Sunday, June 01, 2008

Uncorking the Scientist In Each of Us

Up til now we've been content to view science as something for the geeks - essential, sure, but that's why we have geeks, right?

Whether we like it or not, our dismissive attitude may not work for us much longer. We're on the dawn of an age where holding well-informed scientific views is going to be essential to how we live and even how we vote.

Our parents' world, our grandparents' world is now much in the past. That world is gone, utterly gone, and it isn't coming back for centuries. When I was born the world's population had just set an all-time record of 2-billion people. Little more than half a century later and we've bumped that all-time record to 6.5-billion people which we expect to hit 9-billion before the next half-century is out. Just churn that over for a minute and digest it.

For all the thousands of years of our civilization, it wasn't until about 1814 that we first broke the billion-person mark. 140-years or so later than that, we'd doubled that record. Barely another 60-years yet, we'd gotten 6.5 times more populous than we were when the record was set in 1814. In another 50-years we're looking to be bigger by up to half again. This is something we really need to come to grips with in order to create the informed citizenry we're going to require in just a decade from now.

Here's something to chew on. There is a host of very important, social change decisions that will have to be taken, on a regular basis, fairly soon. What you need to bear in mind is that someone is going to be taking those decisions, one way or the other. If we don't recover our ability to make suitably important decisions in these critical times, we run the very real risk of that core power of our democracy becoming forfeit to others who believe they will make the decisions for us. Also bear in mind that those who usurp this power can't necessarily be trusted to make the best decisions in our interest.

Without wanting to sound like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, there is a tendency today and has been for about two decades of dumbing down the public. People seem to be transforming into cogs, losing their intellectual and political robustness. This sort of thing needs to be reversed if we're not to let our political freedom slip through our fingers. A New York Times article by Columbia physics prof Brian Greene suggests the key may be in science:

A COUPLE of years ago I received a letter from an American soldier in Iraq. The letter began by saying that, as we’ve all become painfully aware, serving on the front lines is physically exhausting and emotionally debilitating. But the reason for his writing was to tell me that in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I’d written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists’ search for nature’s deepest laws — the soldier’s letter might strike you as, well, odd.

But it’s not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning. At the same time, the soldier’s letter emphasized something I’ve increasingly come to believe: our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.

Allow me a moment to explain.

When we consider the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, personal computers and the Internet, it’s easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities. When we benefit from CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers and arterial stents, we can immediately appreciate how science affects the quality of our lives. When we assess the state of the world, and identify looming challenges like climate change, global pandemics, security threats and diminishing resources, we don’t hesitate in turning to science to gauge the problems and find solutions.

But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.

It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.

Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension."

This isn't to say that we all need to become scientists, not at all. Fortunately our society's ability to quickly disseminate their discoveries in a form we can comprehend them via the internet and other media is advancing rapidly.

We've certainly reached a critical mass of the production, dissemination and access to credible, lay science. RJ Reynolds and Big Oil aren't gone yet, nor are their shills, but the world is changing, right in front of our eyes, day in and day out, and the list of unresolved challenges gets a bit longer every year.

They always knew their scam couldn't last forever but that wasn't what they've been after. They were there to buy time they otherwise wouldn't have had, an extension, a little more time for another round of their rapacious and highly profitable ways.

There are big changes looming and they'll bring big opportunities as well as big challenges. It would be naive to expect that we'll all rally to these challenges to seek the greater good. There will certainly be individuals and industries that move to exploit it, to set up their interests against ours. The less we understand what's happening the greater their prospects of prevailing against us.

That's why it's becoming important, vital even, that we re-open our minds to science.

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