What is science’s rightful place?

Last week, President Obama stated in his inaugural address that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” ScienceBlogs has been quick to capitalise on his words by launching a new initiative called The Rightful Place Project. As an opening salvo, the Project is asking writers, bloggers and scientists from all over the world to answer this innocuous question:

What is science’s rightful place?

Many of the others have had their say, and here’s my take.

Science has different sides to it. On the one hand, you have the experiments and their results; the people and their stories; the ins-and-outs of discoveries; all the various minutiae of existence. These are the sorts of details that I write about here all the time. They are what I breathe on a daily basis, but they’re also not everyone’s cup of tea.

Many people (including a disappointing fraction of my close friends) simply aren’t interested. To me, that’s disappointing but understandable. Not everyone can be as fascinated by the gruesome habits of parasites or the latest transitional fossil.

But underneath all of the detail lie some basic principles that science is built upon and these, I feel, ought to be more mainstream than they perhaps are. We should be strive to be unceasing in our curiosity, rational in our explanations and accurate in our communication. We should value inquiry and the power of evidence to change opinions. We should be unflinching in our search for understanding and the desire to test the world around us.

There is no question in my mind that these tenets should act as guides to our lives (albeit not exclusively; they are necessary, rather than sufficient). This is the greatest contribution of science to society. It acts as a stimulant that keeps us from sleepwalking through a wonderland. It  is a cloth that wipes away superstition and myths to reveal an ever-closer approximation of the truth. It is a mental prophylactic that shields our minds from the folly of confirmation bias or the lure of unrepresentative anecdotes. 

Tell people about the latest discoveries and many will ask what the significance is to their lives. In some cases, there’s no way to answer that – they either appreciate it or they don’t. But the very question misses an important point. The actual results may not be relevant but the principles that underlie them most definitely are, and they are omnipresent. Curiosity. Investigation. Communication. What could be more human or more pertinent to our casual existence?

This difference, between “Science: the Details” and “Science: the Principles”,  is crucial to me. Lacking the former deprives you of knowledge; lacking the latter deprives you of the tools with which to acquire knowledge. The details are what most people think of when they think of science, and they view them as the provinces of geeks and boffins. The principles are a way of thinking, whether people think about it or not, and they are everywhere.

Other fields would do well to mark this distinction. Take education – in the UK at least, children in science classes are taught to learn checklists of facts, rather than to develop their reasoning skills. As I will show on a post this Thursday, it’s a widespread problem. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, too much reporting of science focuses on the results and not the underlying principles. Previous work, careful controls, acknowledged limitations and future questions are all too often omitted in favour of sensationalised findings and far-off practical implications.

Science, then. Its discoveries will probably always live at the periphery of society, of interest to many but not to all. But its principles should always at the forefront of our lives. That is their rightful place.

PS – Alternative answers to “What is science’s rightful place?”

1) It’s BEHIND YOU!!!

2) 15 meters. 12 meters. 11, 10… that can’t be, that’s inside the room… 7… 5 meters, man! What the hell?

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Christie
    January 27, 2009

    Excellently and eloquently put.

  2. Jake Young
    January 27, 2009

    Here is the “alternative answer” I was going to write:
    3) Just like Baby…in the corner.

  3. Ed Yong
    January 27, 2009

    More! I crave more alternative answers!

  4. Stu
    January 27, 2009

    3) In the classroom. Duh!
    I agree with you wholeheartedly: teaching the scientific METHOD is as important as what that method has unearthed so far.

  5. Matlatzinca
    January 27, 2009

    What is Science’s rightful place?
    It is limited by Planck length.
    I had a hard time thinking of a humorous “alternative” since this is such an important question. Science belongs in the mind of every child.

  6. Lilian Nattel
    January 27, 2009

    I really like the way you put this: “We should be strive to be unceasing in our curiosity…We should value inquiry and the power of evidence to change opinions. We should be unflinching in our search for understanding and the desire to test the world around us.”
    I think there is too much emphasis in our culture on practical outcomes. Practical meaning money-making. While there is value to practical applications, that can’t always be foreseen, and what is useful and what makes money isn’t the same either. I think we need to place more emphasis on wonder, curiosity and the value of truth in and of itself, while remaining open to the fact that truth is much bigger than limited human beings can conceive. And even so, we should keep striving for it, and revising our understanding of it as evidence shows it differently from what we had previously believed.

  7. arensb
    January 27, 2009

    I dedicated an entire post to this question, but it boils down to this: as reconnaissance is to military strategy, so is science to government policy: a way of knowing what lies ahead, making it possible to plan accordingly.

  8. crarol crackel
    January 28, 2009

    This would be a nice piece, with some slight editing, for the NPR series of “This I Believe” essays.

  9. Christie
    January 28, 2009

    Nobody puts Science in a corner!

  10. henry
    January 29, 2009

    possibly the best thing you’ve ever written Ed. love it.

  11. Jon D
    February 3, 2009

    Yes! Brilliantly put there..
    schools should be spending more time teaching children how to figure things out rather than making them memorise lists of facts that make very little sense to them.
    They can figure the details out later!

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