Many lay people seem to be schizophrenic when it comes to science. Science is great when it is beneficial. We can thank science for cell phones and computers, faster cancer diagnosis and better treatment, safer food and drugs, and more energy efficient cars and appliances. Everyone likes technology as a result of science. However, when we apply science to human origins all bets are off. “I didn’t come from no stinkin’ monkey.” Evolutionary science causes peoples’ hackles to be raised. Everyone becomes a skeptic. Most feel that it’s okay if we don’t understand how a cell phone works or how a CT scanner can see into us. Science is magic in these cases, and we are content with that. But try to explain descent by common ancestry and science doesn’t apply.
So where does the disconnect happen? I think it is related to how the public defines science and its understanding of how science progresses. I don’ t think our public education system does a good enough job of promoting science literacy and reinforcing what science is and how it works.
As a Biology professor, each semester I begin with the obligatory lecture on What is Science? This give me a twice yearly chance to contemplate definitions of science, philosophy of science, and why science is important (if in fact, it is important at all).
When most people define science they list science classes in high school or college. A list of courses is not a definition. I define science as a self-correcting way of knowing about the natural world. Science is both a body of knowledge (not just facts) and a process by which to gain knowledge about the natural world. A good way to recognize science is by way of the science checklist as assembled at the understanding science website.
How is science done and how does science progress? Oh,
that’s an easy one, right? Scientists use the scientific method. That’s what your high school science teacher and textbook writers want you to believe. Unfortunately, there isn’t really A scientific method. The scientific process is different each time it plays out. I won’t get into it in detail here. Let’s call them the Convoluted Wheels of Science and understand that the process of science meanders through the four main wheels: exploration, testing, community feedback, and benefits.
Why is science important? Or more precisely,why should everyone understand what science is and how it is done? Crikey! Why not! A realistic understanding of the world is essential everyday. Global climate change is a good example to start with. Some purported news channels suggest climate change is not happening, that the data are fabricated, and that the scientific community cannot even agree among itself if climate change is real. Start with the easy part, the scientific community cannot agree on the reality of climate change. This is patently false. The National Science Foundation has a good summary of the Climate change data here. The fabrication of data is also easy to deal with. It has been suggested that Philip Jones of the Climate Research Unit in England, falsified or utilized flawed data. I don’t know if he did or not, but it doesn’t matter for two reasons. First, his data were not the only data indicating climate change, there are many independent data sets corroborating the hypothesis for global climate change. Second, the scientific community will sort him out. His research will be subjected to peer review and replication. Every discipline has “bad apples.” That doesn’t make the whole discipline bad. For more on the importance of science to everyone, look here.
So, to wrap this up, Science is a body of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge is generated. The process is convoluted and different each time it plays out. Finally, SCIENCE IS IMPORTANT! If you think you “don’t need no stinkin’ science,” you are deluded, ignorant, and sadly mistaken.