The marches for science in many cities around the world this weekend were good to see. We often seem to be entering a world of anti-science, especially amongst the religious right in the US and the current administration. Groups like the anti-vaccination brigade and those who want to teach creation alongside evolution are bad signs of the growing power of anti-science. At the same time we are increasingly dependent on technology, much of which flows from a deep scientific understanding of the universe and how it works, at least in the little backwater that we inhabit. It is weird that the anti-science people still want benefits from science including clean water, cheaper and healthier food, medical treatment (apart from the ones they disagree with), electricity, the internet and mobile phones.
The great physicist Richard Feynman wrote an essay called “The Value of Science”. He talks about three values. Firstly the obvious one is the technology that flows from science. Technology is not always driven by science but the two things are increasingly inter-dependent. Science has allowed us to develop medicines that have eliminated diseases like polio and smallpox, it helped developed anaesthesia, it enables us to understand and harness electricity, it allowed us to develop micro-processors etc. etc. The list goes on and on. Feynman’s second value is the inspiration and enjoyment that comes from exploring the universe. Even if we personally cannot directly take part or fully comprehend much of the science it is inspiring to read and think about. Who cannot be at least a little inspired by scientists being able to decode DNA, or listening to the sound of radio signals received from pulsars by Jodrell Bank, or this picture of earth taken by the Cassini probe around Saturn?
The third value that Feynman identified is that science always deals with ignorance, doubt and uncertainty. He said:
“Now, we scientists… take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permitting us to question – to doubt – to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Herein lies a responsibility to society.”
This is subtle but important. It is about our freedom to doubt authority. Scientists like Galileo challenged authority and science continues to do that to this day. The element of doubt Feynman refers to is so vital because the really dangerous people in the world are the anti-science people with no doubts.
Science is amazing. It is also part of what makes us human. Only a science based approach can make everyone wealthy and healthy and clean up the environment, which is what we need to do as quickly as possible. We should be massively increasing spending on science and science education not cutting it.
Sign of the day.