with the scientific tools of asking critical questions followed by critical evaluation, together with social values that are outside the realm of science. Political promotion of ignorance is simply looking good by doing bad.
* Jared Diamond, Collapse–How Societies Choose toFail or Succeed, Viking, 2005.