What is science’s rightful place?

Last week, President Obama stated in his inaugural address that he would “restore science to its rightful place.” ScienceBlogs has been quick to capitalise on his words by launching a new initiative called The Rightful Place Project. As an opening salvo, the Project is asking writers, bloggers and scientists from all over the world to answer this innocuous question:

What is science’s rightful place?

Many of the others have had their say, and here’s my take.

Science has different sides to it. On the one hand, you have the experiments and their results; the people and their stories; the ins-and-outs of discoveries; all the various minutiae of existence. These are the sorts of details that I write about here all the time. They are what I breathe on a daily basis, but they’re also not everyone’s cup of tea.

Many people (including a disappointing fraction of my close friends) simply aren’t interested. To me, that’s disappointing but understandable. Not everyone can be as fascinated by the gruesome habits of parasites or the latest transitional fossil.

But underneath all of the detail lie some basic principles that science is built upon and these, I feel, ought to be more mainstream than they perhaps are. We should be strive to be unceasing in our curiosity, rational in our explanations and accurate in our communication. We should value inquiry and the power of evidence to change opinions. We should be unflinching in our search for understanding and the desire to test the world around us.

There is no question in my mind that these tenets should act as guides to our lives (albeit not exclusively; they are necessary, rather than sufficient). This is the greatest contribution of science to society. It acts as a stimulant that keeps us from sleepwalking through a wonderland. It  is a cloth that wipes away superstition and myths to reveal an ever-closer approximation of the truth. It is a mental prophylactic that shields our minds from the folly of confirmation bias or the lure of unrepresentative anecdotes. 

Tell people about the latest discoveries and many will ask what the significance is to their lives. In some cases, there’s no way to answer that – they either appreciate it or they don’t. But the very question misses an important point. The actual results may not be relevant but the principles that underlie them most definitely are, and they are omnipresent. Curiosity. Investigation. Communication. What could be more human or more pertinent to our casual existence?

This difference, between “Science: the Details” and “Science: the Principles”,  is crucial to me. Lacking the former deprives you of knowledge; lacking the latter deprives you of the tools with which to acquire knowledge. The details are what most people think of when they think of science, and they view them as the provinces of geeks and boffins. The principles are a way of thinking, whether people think about it or not, and they are everywhere.

Other fields would do well to mark this distinction. Take education – in the UK at least, children in science classes are taught to learn checklists of facts, rather than to develop their reasoning skills. As I will show on a post this Thursday, it’s a widespread problem. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, too much reporting of science focuses on the results and not the underlying principles. Previous work, careful controls, acknowledged limitations and future questions are all too often omitted in favour of sensationalised findings and far-off practical implications.

Science, then. Its discoveries will probably always live at the periphery of society, of interest to many but not to all. But its principles should always at the forefront of our lives. That is their rightful place.

PS – Alternative answers to “What is science’s rightful place?”

1) It’s BEHIND YOU!!!

2) 15 meters. 12 meters. 11, 10… that can’t be, that’s inside the room… 7… 5 meters, man! What the hell?