Leading Horses to Water
Ancient Greeks began the way of
thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call
science. Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in
an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.
In other words, pretty much like the present. These musings are
aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even
nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world. I can
try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you
wish to drink from these waters.
#29 - What Role Does Science Play in a Non-scientist’s Life?
American Heathen: aired: 16 February 2013
A question that usually first surfaces in elementary school is “Why do
I need to know this science and math stuff? What value does it
offer to me?” It’s a reasonable question that deserves an answer
beyond “Because I told you so!” Why should someone learn about
math and science if they have no intention to be a mathematician or a
One answer that usually falls on deaf ears is the value of
understanding some of the most towering achievements of the human
species. “Yeah, OK, so it took some smart people to figure this
stuff out. But why should I know about it? What does that
do for me in my life?” This isn’t an unreasonable question, either!
Yet another answer that isn’t very convincing is that people need to
understand the issues that confront us as a society if they’re to be
informed voters in a democracy. We have numerous important
decisions to make as a society that are related to science:
global warming, genetic manipulation, abortion, evolution, etc.
An informed electorate is needed – but how many people will seek to
learn science and math in school for such a reason? The fact is,
kids have no appreciation for such an abstract notion as their basis
for understanding issues when exercising their voting rights. By
the time they reach the point where it matters, the issue has already
been decided in favor of ignorance. Apathy and indifference are
rampant among the American electorate, collaborating with ignorance to
produce the perfect environment for self-serving politicians to
To me, the real reason to learn science and math even if you’re not
going to become a scientist is mainly focused on the topic of problem-solving.
Science provides us with a logical, rational framework for how to
formulate problems. Mathematics is a powerful tool for solving
real-world problems – this can be as simple as scaling a recipe up from
one that serves two to one that serves a hundred! It includes how
to cut a piece of wood to match the particular shape of a roof
rafter. The widely-hated “word problems” in elementary school
math classes are actually the most practical applications of
mathematics in everyday life!
And science provides a logical, structured way to develop answers to
real-world problems. It’s the scientific way of solving problems
that’s the most important lesson to learn about science. The
important content of science isn’t the finding, although they have high
value. The problem with those findings is that they change all
the time! But the method of science, rooted in evidence, is what
If we want to think for ourselves about something, science provides a
framework for doing so that is most likely to result in a believable
answer. At its advanced levels, science is on the very frontiers
of human knowledge, but in the real world of practical problems,
science may already have some answers to offer. When you have
garden pests, do you consult a priest to get rid of them? No, you
go to the state agricucultural extension office to find out the best
way to deal with a garden pest! If you’re curious about the
stars, do you consult an astrologer? No, you go to a book about
astronomy (or search the Web for that information). If you’re
curious about any topic regarding the natural world, you seek out
scientific information about it, rather than digging into some dusty
tome of late bronze age mythology.
As an example of the scientific method of problem solving, my son
inquired one day about how many blades of grass were in our lawn.
I no longer recall just why he asked that question, but it mattered to
him at the time. So I showed him we easily could count the number
of grass blades in one square inch, and then how to figure out how many
square inches were in our yard, so we could answer his question in a
scientific way. It might not provide a perfectly accurate
result, but it offers a reasonably accurate estimate, within a factor
of 10 surely. Science offers a rational way to figure things out,
without relying on some authority figure to give you an answer.
Armed with a deep understanding of science, you can answer many of your
Not only that, scientific methods offer rational choices of where to go
to find answers to questions beyond your capacity to solve.
Credibility of sources is an important issue in answering questions – a
scientific “answer” must pass certain stringent tests before it becomes
an answer to a real question or problem. Scientific answers
aren’t always right and might change over time, but they represent the
best solutions we have to fit the evidence at any given moment.
At its core, science is always based on evidence. If we want
convincing answers, science doesn’t consult authority figures or sacred
documents. Faith, defined as belief without evidence, has
no role in science.
Some people find the provisional nature of scientific “answers” to be
troubling. They want “yes/no” – “black/white” answers to their
questions. They want simple solutions to their problems.
Science doesn’t do that – it only offers the best answer we have at the
moment. Science admits it doesn’t know all the answers, unlike
religion, for example. Science is very much about admitting its
limitations and refuses to provide “answers” where no evidence is
available. Despite its limitations, the modern technological
world in which we live is powerful testimony to the success of science
at solving practical problems. Praying didn’t send men to the
moon, find cures for many ailments, or explain the source of the sun’s
energy – science and its partner, technology, did it.
is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for
themselves about the natural world. Its primary characteristic is
its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain