In my last-but-one post I asked why we should care about scientists think. Looking back, I see that I answered a different question: how can we get people to care how scientists think.

But the why is equally important, and it is a question that is by no means easy to answer. If you think that it is, imagine that an interviewer on a live TV programme has just put the question to you, without warning, right now. How would you reply?

I have been placed more than once in this sort of precarious position. Usually, I have tried to imagine in advance what an interviewer might ask, and have an answer prepared. If I haven’t, I try quickly to remember anything that I have read that might be quotable, or could be paraphrased.

In this case, Carl Sagan comes to our rescue:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and other industries; agriculture, medicine, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology.

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our face*.

Sagan’s answer would probably satisfy most people (certainly most scientists and science teachers), but to my mind it doesn’t touch the heart of the issue. On the other hand, it would be very difficult to encapsulate the real answer in a sound bite. Because the real answer goes something like this:

  • The whole point about being human is that we are curious. We are driven to understand the world and the people around us, to know what makes them tick, and to seek answers to the most fundamental questions. The popularity of religion, philosophy, pop psychology, and TV programmes devoted to the great questions, testifies to how deep a need this is in us – a need that is encapsulated in Goethe’s play Faust.
  • There has been a thin, fragile, but persistent thread throughout human history of people pursuing that understanding in the midst of the rest of us, most of whom have been simply concerned with survival and personal comfort for themselves, their loved ones and their friends in a society dominated by a few in the pursuit of power, pecuniary profit, or both.
  • In the past 400 years or so, the fragile thread of understanding has been added to primarily by people who have been willing to check their guesses and beliefs against reality – in other words, scientists.
  • The guesses and beliefs that have turned out to be most nearly correct have usually been those that do not fit with ‘common sense’ – that is, the evidence of our common senses.
  • So science, which began in the hope that common sense would prevail, has now become a mystery area to most people, who continue to believe that world should work according to ‘common sense.’
  • The pursuit of scientific understanding has brought great benefits, but also great dangers, and we are now in a position of a child with a box of matches in a room full of dynamite.
  • We can’t go back. We can’t undo our discoveries, or our new understanding of which so few have command. The best that we can hope for is to share the understanding as widely as possible, in the hope that others may add to it and eventually lead us out of this perilous situation. And that is why we should care about how scientists think, and share the understanding as widely as possible.

Now try encapsulating that in a sound bite. Good luck.

Incidentally, I have written a bit more extensively about the difference between the scientific beliefs that have led to the modern world, and the religious beliefs that still survive from the ancient world, in my book Weighing the Soul.

* From Charlie Rose: An interview with Carl Sagan ( May 27, 1996.




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