How Do We Know What ‘We All Know’ About Science?

We live in an age of marvels unsurpassed in human history. At the moment I write this, there have never been more people alive than right now; we have never grown more food, or produced more energy, nor generated more data. What has allowed us to do all these things? Science? Technology? Do we (the lay-people among us, at any rate) even make a distinction between these two terms in our conversation–or even our thinking?

Marie CurieI think the distinction is important, and the fact that most of us use the two terms interchangeably shows us ignorant of that importance. We explain the Internet, GPS, nuclear power, genetic engineering, space travel and all of the manifold wonders of our age as ‘science’ when what they are is actually ‘technology’. We’ve confused the fruits of engineering–technology–with the discipline that makes new discoveries about the world around us–science. Certainly science has empowered the engineering that creates the feats of technology which now penetrate every facet of our daily lives; but our communication and power grids, our medical practices, the devices we carry and that carry us are not science itself, any more than a printing press is responsible for the informational content of a book, or a smartphone creates the messages it sends.

There is a trend to teaching science, except for a few key concepts demonstrated in secondary-school chemistry, biology and physics classes, the same way we teach history; with lists of names and discoveries, dates and places, possibly some basic commentary on the lines of ‘the Germ Theory led to modern medicine’. We tend to gloss over the Scientific Method and dash headlong into the design, development and utilization of what science makes possible, to wit ‘technology’. Thomas Edison- an engineer and inventor- is spoken of more often than Marie Curie, the scientist and chemist who discovered radioactivity (and won two Nobel Prizes!)

AtomDespite all of the amazing technologies that engineering has brought us, and without casting any kind of shadow over the fact that we couldn’t survive without them and the engineers who constantly improve them, I’ll venture to say that the Scientific Method is probably the single most important thing humans have discovered. Ever. While not infallible–since it is conducted by fallible beings–it has served to free us from the bonds of superstition, dogma and ignorance. Nothing else since the discovery of fire has anything in human experience changed our lives as greatly as the empirical methodology of reasoned hypothesis from observation, organized testing, and the rejection of hypotheses not supported by results.

Few people out of every population have been or are now involved in scientific inquiry. There are dozens of engineers for every person dedicated to scientific research, and that number increases apace given the increasing complexity of our technologies. As what we discover about the universe increases, researchers themselves become more and more specialized to be able to utilize the very technologies that allow them to observe phenomena and test their hypotheses. Far from being more conversant with science and its discoveries, the lay-person is now further separated from the discoveries of science than ever before.

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We struggle to comprehend the uses and the implications of our technologies, the very disconnect we have with the actual Scientific Method–not its discoveries, but the actual employment of rational thought–creates its own dangers. A good friend of mine coined a term, ‘technopeasant’, to describe the ever-growing class of people who are proficient at employing technologies without any actual understanding of how they function or the principles underpinning their function. We’re also becoming a civilization that has relegated rational thinking–the core of the Scientific Method–to the realm of ivory-tower specialists and a technocratic ruling class, right when each and every one of us needs to be able to consider matters rationally more than ever before.

Cyborg Girl
Blind Love of Technology

None of us needs an advanced degree in the sciences to use scientific rationale; the method is actually quite easy to learn and simple to use. It requires most of all an honest appreciation of one’s own knowledge about a thing and the humility required to discard a hypothesis that proves untrue given empirical evidence to the contrary. If we can’t make informed and rational decisions about what’s happening to us and to the world around us, then all we can ever be are slaves to our own ignorance, as bad as anyone trapped before the Age of Enlightenment. Think about things rationally, and more importantly demand it of your peers, leaders, and elected representatives. Don’t be a technopeasant.

Principles of Scientific Methods
How scientific methods are used for understanding how and why things happen, making predictions, and learning how to prevent mistakes and solve problems.
John Waterman lives in Colorado with his wife, daughter, a variable number of cats, and a neutron star surrounded by a dog-shaped accretion disk. He doesn't always drink whiskey; but when he does, he prefers Irish single-malt. He served in the United States Army during the end of the Cold War, last with the Eleventh Armored Cavalry Regiment in Fulda, Germany.

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