14 October 2010


(Click on images to enlarge.) Yesterday on NPR, Brazilian physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser presented a concise and informative piece entitled Why Science Matters: A Scientist's Apology. At first I wondered about the term "apology", since commonly we associate it with guilt or remorse. But then I remembered Plato's Apology, in which Socrates defended his behavior before charges leveled by the ancient city of Athens. I realized that Gleiser is using the term in a similar classical manner -- the systematic defense of a practice or point of view which is under public scrutiny, and may in fact be a minority view.

It is undeniably true that people of all ages in our culture are woefully ignorant of the principles and aims of science. There is much misinformation, and many outright lies told to perpetuate public ignorance in order to bolster certain (usually conservative) political agendas. Gleiser refutes this misinformation by clarifying the fundamentals of good science. To summarize:

Point one. "First and foremost, science does not promise redemption. Science is a human invention preoccupied with understanding the workings of Nature. It is a body of knowledge about the Universe and its many inhabitants, living and nonliving, accumulated through a process of constant testing and refinement known as the scientific method .... Science may not offer eternal salvation, but it offers the possibility of a life free from the spiritual slavery caused by an irrational fear of the unknown. It offers people the choice of self-empowerment, which may contribute to their spiritual freedom. In transforming mystery into challenge, science adds a new dimension to life. And a new dimension opens more paths toward self-fulfillment."

Point two. "Second, science does not determine what is to be done with its accumulated knowledge. We do. And this decision often falls into the hands of politicians who, at least in a democracy, are chosen by society. The blame for the darker uses of science must be shared by all of us .... We, the scientists, have the duty to make clear to the public what we do in our labs, and what consequences, good or bad, our inventions may have for society at large. But there is no such thing as "the scientists" as a group that shares a set of morals or views, or the blame for the uses and abuses of science. There is, I would like to believe, a common set of goals, to better understand the world and our place in it, and yes, to improve our living conditions and health."

Point three. "Finally, science has not betrayed our expectations. Think of a world without antibiotics, computers, televisions, airplanes, and cars -- a world in which we are all back in the forests and fields where we came from, living with no technological comfort .... There is much hypocrisy in the criticism of science and of what it has done to us and to the planet. We did it all ourselves, through our choices and greed. It is not by slowing down scientific research or its teaching through legislation or censorship that we will change the inequalities of a technological society; that is surely a one-way ticket back to the Middle Ages. What is needed is universal access to new technologies, aggressive funding for basic and applied research coupled with a widespread effort to popularize science. Only a society well versed in scientific issues will be able to dictate its own destiny, from the preservation of the natural environment to the moral choices of genetic research and nuclear power."

Well and truly spoken. The text is drawn from Gleiser's book The Prophet and the Astronomer: A Scientific Journey to the End of Time. I heartily encourage the reader to click on the Why Science Matters link above, and to consider his thoughts in depth. As noted in yesterday's post, we are quite adept at pointing fingers at others. It is invaluable to take a look in the mirror from time to time.

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