Science & the General Public

As the first two weeks of class have gotten me thinking about the role of science in society, I have begun paying significantly more attention to the reactions of my peers to science-related news and articles. Although my observations are limited in sample size and lack controls, as any respectable scientist would be quick to point out, I believe they still illustrate several of the phenomena we have discussed in class.

Amongst my peers, there seem to be three groups of  attitudes towards issues of science:

  1. Accepting, analytical, logical – this group consists mostly of fellow science majors (biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc).
  2. Interested, but apprehensive – this group consists mostly of social science majors who are intrigued by the workings of science and its implications for civilization, but who are often apprehensive of studying these issues due dislike of mathematics or memorization.
  3. Uninterested – this group shows little interest in science-related news articles, or shared knowledge from science major peers.

Within Group 1, there is also division according to the disciplines these students are most interested in. Biologists, for example, view the role of osmotic and partial pressure gradients across a cell membrane from a different perspective than physicists or chemists. While the biologist might focus on the dynamic equilibrium of ions and water resulting from such gradients, the physicist might examine the energy across the membrane and the chemist might examine in great detail the phospholipids and membrane proteins involved in ion transfer.

This is precisely the reductionist nature of science which Kaku examines in “Visions.” 20th century science, Kaku argues, was characterized by separating the disciplines and allowing scientists to specialize within them. One benefit of reductionism was, of course, the success in establishing the “foundation[s] of modern physics, chemistry, and biology.” Yet Kaku predicts that the time of reductionism is coming to an end: the obstacles facing scientists today can not be solved by such a segmented approach. As reductionism comes to an end, a new dynamic relationship between the scientific disciplines should emerge, leading to the acceleration of scientific discovery.

This prediction seems to be reflected in Group 1. These peers of mine are often split in their approaches to problems, according to their subject of focus. Yet, university coursework is increasingly emphasizing the interconnectedness between the disciplines. And often biology students will go to a physics major friend for help with a homework assignment. It seems that Kaku may have been accurate in his prediction – and that we are currently witnessing the transition between scientific reductionism and synergy.

Group 2 is also quite interesting to examine. My peers in this group, some of whom are enrolled in JSIS 216 with me, are interested in improving the human condition. They are, therefore, often interested in how scientific advancements can be applied to real world problems and express interest in understanding the nuances of science in more detail. Discomfort with mathematics and memorization often prevents these students from venturing into the hard sciences.

Prof. Chaloupka presents a potential solution to this problem, in his talk on “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security.” The first solution he offers to the Basic Problem – that for the first time in history, the capability of causing extreme harm is in the hands of individuals or small groups – is education. Importantly, Chaloupka recognizes that this is not a case of educating just the general public about science. Education must go in both directions – scientists must also be taught about the need for social responsibility and foresight.

Group 3 in particular has much to gain from education about science. This does not mean that members of the general public who are genuinely disinterested in issues of science and human security are to be forced to endure lectures on calculus and biochemistry. Rather, education for this group should probably focus on explaining the potential impact scientific discoveries have on society – and the inherent risks for the future.

It seems to me to be logical, therefore, that just as Kaku’s prediction of synergy between scientific disciplines comes to fruition, society in general must go through a similar metamorphosis. In the same way biologists, physicists, and chemists will work together, the general public should work with the scientific community to regulate discoveries, prevent their misuse, and promote their use for improving the human condition.

 

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