As you may or may not know, I’m currently at work on a book called How to Think Like a Scientist. This raises the fairly obvious question in the post title, namely, why should people think like scientists? What’s the point?
In a sense, this is (as Ethan Zuckerman pointed out at lunch the other day) the underlying question at the heart of the whole endeavor of science communication. I mean, I’ve written two books about modern physics for a general audience, and when I have time, I write this blog aimed at non-scientists. What’s the point of doing all that, anyway? What is it I hope to achieve by all this?
There are, of course, many answers to that, from the cynical (if more people were enthusiastic about science, our funding would be more secure) to the personal (I think modern physics is about the coolest thing ever, and want to share that with others). Neither of those really cover the big picture, though, or make as satisfying a justification for a book about scientific thinking in general.
In the end, the core justification for everything I do in terms of trying to bring science to a broader audience comes back to the idea that science isn’t a collection of facts, it’s an approach to the world. Stripped to its essentials, science is a four-step process: you look at something interesting in the world, you think about why it might work that way, you test your idea with further observations and experiments, and you tell everybody you know what you found.
The formal, institutional version of this is relatively recent, but the basic practice is as old as humanity. The central point of the book-in-progress is that this kind of thinking is something that everybody does, often without even knowing it, in pursuit of various hobbies and interests. The hope is that by helping people recognize their ability to think like a scientist, they will be more conscious of scientific thinking, and this will encourage them to apply it more widely.
But why bother? Why do I think this is an important goal? Well, the simple and obvious answer is to point to all the wonders of modern technology that are only possible through science– airplanes, the Internet, antibiotics. That’s a little glib, though, because it’s perfectly possible to use those devices without understanding how they function. A lot of people will also answer in terms of specific policy goals– if more people understood science, they would be more likely to accept the science involved in particular set of public health and safety issues, and would vote for policies that address. That’s also a little narrow, and runs the risk of turning people off on tribal grounds– if you tell someone “You should learn about science so you will abandon your cherished beliefs and cultural practices,” well, that’s not the most persuasive technique.
The bigger, more philosophical answer, for me, anyway, is that I think the world would be a better place if more people thought scientifically because, ultimately, science is an empowering and fundamentally optimistic approach to the world. And we could all benefit from a little more empowerment and optimism.
That might seem like a funny thing to say, when the scientific position on a host of modern issues involves telling us we’re all going to die– crushed by flaming space rocks, killed by drug-resistant diseases, roasted alive by global warming. But I’m talking about a somewhat more abstract form of optimism, here (and anyway, all of those scientific doomsday scenarios are at least partially avoidable, given knowledge of the problem…). The whole foundation of science is the idea that questions have answers and that we can find those answers. Even more than that– an essential part of the scientific approach to the world is the feeling that not knowing is not acceptable.
One of the most frustrating things I encounter in my job is the person who says “I don’t know,” and regards that as a final answer. Mostly, this comes from students asked what the next step of some problem is, hoping that I’ll just tell them what to do. It’s especially infuriating, though, when it comes from colleagues on the faculty and staff. I’m not saying that we have to instantly know everything about everything, but I find it maddening to hear “I don’t know” and not have it followed by “… but here’s what we can do to figure it out.”
That, I think, is the empowering and optimistic side of science– the idea that there isn’t any question that can’t be answered. When you hit something that you don’t know, scientific thinking is a tool you can use to figure it out. It may take a while, and require meticulous planning and testing, but given time and that look-think-test-tell process, you can get an answer to just about any question that’s worth asking.
That’s an incredibly powerful idea, and it’s something that huge numbers of people would benefit from. You’re never forced to stop doing anything because you don’t know how something works– you have the tools you need to figure out whatever it is that you need to know. And once you know how it works, you can often use that knowledge to make it work better, improving your life in the process.
(Now, I don’t want to go completely overboard into arrogance, here– using science to improve things can be taken too far, and we need to be mindful of the consequences of any scientific project. And there may be projects that are just too expensive or impractical to take on. But even there, the way we know about the costs and consequences is through science and scientific thinking…)
So, ultimately, I think we need to communicate science to a broader audience not because it enables practical technologies, or serves specific policy goals, or helps people get good jobs. We should communicate science to a broader audience because scientific thinking turns “I don’t know” into “I don’t know… yet.” That’s an incredibly liberating tool, and the world would be a better place if more people were comfortable using it.