What role does Science play in Society and does Science Literacy Matter?
Science literacy is waning
I've just recently read an article in the LA Times, "American adults get a D in science; 22% confuse astronomy and astrology", how sad for us. It's not the first time we have heard statistics about our country falling behind others in the science's. We should be outraged that scientific literacy is waning, and speak more loudly about the need too incorporate better and more advanced scientific programs in the schools curriculum. It's a scientific and technological world today, and the benefits of a strong education in the sciences for our children cannot be overstated.
Yes, knowledge about the science's is something we should all strive for, and most importantly the general public will have an appreciation of it’s application and the positive benefits for society as a whole. That said, lets take a stroll down to the intersection of, "what is science", and "what role does science play in society", and see science for all it's beauty.
Science and Discovery brings enhancement to our lives.
Basic science: the first steps, the beginning of new knowledge that grows and eventually enhance’s our lives. Because of science we humans are living longer and we have access to a whole slew of gadgetry that not only improves our lives, it enhances everything about them. Satellite TV, smart phones, and computers are just a few of the many conveniences we get to enjoy. Advances in medical technology has extended our lives with an improved quality of everyday life.
Scientific advancements do not happen overnight, the process involves testing, experimentation, and peer review. The data must stand up to rigorous testing and experimentation before being elevated to the status of acceptance. We all know Science comes in many flavors: biology, geology, chemistry, astronomy, etc. It's not just people in labs with test tubes and white lab coats. But we do see a fork in the road where science encompasses a split venue called basic and applied science.
Basic science gains knowledge for the sake of gaining more knowledge, these are the initial findings of how a different phenomena works. Applied science takes that knowledge and applies it to the development of technology and a wide range of endeavors that greatly refines everything about our lives.
Science unequivocally has elevated our status and played a huge momentous role in the enhancement of our species. Without the advantage of scientific research and the benefaction that we possess from such research, one can only wonder what life would be like.
Science in Action, a brief overview
In 1829 Michael Faraday’s Christmas lecture on electricity at the Royal Society England was about how moving a magnet through a coiled wire would cause an electric current to move through the wire and have the needle of a compass move on the other side of the room.
There’s a story that goes something like this: ( authentic maybe, but it makes a good point ) after the lecture Queen Victoria asked Mr. Faraday, in a disparaging way, “of what possible use and benefit would this ever be good for” similar to what we hear people of today say.
Good thing the Queens ambivalence and lack of understanding didn’t influence the continuation of their scientific research. All we need do is flip a light switch to see how the basic science of Mr. Faraday’s research built upon by others has powered the globe.
In 1887, Heinrich Hertz created radio waves in his lab, and detected them after they’d travelled a short distance ...
Gugliemo Marconi in 1895 took that basic research and developed the wireless telegraph by using radio waves to transmit Morse code, and this work led to the first radio. By the 1920’s peoples lives began to change with the invention of the radio, and were enhanced by the broadcasting of news programs, radio shows, and music. By the time we were in the 1930’s most homes had at least one radio. Stop and ponder what radio is today and what that technology may look like fifty years from now.
One of the best known scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, introduced the world to the “theory of Special Relativity". We have GPS units that are so accurate in getting us to our destination, thanks to the applied science of “special relativity”. Einstein’s special theory of relativity states that a clock that is moving rapidly will run more slowly than someones clock standing on the earth. Satellites moving above the earth are moving at a speed of 14,000 km per hour which slows their clocks by about 8 microseconds per day. The time differential would totally mess up the location data and you wouldn’t be anywhere near your destination, so, to fix this problem the GPS system uses relativistic theory to adjust the time between you and the satellites. With the adjustment of the clocks because of relativity we have GPS units that get us to our destination within a couple of yards.
As you can see from these examples the process of science has empowered and endowed us with a lifestyle that is unprecedented in all of human history. What conveniences, accommodations, and comforts will future generations delight in, one can only guess. And we owe it all to science.
Science “How Truthful Art Thou”
There is no doubt from time to time fraud and deceit has infiltrated the science’s. By following the rules of the scientific method science has a way of policing and investigating the work of others, and such fraud and deceit will be discovered.
One famous example of deceit is the British hoax “Piltdown Man”, which started out with the fossilized remains of a skull that was considered the missing link between man and ape.
The Piltdown man fossil, a few teeth, a jawbone, and part of a skull, discovered in the year 1912.
With all the evidence being compiled about human origins, mainly from Africa, suspicions about Piltdown Man and whether it was an authentic fossil began to pervade throughout the scientific community. Then in 1953 further investigations determined that the fossil was indeed a fake. It may have taken 40 years, but the hard work and discoveries of others in the field who were working to understand man and his place in nature (human origins) finally exposed Piltdown for the fake that it was.
Some further reading on the Piltdown Man Hoax: Natural History Museum
Fleischmann–Pons’s Cold Nuclear Fusion. Cold fusion, as the name implies, is nuclear fusion at relatively low temperatures. In 1989 scientist Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed that they had achieved and could reproduce cold fusion. Scientist were abuzz with excitement, and if correct this new kind of nuclear fusion would give the world an unlimited source of cheap energy.
The craze started to die down rather quickly when numerous attempts by other scientist to replicate the experiment failed to get any kind of similar results. A perfect example of how the science's work and whether or not we put faith in the claims that others make.
Autism and Vaccines, a 2005 article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that suggested a government cover-up of a link between autism and the vaccine preservative thimerosal. Scientists soon pointed out major errors in the piece.
Remember Andrew Wakefield? Some parents thought he was a hero for his assertions vaccine’s can cause autism. It's now known he’s the author of a fraudulent study that science has refuted count-less times. Mr. Wakefield was stripped of the right to practice medicine because of his unethical behavior and pernicious influence on the general public.Count-less funds have been allocated to the study and research on this issue and the studies have made it clear Vaccines do not cause Autism.
Nobody wants to say unethical practices, but we humans sometimes suffer from our own biases. Our biases may influence how we approach our research, and at times we are blinded from seeing the evidence, but the beauty of science is that it's self correcting and given enough time the truth will surface.
As we have seen, not all discoveries necessarily bring us any closer to the truth of the different phenomena that is studied. What does stands out in science is how over time the pseudo-science gets weeded out and we make strides in the pursuit of more truthful knowledge.
Science is not about absolute truth, it’s cumulative, we build upon our theories and our knowledge and understanding grows. Thats the beauty of science. Good example: Isaac Newton’s “theory of gravity” serves us well and it makes accurate predictions. When Albert Einstein came along with his new predictions about gravity we didn’t stop and say “back to the drawing board”. Gravity still behaved in the same manner as always (apples didn’t suddenly stay suspended in air) Einstein put forth a better understanding of how it all worked. Newtons theory is pretty darn good, in fact, it was good enough to send a couple of Dudes to the moon and back. But when you needed more precision measurements you’d use Einstein’s precise equations.
Understanding and using the Scientific Method
The scientific method is a way of asking questions and coming up with answers, there is a logical order of procedures that help scientist find their conclusions. We can say the Scientific Method captures the core logic of science (testing ideas with evidence). Following the procedures within the scientific method helps scientist to avoid biases, and one of the ways that this is accomplished is how we approach the work we set out to investigate. Falsifiability: scientist don’t try to find evidence that proves them right (which can create bias ) they try to refute and falsify their investigations, and if their testing holds sway it adds a little more confidence in their observation and research.
What is the difference between a theory and a hypothesis?
The general public uses the word “theory” incorrectly as if it means some kind of a guess. Well, in science when something gets elevated to the term “theory” it’s a big deal, and it means the idea has been tested and peer reviewed and supported by multiple lines of evidence and has not once been refuted. Like “the theory of gravity” or “the theory of evolution”.
In science the word “hypothesis” means guess, idea, or a tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test it's logical consequences.
Peer Review and why it’s useful
Peer Review is a way for scientist to share their work and to advance any new facts and discoveries within the scientific Community. The beauty of this is how it helps to assure the quality of published scientific work. Everyone knows that their colleagues/ peers will scrutinize their work and try to replicate their findings, and this results in a system of knowledge we can have a lot of faith and confidence in.
Science and Community
Science literacy in the public domain has waned over the years, and there is definitely a need to instill the importance of being knowledgeable of basic science into the younger generation. Some may go on to become scientist, but most importantly the general public will have an appreciation of it’s application and the positive benefits for society as a whole.
Think back to Michael Faraday and how the Queen was ambivalent about his research. We see this in the public sphere today. One good example (which there are many) is an article from the BBC’s website: What is the point of the Large Hadron Collider?
“But that is how science functions. A new insight can open a door and it's then up to other researchers to choose whether to venture through it, sometimes decades later, to develop practical applications.
For example, the fact that we live in an age of electronics did not come down to a single discovery overnight.
Its roots can be traced to the brilliant theorizers and experi- menters who did fundamental work back in the 19th century - Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell and J.J. Thomson to name but a few.” BBC Article
Large Hadron Collider
They smash subatomic particles into each other and try to gain insights about our universe. Raw science for the sake of gaining data that can be used to form hypotheses that can be studied to further the quest for knowledge. It isn’t surprising the public has questions, “Do we really need to know this?” and “Whats it all good for?” etc. But as we have seen the scientific journey can be long and tedious and the benefits may not be realized for some time to come. A thousand mile journey starts with the first step and the first steps in science are not always well understood, especially from the publics view. Here’s a little fact most people are unaware of, the world wide web was developed for the The Large Hadron Collider’s scientist and colleagues too enable sharing of their data across the globe, and the public gets to enjoy one of the offshoots of this basic science.
This paragraph from one of John Kuubinski writings sums it up nicely: “The beauty of science is that it has the ability to shatter common sense. Time and time again, the awe inspiring nature of the truth is revealed to us by scientific inquiry. Unceasingly, science pulls the warm blanket of familiarity from under us, and exposes our minds to the once inconceivable wild bewildering truth. The truth itself is not the only thing that is beautiful, though it often can be rather elegant and stunning. But the fact that we comprehend the truth, the fact that we can successfully pursue the truth, the fact that the only place the truth is ever actually manifested is within our own minds - these are the beautifying aspects of the human relationship with science.”
The Beauty of it all
Science is a multifaceted discipline and it’s effects are far reaching. It has an inexorable and unfettered desire to the pursuit of truthful knowledge. Science literacy is one of the most efficacious ways of seeing the world through your eye’s as never before, and it will enthrall you with majestic feelings of awe and wonder. Science imbues us with feelings of respect and admiration for the world around us. We alone, are living in a time where we can boast of all the magnificent and ethereal achievements science has bestowed upon us. The journey for knowledge is long and will continue far into the future, and the generations that come after us will enjoy the fruits of our labor, as we have been enjoying the fruits of past generations. To all the scientist past and present that have labored feverishly and passionately to help usher in a new generation of scientific discoveries, we tip our hat.
We have looked at what science is, how it works, and it's applications and benefits for society. So we ask the question: Does science literacy matter? Without question I answer, yes it does. By engaging our children in more science programs and activities we increase their passion and desire too further their leaning. Yes the sciences are hard work, but early immersion would give students a stronger foundation to build upon in their quest for knowledge.
Science literacy matters and we should all embraced that philosophy.