What is science’s rightful place?

In our heads, of course. All of our heads.
But Seed is asking, so let me elaborate briefly.
As I said before, science is not just active participation in research. Science is a mindset.
We are all born scientists, exploring the world around us and experimenting with it. When we grow up, we continue being scientists in our day-to-day lives.
If you walk into a room and flip a switch and the light does not come on, what do you do? I doubt that you throw yourself on the floor in fear, speaking in tongues, praying, blaming the Aliens or asking the Government to help you. You calmly go about dissecting the problem into pieces: is there electricity in the house? If not, did you pay the bill? If yes, should the fuse be flipped or replaced? If not, perhaps the light bulb burned out: replace and see what happens. If that does not work, perhaps replacing the socket will work. If not, checking the wiring may help. You go through the problem systematically, testing each element, until you find the problem and fix it. You do the same if water is dripping in your kitchen sink, or your car is running funny.
But when it comes to bigger problems that affect the broader society, some adults forget their inherent scientific mindset and let indoctrination and ideology take over. As the problems become more complex, and the science behind it more difficult to understand, other social influences tend to take precedence. See: global warming denialists, HIV/AIDS denialists, anti-vaccination crowd, Creationists of all stripes, New Age proponents, medical quackery believers, animal rightists, and so on. Faced with complexity that goes against the dogma received by parents, teachers, priests and media, people shut off their natural scientific mindset and go with what “feels” right to them, instead of with reality.

“I’m not a fan of facts. You see, the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.” – Stephen Colbert

[Thanks to Tamara Lackey for the quote]
This, of course, translates into politics and policy. I may disagree with Obama on some things. I may not like some of the people he hired to work for him. But what I like, and what he said many times including in his inaugural address, is that he will use the scientific method in all policy decisions.
Identify the problem.
Gather all available empricial information about the way the world really works in respect to that problem.
Fund the additional research to come up with missing data if needed.
Come up with a rational plan to solve the problem.
Implement it, test it and monitor if it works as planned.
Modify if needed, until the problem is solved.
I hope that this approach spreads into the broader national psyche – making decisions from the head, not the gut. Basing policy on data, not emotions. I feel that Obama won primarily because of his pragmatism and rationality as he is so non-ideological (heck, I wish he was more ideological!). People are tired of policy based on wishful thinking and fairy tales.
If this happens, it will be much easier to defeat the anti-rationality movements and to teach the kids how to apply their natural scientific mindset to all aspects of their lives as they grow into adults.
It’s not just research. It’s not just specific science education. It is about making rational thinking the respectable norm, and emotion/ideology-based thinking a laughing-stock.
That’s the science’s rightful place.

9 responses to “What is science’s rightful place?

  1. Science may be a good approach for solving problems, but it doesn’t tell us whether or not we should solve a particular problem. It doesn’t say whether a particular solution is ethical or not. And what our ethics are is a result of our “social indoctrination and ideology” that we grew up with from birth, that “feels right” to us.

  2. Charles, seems to me the point of the post is precisely that a system of ethics that simply “feels right” is what the scientific mindset helps us avoid. What “feels right” so often is wrong that we need the scientific mindset to find answers that match reality and even to derive ethics. Science doesn’t guarantee us an answer that we like, or even an answer at all, but whatever it points us to will more closely match the reality we have to live with than mystical solutions will.
    This scientific way of thinking certainly does apply to the problems of what problems to choose and how far to go in solving them. One’s ethics will be stronger the more they are grounded in examining life rather than in blind ideology.

  3. don’t discard ‘feeling right’ entirely.
    Millions of years of evolution have tuned our social instincts, instincts that our conscious mind can only interpret as ‘feelings’
    These instincts inform us in wayst critical to survival. Scientifically there is no reason to avoid animal (or even other human) suffering, emotionally there is.
    Of course sometimes emotions are not reliable. They may be too molded by culture, they may be pushing us to ancient behaviors that are no longer advisable. But if we ignore every emotional component of our psychology, we can be left with an ethical vacuum.

  4. Jim Thomerson

    What your are talking about here is referred to as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ science. A matter of applying theories where you know they work. I suspect your house was built on a flat earth. This is a major part of what scientists do. Trying to create hypotheses which will explain things where present theories don’t work is a different part of science.

  5. There are portions of our life, or our collective existence, that might benefit from rational (scientific) decision-making. This perspective has two difficulties.
    (1) We are often unaware that we are making decisions that are not rational, even though we believe that they are. This is the operation of the unconscious mind, which by definition we are not aware. This rules a great portion of our behavior as individuals. It’s why, for example, we might get angry dispproportiately to what we believe to be the offense, regardless of “the facts.” And so on.
    (3) Societies and nations are no different than people. They can behave in ways that we might say are rational, but they are equally susceptible to neurosis and frequently engage in behaviors that are not seemingly in their best interest–as do people.
    (3) What might be rational for our survival in the short term, may not square with what might be in our best interest in the long term, and we are hard-wired for immediate survival. This is a simplification of a great deal of literature.
    (4) We do not “forget” our scientific mindset. Our mindset is not the product of scientific thought, but of evolutionary success (up to the point that it becomes unsuccessful).
    (5) We are clever animals, but we are not necessarily smart. That is not a criticism. Indeed it is reassuring to recognzie that we are squarely situated in mainstream of life. Today’s science may be tomorrow’s unanticipated outcome.

  6. Charles, would you like me to recite all the things that once felt right to most Americans (and still do elsewhere in the world) but are now generally regarded as discrimination, genocidal, etc?
    C’mon, you know what I’m talking about already don’t you?

  7. I don’t disagree at all that what many people “feel right” doesn’t feel right to others and that what feels right changes over time. What I’m saying is that rationality is a myth. What you consider to be rational is simply a product of your genetics, environment, culture, and experiential history–just as ethics are. And if the initial conditions are changed, then so is what’s considered rational or ethical.

  8. Science may be a good approach for solving problems, but it doesn’t tell us whether or not we should solve a particular problem. It doesn’t say whether a particular solution is ethical or not.

    Well … yes. Science is one human activity – an immensely important one. It’s the only way that we know of of getting accurate information about the natural world. Nothing else that humanity has tried has ever worked even half as well.
    That doesn’t mean that a whole bunch of other stuff isn’t also important, and I don’t think was ever intended to mean that.

  9. Hi Coturnix,
    I’m just entering the blogosphere with my own new blog, 100 Days of Science, and you stand out as one of the most interesting science bloggers I’ve found. I referenced this post of yours in today’s (Day 5) post on my site. Hope you like it!
    Anne Minard