Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The case for science

A recent correspondent suggested that, "Science has become another holy grail, its importance, capabilities and contribution to society are overestimated, resulting in it being the new 'religion'. The amount of conceptual 'knowledge' might have increased massively, but the pure scientific ethos is getting more and more diluted and polluted, as the arrogance, pride and self-righteousness of present day 'scientists' has increased manifold. This mindset makes it impossible to remain open, objective and self critical, which at least to me, are essential attributes of a real Scientist." and, "All the intellectual 'scientific' knowledge in the world has not added an ounce of inner refinement, humanity or love to society. Just witness present day society: We have jumbo jets, atom bombs and god knows what, but have we stopped killing and hating each other? Instead of using arrows, we use bombs or gas or other scientifically 'evolved' weaponry, but all the selfish and narrow attributes and negative traits have remained the same."

What follows is my response to him:

Science may be amoral, as you say, and clearly technology allows us to express our dark side more destructively. I think that on balance science enhances humanity, however, not just because it allows us to contemplate and communicate this way, but also because in my opinion applied science has led to the rise of middle classes, and we middle classes generally have the time and influence to try to promote more democratic, equitable societies.

Since the enlightenment we have seen a burgeoning of democratic states. This change appears to have arisen in tandem with changes in perceptions of place, cosmology, cause and effect, and personal security that science has helped to bring about. We are not perfect, and our prejudices still wax and wane, but I believe we have made sound progress during the last 500 years. We are more free, more wealthy, healthier and happier on average than our ancestors of medieval times. Our societies are less barbaric in their treatment of illnesses and social problems. All this gives me grounds for hope that we can continue to make a better world, and that science is part of the solution. I accept that I participate in a society that has to continue to change, to become more equitable globally, to offer better opportunities to people, and to live within the capacity of our planet.

I hear your point about scientists being arrogant, a new priestly caste, and maybe sometimes we are too arrogant. All I can say in response is that as a scientist/academic, my integrity is my most valuable asset, and like all other scientists I know, I guard it as well as I can by taking care with my statements and by listening to other points of view with as much charity as I can muster.

No comments: