Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Science is the radical viewpoint

I encourage my half dozen or so readers to read this editorial in last Sunday's NYT. It is written by a physics professor at Columbia.

To tease you, here is an excerpt:

And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there’s simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.

While I follow politics and the so called culture wars, as a social scientist, I know that much of what we argue over is "testable" and science could answer many of the questions that face us. No, it cannot answer question about whether abortion is right or wrong or gay marriage is right or wrong, but many of the claims made about factual matters, abortions are dangerous to women or gay marriage will undermine the foundations of society, are answerable by science. For instance:

But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

So many people turn to religion for hope and inspiration. But the physics professor sees science providing that:

It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

I completely agree with this next paragraph:

Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.

Science cannot answer all questions. Science cannot really reveal, for insance, who we should vote for. Elections are really about values, but governing is about science. Science can help so much in our policies. Sure, some of the obvious ones like global warming and environmental protection, but education, too. Politics screws all that up. In part it is because of value differences, but for the most part it is because of an ignorance of what science is.

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