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January 26, 2009

The right place for science

Dennis Overbye has a very nice little essay in the Science Times this week on the restoration of science to its rightful place in society, and on the common themes that make both science and democracy function. Here's a blurb:

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

This sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And I think it's basically true (although not necessarily in the way we might naively expect) that aspects of science are pervading almost every part of modern life and thought. One thing that I've found particularly bizarre in recent years is the media's promotion of words like "Why" and "How" to a pole position in their headlines. For instance, Time Magazine now routinely blasts "How such and such happens" across its front page, suggesting that within its pages, definitive answers for the mysteries of life will be revealed. To me, this apes the way scientists often talk, and capitalizes on society's susceptibility to that kind of language. If science weren't such a dominant force in our society, this kind of tactic would surely not sell magazines...

posted January 26, 2009 10:28 PM in Simply Academic | permalink