Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Has science shot itself in the foot?

I'm currently skimming over an article from 2001 by Svein Sjøberg entitled "Science and Technology in Education: Current Challenges and Possible Solutions". He sets out a bunch of possible reasons why students aren't taking science as subjects. (Incidentally, when Brown talks of "Britain's future economic competitiveness", that basically means "we need more progress!".)

As an (ex?) scientist, I'm interested in hearing more about other people's - especially non-scientists' - relation with the area. As Sjøberg notes, everyone is extremely happy to use and to follow what science produces, but few actually want to do it. If anyone's reading this, why didn't you take science? What puts you off? Is it just something that "somebody else" does?

I've put some of my thoughts below - including an explanation of this post's title - but just to summarise the Sjøberg article, here's a quick run-down of the 13 influences he puts forward:

  1. Irrelevant and dull, on a personal level

  2. Too difficult, too intellectual, especially in an age of anti-intellectualism

  3. Teaching is poor

  4. Alternative beliefs are more fun! (See #1. Also, are they more relevant to the individual?)

  5. The idea of of 'objectivity' is under 'attack' from more social-constructivist-style points of view (but is this relevant when choosing further education topics?)

  6. Scientists perceived as either geeky or mad

  7. Media portrays scientific debate as scientific uncertainty (Maybe see #5)

  8. Science is cold and uncaring - "unhuman"

  9. More distrust over science messing with the 'natural order'

  10. Science today is more to do with the military-industrial complex than personal curiosity (also see #4)

  11. Progress is now the 'norm', so we're less enamoured with it

  12. Other role models now compete, such as footballers and singers (assuming that scientists were role models previously...)

  13. A communication gap exists between scientists and the public, so less understanding of what scientists 'do'

I think a lot of these tie together, and we can extract a common thread that results in the idea that science has, in effect, shot itself in the foot. In many of these reasons (#1, #4, #8 especially), it is the fundamental objectivity of science that puts people off - the lack of humanity and subjective agency that most people, it turns out, actually quite like.

This sets up a split, which is amplified by the "necessity" in a globalised economy of sudden and rapid "mass production" of scientific expertise. On the one hand, rational and objective researchers are needed to conform to the philosophical ideal of scientific methodology. But on the other hand, you need less rational, more "empathic" people who also act as "messengers" for science and progress - the teachers, policy consultants, media consultants, etc. But this "mass production" movement - i.e. "we need scientists, and quickly!" - in conjunction with other anti-"intellectualism" factors, means that you end up with people who are, by nature, rational and objective doing the rational and objective jobs.

In other words, there is nothing to stop anyone from conducting a job in a rational, scientific manner, whilst retaining 'other' abilities of a more interpersonal, humanistic nature. What prevents it in this case is the ideas that a) training is expensive and time-consuming, so a natural 'instinct' for rationality is preferred, and b) as the population grows ever larger, specialisation becomes the norm, such that you are expected to conform to one or the other.

Thus, it can be said that in today's globalised and competitive culture, poor teaching and misperceptions about science are the natural result of the scientific area 'isolating' itself from what it means to be human. People like using and reading about science for its emotional effect, but science as a methodology deliberately rejects this as unimportant. It has, in effect, dug its own grave.

The re-integration of science with the 'soul' (see how I have to put that in quotes? this is the extent to which 'rationality' has permeated my language...) is something we need to face up to, and fast. Religion in its theological phase attempted (/attempts) to put science to work for the soul. Science in its objective phase rejects the notion of spirituality, yet the debates over "religion vs science" highlight the fact that this is an issue we are struggling with, and fighting to comprehend. Fighting badly.

What we need is much more of a "religion-with-science" debate, in which the definitions of both are re-assessed completely, and re-centred on the 'self' rather than on their polemic ideals. That's the only way I can see that we're going to get out of the mess we're in.

Feel free to leave all sorts of comments below.

Recommended reading: Promethus Rising, R. A. Wilson.

1 comment:

phil jones said...

"Math is hard" -- Barbie


I think it's wrong to primarily blame science for the problems. Or rather, if science is at fault it's because it's too succesful.

Basically, in almost every area, science is too hard for most people to do something interesting. In the 18th century there was anough low hanging fruit that some enlightenment polymath who'd had a basic mathematical education and read a couple of books on natural philosophy could probably contribute to a chosen field, while having a life. And more, that chosen field could have a broad application.

In the 21st century, people need a high degree of mathematical ability, training and personal commitment to make even a small contribution of new knowledge, and it's likely to be in a very obscure area.

(Unlike football and singing, science is cumulative. Each generation gets to stand on the shoulders of giants, but first they have to climb up there.)

On the other hand, I probably agree with you that we've expected to professionalize and institutionalize science and have more scientists on-tap to do these trivial pieces of work.

The independently wealthy 18th century amateur probably only did the really cool stuff, and no-one expected anyone to fill in the details. Now all aspiring scientists are expected to spend nearly a decade as a lowly paid post-doc, doing that.

But science is hardly alone in this. Everything got professionalized and institutionalized in the 20th Century. Even soft and caring vocations like social work, health care, charity etc. Are people turning away from them too?

Agree that pseudo-science and feel-good spirituality may have a stronger attraction for many people, but I'm not sure things are different now from the streets of Athens where the early philosophers took on the Sophists. The late 19th and early 20th centuries had fundamentalist christianity and popular fads of spiritualism and theosophy. That didn't seem to slow down scientific progress.

Personally I don't see we should try to dilute science with unscience just to make it popular. Let it go underground again. The hardcore fans will keep churning out the true knowledge. And we can let the developing world, with its more pro-science attitudes have the economic initiative for a while.