Science: Why Is This ‘Candle In The Dark’ Kept ‘Down Stairs’ In Today’s Society?

Science today is like a butler or a maid in a wealthy Victorian era household.  Below stairs, circumspect, no one really understands what they do, nor do they care as long as things are clean and their meals show up on time.  However, without them, the entire household collapses on its face.  Today everything is similarly driven by technology and processes that the average person has no idea about!  The ultimate irony of this situation can be seen when someone posts on their Facebook account, denying Quantum Mechanics. It makes me chuckle every time.

Is An Understanding Of Science Too Daunting, Too Beyond Your Reach To Grasp?

Sheldon wants us to understand science
Sheldon’s sad because we’re stupid. Let’s make this world scientifically literate, if for no other reason than to cheer him up.

The vast majority of people don’t understand science.  That’s truer now than at almost any other point in history, taking into account what evidence and information is readily available, ready to be tapped into at the whim of a few keystrokes.  In years past such knowledge was inaccessible by comparison, but despite the growing mountains of knowledge at our fingertips, most people choose not only not to immerse themselves in it, but to show a startling lack of humility regarding their own opinions about the nature of reality, versus what testable and observable science has to teach us.

Lauded scientist and beloved science populariser, Carl Sagan wrote in his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World:

“Science as a Candle in the Dark, “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements — transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

But what do we do?  It’s seems like crazy talk to suggest that everyone should understand science.  It’s too big!  What use do I have for all that scientific mumbo-jumbo in my life?  I remember sitting in science class at school, more preoccupied with how I could get away with setting all the gas taps for the Bunsen burners alight (I succeeded), rather than paying attention, and judging by the state of scientific knowledge in the world today, it looks like I’m not the only one.

Schrödinger’s (Scaredy) Cat

Any budding young scientist, whether looking at a career in the sciences or simply taking an amateur interest (such as myself) can tell you that a majority of people look at you like you’re speaking Venusian when you start talking about science or the results of scientific studies.  We’re all familiar with that glassy eyed look on a friend or family members face when we start expounding on the simplicities of Darwinism or the beauty of Euclidian Geometry.

The below scene from the award winning show The Big Bang Theory serves as a great and funny example:

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It’s almost embarrassing to start talking science with friends in our current materialistic, pop-culture driven society.  No one wants to know why, unless it’s “Why did Justin Beiber have a monkey?”  It’s all too hard, too big and too scary.  It is funny but a bit sad to think that understanding science is literally a frightening prospect for some people.

The fear of the unknown is a driving force behind a lot of ideologies in today’s world and that includes scientific ignorance.   How do we change the perception that science is hard and scary and involves copious amounts of MATHEMATICS (that’s how that word always looks in my head.  It’s scary right?  If you’re one of those folks who fancies themselves a mathematician, there’s always a boundary to be found where your brain will get scrambled.

The Scientific Method

The Oxford dictionary defines the scientific method as:

“A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses”

Honestly, this sounds rather clinical and dull.  However, I think it’s this method that holds the key to bolstering public understanding of science.  It’s really not necessary to understand relativity or Darwinism or the second law of Thermodynamics unless you work in those fields.  Complex scientific theory is not going to help most people much in their everyday lives and who has the time to learn so much MATHEMATICS anyway?  But if we want to change the perception of science in popular opinion, then learning the method behind those theories is vitally important and that’s a different thing altogether.

You Don’t Need To Be A Scientist To be Scientifically Literate

Observation, measurement and experimentation all sound like things that can only be done in the science lab but that’s not the case.  Imagine an English teacher using it to help students critically analyse a book project or a physical education teacher helping students understand why a football behaves the way it does when it’s kicked.  The principles of science can be applied to almost every area of knowledge and it’s through the teaching of this method that I believe we can sway public opinion back in science’s favour.  And really, it doesn’t require the Mountains of Calculus to use.

Knowledge is power, as the old saying goes, and we need to foster a culture of knowledge in the coming generations.  A more scientifically literate electorate is vital to tackling the problems of the 21st century and beyond.  Science teachers are in a unique position and I believe they can potentially be the single most influential thing in a young person’s learning, but teachers of other subjects should take note of this method, even if it’s just in principal, and incorporate it into their teaching.

Thinking Skeptically For A Better Future

One great by-product of the scientific method is that it encourages skeptical thinking.  Healthy skepticism is the foundation of science and a sound path to expanding our own knowledge.  Whenever you are presented with a new fact or idea, skepticism allows you to find out for yourself.  Rather than pounding information into a young mind we should teach them how to find that information themselves and how to check the veracity of what they’ve learned.  Ingraining this healthy skepticism in our children from a young age is, I believe, the base weapon we have of combating scientific ignorance in today’s world.

Whether or not you plan to pursue a career in science, realize that thinking scientifically can and will help you every single day of your life from simple things like putting on your shoes, to complex problems at your workplace.  The worlds current indifference (and sometimes even hostility) towards science needs to change.  We need to train the next generation not to fear science, but instead to embrace it as a tool which they can use to better themselves and the world in which we live.

I’ll leave you now with this short clip from Carl Sagan’s series Cosmos.  The great man explains the Scientific Method far better and more eloquently than I ever will:

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