"What should science stand for?" An analytic mind in an uncertain world

Science is like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

Scientists, journalists, policymakers have emphasize the need to communicate through the right media. Science would exercise a great power buy embracing newspapers, video shows, and social media. Researchers can take to the streets and demand authority among the post-truth alternative facts. In society, what kind of a voice should science have?

Concerns for science’s role in society vary from the reasonable to wacky to eerie. Some people want empirical-based approaches to policymaking. Others point to an opportunistic, utility-driven vision of mankind. A never-ending search for truth and validity has guided the disillusioned turning towards a promising goal. And there was never any rest for the weary.  The need for progress in pushing forward knowledge for its own sake stand among moral outrage over injustice and inequality.  But more dangerous than world of post-truth alternative facts is an authoritative appeal to intelligence. Public health authorities have shown anxiety about the exercise of individual agency, wrote Ari N. Schulman, senior editor of the New Atlantis. This has ranged from concerns of disease threats to the ability of the public to make lifestyle choices. Science as a neutral authority for answering questions runs throughout these issues.

In a world of tense conflicts and uncertainty, it is easy to appeal to an authoritative “science.” Journalists, politicians, and even scientists themselves might proclaim “science says…” or “according to research….” This can make what they say appear more valid. Many people think scientists are always getting closer to true, absolute answers. It might be a cure for cancer, a solution to climate change, or any other “magical” wave of the wand. But science is far from any sort of “sleight of hand.” Without context, justification, or a humanized voice, this rhetoric can be troublesome. It could become dogmatic, inauthentic, or plain wrong. Though science has done wonders for mankind, writers should know the limits of inquiry.

Science can give accurate descriptions of the world, but it must avoid pitfalls. Scientists should be people who want to make the world a better place. Teaching science as an evolving body of knowledge would help society trust scientists. Instead of taking research for granted, people would see scientists as human beings.

Maybe science can exercise an authority from its own intelligence? The science enthusiasts who want to preserve curiosity in a dark world often appeal to this. Skills in problem-solving and analytic thinking would mean scientists deserve a voice. Intelligence determining social status has had a place in life going back to the days of Plato, wrote Stephen Cave, senior research fellow of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge. “To say that someone is or is not intelligent has never been merely a comment on their mental faculties. It is always also a judgment on what they are permitted to do,” Cave wrote.

Christopher Columbus Park, Boston.

I sat bored out of my mind in my Introduction to Latino Studies course. I had to take this class to satisfy one more elective requirement before I could graduate. The professor explained the culture of the course. We were there to understand one another. We would be free to express ourselves in a safe space. There were no right or wrong answers.

And at this point I noticed another divide between me and the rest of the world.

I thought this was a ridiculous approach to education. I have never been taught that there are no right or wrong answers. Yes, intelligent human beings need to acknowledge pros and cons of both sides with subjectivity and personal biases. College campuses need to make people feel safe to express ideas. And everyone in society grapples with difficult questions that will never end up with a “perfect” answer, if there could be such a thing. But none of these concerns would imply that there are no right or wrong answers.

Perhaps what is implied by such a foolish claim is not that there are no right or wrong answers is that people should feel the opportunity to exercise any belief and opinion they want to. But, by justifying this opportunity on the grounds that there are no right or wrong answers, students won’t take into the world of: “normative” beliefs, question-all-assumptions, etc. Instead of heeding to truth and precision, students who espouse this viewpoint shelter themselves on naïve beliefs of the world. This view of the world lets the individual decide what he or she believes is right and wrong. As college campuses take up discussions and forums to make students feel safe, they guarantee echo chambers in which students fail to grow.

Still, answers shouldn’t be forced onto others. A post-truth world needs “right” and “wrong” answers, but they should not be entertained in such a way that one cannot reason through them. An analytic approach to understanding the world can find clarity, validity, and justification behind what might appear to be questions with “no right or wrong answers.”

Similarly, as scientists take roles in the public sphere, the grounds for truth and validity aren’t the same as they were in the lab. They may have become successful scientists by finding the right answers to the right problems, but, they must teach people to think for themselves and question authority. How could a scientist instill values of defiance and contrarianism in such a way that isn’t dogmatic or conformist?

And this is how the analytic mind emerges.

NASA exhibit at the 2017 Annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

A curiosity that finds answers. Science as a way to view the world. GMO debates would be framed with greater accuracy and compassion. Evidence-based policymaking could heed to its the limits of its epistemic knowledge. Climate change can be discussed in a way that is truthful, yet sympathetic. The replication crisis of the social sciences can be discussed with sensationalizing. Quantum computing can be appreciated for its practicality but also its elegant physics.

The general public can feel confident about the true value of science. And scientists themselves can develop their role in society. Such an analytic mind would foster an empathetic wisdom for all people. Seeking purpose in whatever scientific research is going on, people can beyond the sole pursuit of practical benefits and the growing post-truth binary between truth and fiction. These values might be the beauty, wisdom, utility, or skepticism. Whatever these values are, maybe we can figure out what science is.

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