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 scientist?

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 flourish.

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 matters most. 

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 own questions. 

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.

Science 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 believable answers.