Science and Society

 In Building Knowledge, Our Global Society

Science is one of the most dominant forces in our global society, for better or worse.  Steven Goldman gave this assessment of the relation between science and society in his lecture Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How they Know It.  The following is paraphrased from a portion of this lecture:

We especially who do not understand the theory, how shall we accept the claim by the scientific community that these theories are true?  This is very important to us, the general public, for a number of reasons, not least because science matters in our society.  Scientific knowledge matters in our society.  Because science works in some quite obvious and practical way.  Because over the last 200 years especially, science and science-based technologies and also the technologies that became entangled with science…became the source of the wealth and power.  This includes commercial power, military power, social power, and political power.  Science has become deeply entrenched in government institutions, commercial institutions, and social institutions.  There is a public perception that science is very important.  Science is deeply entrenched in our society and therefore it matters how we act toward scientific knowledge and how we assess scientific knowledge.

We can summarize this by saying that science is really powerful in our world and our society gives a lot of social prestige to science, but it’s important that we understand some broad outlines of how science works.  It is better that we understand what science is and how it is practiced rather than just uncritically assuming that science is exactly as it ought to be and does not need any further scrutiny on the part of the layman.

We should scrutinize science, but we should be educated enough to do so with appropriate precision, so that we avoid indiscriminate and unreasonable attacks on the practice of legitimate and reasonable scientific studies. Some people have broad suspicion and hostility to science because they do not understand how it works.  In some cases, these sentiments are motivated by people not liking the findings and conclusions that have come out of scientific studies, often for political and/or economic reasons.  The motivation to dismiss scientific theories and conclusions is therefore not driven by evidence nor reason, but by prejudice.  We see this happen even in situations where there is an abundance of evidence in favor of scientific conclusions that some people find inconvenient.  We see scientific theories being viciously attacked, even when the evidence in favor of them is overabundant to the point where they are essentially proven to be accurate, for all intents and purposes.  Those who attack science are often successful in propagating this overarching sense of suspicion because not enough people actually understand the processes of science, scientific discovery, and scientific reasoning.

There is also a separate phenomenon, rivaling the aforementioned in irrationality, wherein a lot of people just uncritically assume that science is always correct and accurate and that scientists are infallible experts in their field.  Indeed, some people have these sorts of beliefs, almost dogmatically, even though this is not always the case.  Scientists are human and are sometimes wrong.  We might even say that most scientific findings are not fully conclusive and are subject to possible future revisions.  Even the most solid scientific conclusions are sometimes found to be inaccurate as the result of subsequent studies.

Some philosophers of science have even argued that all scientific conclusions and theories are in a certain amount of flux and will inevitably change given the passage of a sufficient amount of time as scientists rethink their prior approaches and underlying assumptions.  With this in mind, it does not make sense to think of consensus scientific views as infallible.  But the usefulness and explanatory power of broadly accepted scientific conclusions cannot be denied.  It makes sense that theories that enjoy popular support among experts would be mostly accurate representations of the truth that we should take to heart and accept even if it they might be inconvenient for our political or economic ideology.  Human induced climate change, for example, is broadly accepted by accredited experts in all relevant fields.  The future of our planet and our own livelihoods depend on our accepting the work of such experts and acting accordingly.

Scientific knowledge often endows people with certain forms of power and prestige.  There are people who are specialized in certain fields and who are qualified to produce scientific knowledge or to carefully scrutinize the results of scientific research.  Such functions are important to the scientific process, and most of us do not have the requisite experience or training to perform them.  This does not entail that scientific knowledge is should only be accessible to a small elite group.  Since our lives depend so much on science in our contemporary world, we can’t rely on gatekeepers for this knowledge.

In earlier times, information technology and personal computing power were very limited and consequently there was little expectation or hope among most people to be able to penetrate the work produced by the scientific literati.  Perhaps it used to be the case that laymen could not expect to understand very much about science and could simply sit back and trust scientific experts, but that no longer really works.   Of course, we do need to trust those with more specialization than us, but it no longer works to uncritically accept that scientists have that domain and that we, the laymen, are only consumers of their conclusions.  The biggest problem with this approach is it actually has the indirect effect of breeding skepticism of science in general in society.  This sort of sentiment can erode belief in science among the population at the time when we need it most.

We need to more actively understand the processes, core evidence, and lines of reasoning behind scientific conclusions and we need to try to encourage our friends and family and fellow community members to do likewise.  Science shouldn’t be incomprehensible to the uninitiated.  We shouldn’t condescend to people who don’t understand certain scientific knowledge.  Instead, we should try to help other people understand and appreciate science.  We need to find a reasonable midpoint between uncritical acceptance of what experts might say on one hand and cynical skepticism on the other.  People are better able to develop this skill when there is transparency into scientific processes.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

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