Sunday, August 31, 2008

The value of science?

I was watching a Discovery Channel program this evening and listening to some guy pontificating about the need to bring science to the public, and even better, to school kids. I found myself nodding in agreement but at the same time felt a little unease. I was surprised at myself because I have always been an advocate for more science education for the general public. What did I find upsetting in what this guy was saying? I realized with a kind of small epiphany that my own interest in science is not in science per se, but rather in the human relationship with science. I think the two are different. I can completely get behind the notion of teaching anyone who will listen the value of applying scientific principles to everyday life, and in the process shedding some light on certain facets of the way things work. However, I'm not so sure about teaching science as an absolute methodology, or an absolute set of facts, that represent 'the way things are'. Science is useful or not depending on our relationship with it. Religion is the same way although Richard Dawkins would likely say religion is never useful. Science is one way to look at the world that has offered up incredible insights to the way our world works and the way we as humans interact with it. However, there is much that science cannot shine a light on. Yet. The science that is accepted as 'real' is that which is agreed upon by the majority, or by the key figures in a particular discipline. The science that is not accepted as real, ie quack science, is accepted by only a few and cannot as yet be properly explained by the scientific tools we have at our disposal. Rather than teach this as being bad science, it should be highlighted as an example of unrealistic expectations of science and an overzealous faith in the power of one particular way of looking at the world being unable to explain certain observations. I say, teach the public about science, but keep it in perspective. The answers science offers us are the best we can come up with at a given moment in time. We should develop expectations of science as a way to understand our place in the world in a temporary and context dependent fashion. To teach our kids to be open-minded and to think for themselves rather than jump from one dogmatic view to another, would be progress indeed.
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