Patrick (patrick___) wrote,

Essay on Science

I think what a lot of laypeople mean when they use the word "science" is, "things that seem like magic to me, but that smart people say are actually real." This is why when most people use the word "science", they conjure up pictures of laser beams, dinosaurs, black holes, rocket ships, holograms, atoms, test tubes, etc. They also envision its practitioners as being some sort of caste of wizards, wearing lab coats and mixing exotic potions and running esoteric equipment to conjure magical things than no mere mortal would normally be able to possibly do.

I feel like this attitude towards science does more harm than good. It has several negative side effects. One of the first is that it makes some people feel like being a professional scientist is something outside of their reach. It's akin to wanting to be an astronaut or secret agent. It's thought of as an exotic job that or handful of elite people do, but not something a normal working guy might be involved in. The truth of the matter is, most science that gets done is so much more down to earth. There are chemists working at water treatment plants, biologists working with farmers, food scientists developing new kinds of candy. All of these activities are just as much "science" as the stuff involving black holes and dinosaurs. (In some cases, arguably much more so). But it's not what people normally think of, and it really goes to show what a misunderstanding most people have of science.

The other negative outcome of the attitude that "science = real magic that smart people do", is that it contributes to this unfortunate view that science and religion are somehow competing in the same space. You'll sometimes hear a certain type of person online go on about how cool science is, as if it is somehow in and of itself an argument against religion. There's a natural tendency in people to look for something greater out there, and when you view science as this magical mystery power that super smart wizards perform for us, it seems to become an alternative religion of sorts in some people's minds. I've literally heard people say things like "You've got your churches, but I've got my telescopes." Sorry to break it to you, but some of us have both. ;-) This increasing contention between science aficionados and religion can also make religious people more cautious or antagonistic towards science as well, creating something of a negative feedback cycle.

Final thoughts on the subject: Science is not dinosaurs, lasers, black holes and lab coats. Science is a methodological approach to developing testable theoretical models for understanding reality. It could be digging up dinosaurs, or it could be testing out whether or not red jelly beans sell better than blue ones on cold days. What makes one more or less scientific is NOT how exotic/fantastic the domain is, but how scientifically rigorous the experiment and approach are. The vast majority of scientists work on very down to earth problems that may hardly even seem like "science" at all to your average layperson. Being a scientist isn't something for a handful of elite wizards, it's for anyone who wants to try and use that same kind of methodological approach to solving a problem of their own.

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