Michael Nielsen is planning to attend an “unconference” and is considering possible topics. He quotes one from Eva Amsen:
My idea: find 4 or 5 volunteers from different backgrounds to sit on a 20 minute panel and (with audience feedback) make a list of Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science. Since we have a wide audience, this hopefully would be a varied list. Actually, maybe we could just put up a large sheet of paper and have people write down what they think should be on the list and get back to it later.
Michale offers a suggestion, which leads him to ponder scientific literacy, but I’m going to stick with the original question:
What Should Everyone Know About Science?
I have three suggestions, which are really all part of one big idea:
1) Science is a Process, Not a Collection of Facts The essence of science, broadly defined, is that it is a systematic approach to figuring out how the world works:
- look at the world around you
- come up with an idea for why it might work that way.
- test your idea against reality.
- tell everybody you know the results of the test.
Put those steps together, over and over, and you have the best method ever devised for increasing our store of reliable knowledge. The precise facts found by this method are not as important as the process for finding them– given the process, and enough time, you can reconstruct whatever facts you need. The facts without the process are worse than useless, they’re dangerous.
2) Science is an essential human activity. You’ll often hear people who study art and literature wax rhapsodic about how the arts are the core of what makes us human– Harold Bloom attributes it all to Shakespeare, but you can find similar arguments for every field of art. Great paintings, famous sculptures, great works of music (classical only, mind– none of that noise you kids listen to)– all of these are held to capture the essence of humanity.
You don’t hear that said about science, but you should. Science is essential to our nature, because at its most basic, science consists of looking at the world and saying “Huh. I wonder why that happened?” Science is applied curiosity, and there’s no more human quality than that. (“Bloody-mindedness” is a close second.)
(And, from a purely practical point of view, science and the products thereof are the reason why we have the free time to sit around making and appreciating works of art. Without science, we’d still be plains apes scavanging the kills of more efficient predators than us.)
3) Anyone can do science. Science doesn’t depend on race and it doesn’t depend on gender. You don’t need to be rich to do science. You don’t even need to be good at math.
Science is, fundamentally, nothing more than a systematic approach to looking at the world around us and figuring out how it works. Money and mathematics are tools that can help with this process, but the core of the enterprise is nothing more than a habit of mind.
One of the most pernicious lies told by our culture is that science is an elite and exclusive activity only available to a few. It leads to scientists being stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks,” set apart from the rest of humanity, and it leads to tenured professors with Ph.D.’s in the humanities to say with a laugh “I just don’t understand science.”
Science does not require innate abilities beyond the standard-issue human genome. If you have the full complement of senses and a brain, you can do science. In fact, the core business of humanities scholars– sifting through texts looking for evidence to support a particular argument– is not really any different than the business of science. You come up with a theory of what’s going on in a particular work of literature, and then you check to see whether that holds up by systematically evaluating the evidence found in the text. That’s one step removed from doing science.
You may not understand a particular set of facts produced by science, but see point #1 above: Science is a process, not a collection of facts. You won’t necessarily understand all the facts of a particular science outside your own field of expertise– I don’t understand microbiology worth a damn– but if you have the brain power necessary to function as an autonomous adult, the process is within your grasp.
And again, if you have the process, you have the ability to eventually understand the facts. I don’t understand microbiology, because I haven’t been trained in those facts, but I know that I could understand it, and if I ever need that understanding, I know the process by which to get it. For that matter, I don’t understand feminist literary criticism, but I know that I could if I needed to, using the same mental toolbox.
You might guess from the slightly rant-y tone of the above that this is partly in response to some pet peeves of mine about academia and American society. If so, congratulations! You’ve grasped the basic process of science.
So, what do you think everyone should know about science?