Science is important, but when it comes to making decisions, we shouldn't pretend it's the only show in town.
Overt Analyser is a monthly column by Chloe Warren that reflects on her experiences as a twenty-something scientist. Chloe is a PhD student in medical genetics at the University of Newcastle and really thinks too much about most things.
We scientists and science communicators are pretty keen on singing our own praises. Overwhelmed by anti-vaccinationists and a consequent pending measles outbreak? You need science communication. Experiencing science and maths skills shortage in the workplace? You need science communication. An ignorant troll is preaching irrational hate and fear to the masses? Well, we’ll keep trying.
Science is the means by which we attempt to understand things (life, the Universe and everything etc). While I can’t really overestimate the usefulness of science when it comes to seeking to understand the intricacies of these phenomena, I can also appreciate that science is not the be-all and end-all. This is in contrast to a number of other scientists of my generation.
In 2010, in his book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking declared philosophy “dead”. Other popular scientists haven’t been shy about declaring a similar sentiment either: Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson agree that philosophy is less important than science (or even of no importance at all) because it has failed to keep up with advancements made in the scientific arena. As proposed by Tyson, “…if you are distracted by your questions so that you can't move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world.” This titbit left me wondering – where is 'forward' anyway?
To a teacher, 'forward' is seeing a student move up a grade or even just show up to class. To a marketing firm, 'forward' is a new client or an extended contract. To scientists, apparently, 'forward' is the next discovery, the next publication, the next research grant. In reality though, scientific discoveries don’t exist in isolation in the lab — and it is with a sense of personal dread that I consider that any scientist would operate with this perspective.
If we are to argue for the significance of science (which I for one am often caught doing), we have to admit that it doesn’t end in the lab. Science is not restricted to the minds of the scientists who carried out the experiments or formulated the hypotheses. Science is significant not only because it aids our understanding of the world, but because it aids with our decisions about the way we as a species operate within it. Science can inform public opinion and public policy, and it can inform international treaties and agreements, all with the intention of improving global healthcare, biodiversity, food supply, education and welfare.
A completely scientifically-literate society would be capable of having complex discussions in order to perform complex analyses. These analyses are necessary to come to decisions about any number of issues that face a society. But decision-making is not determined by scientific thinking alone; opinions are influenced by life experiences, as well as personal and religious values. No matter how much we emphasise the importance of science, it will never be sufficient when it comes to living day-to-day.
When considering the interplay between philosophy and science, it’s integral to consider the role of religion in this debate. In this long-standing argument, there are two traditional perspectives: where accommodationists believe that science and religion can co-exist, non-accommodationists believe that it cannot.
Some may argue that those who make decisions based on unchanging texts and teachings are incapable of processing new evidence in order to re-evaluate their current opinions — an important virtue for scientists. But many people of faith are actually constantly re-evaluating the meanings of their religious teachings in current context; much like scientists arguing over a theory or reviewing a paper, they believe that open discussion and variations in interpretations of their texts is a vital part of their religious culture.
Regardless of one’s stance in the accommodationism/non-accommodationism argument, it cannot be denied that religion exists and influences the way people lead their lives. Unfortunately, several noteworthy scientists often include in, or even lead their communication with, aggressive anti-religious sentiment, describing themselves as part of the New Atheist movement. Regardless of their scientific message, these particular scientists make it their business to shame those of faith, and encourage others to do the same. Effectively communicating science to a receptive audience can be tricky when the dialogue is opened with the assumption that one's audience is inherently ignorant — and that’s a pretty ignorant assumption in itself.
It’s true that in some instances where religion can translate as science denialism, it can be dangerous. But scientists cannot expect to enter into a conversation with anyone of faith if they begin every discussion with a declaration of intolerance, based on experience with these dangerous science deniers.
It’s extremely likely that there will always be things we don’t understand. It’s fairly likely that the human race won’t be around for long enough to answer all of our questions about the Universe. Some of us might have faith that, if only we had the time and mental capacity, we could use science to understand everything. Others have faith in something else entirely — but does that make them scientifically illiterate?
I admit that, with all this impassioned arguing, I do have an agenda. I consider myself a scientist and a science communicator. I believe that the wider we distribute the message of sound scientific thinking, the more capable we will all become of making logical decisions. This should result in healthier, wiser humans, going about their lives in a more efficient, sustainable manner whilst maintaining a healthier planet. So when I see those I respect the most — scientists — going out of their way to alienate people from their teachings, it frightens me.
When we teach science, just as when we interact with anyone for whatever purpose, we must do so without abuse or patronising rhetoric, but with respect and compassion. You may believe that science cannot teach us about philosophy, religion or kindness, but that doesn’t make it any less important.