Technology Trends

Science as a cultural resource

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Scientific research is undertaken nowadays primarily for us eventual material benefits. For this reason our discussion of the external social relations of silence has focused almost exclusively on its instrumental connections through technology.

But the influence of scientific knowledge and ways of thought is far wider than the contributions of R & D to industry. medicine, agriculture, war and other typical human pursuit.

This is a large and diffuse meta scientific theme. which can only be treated very schematically. Science is only one amongst the many dements that go into the making of contemporary culture.

Scientism  is not just a philosophical Joanne: it has its sociological, political and ethical manifestations, which are equally misleading and dangerous. Consider, for example, the topic of the previous chapter — the scientist’s role in society. Some enthusiasts for science advocate a greater expansion of this role; they assert, in effect, that everything would be OK if scientists ruled.

Now it is true that success in scientific work calls for impressive qualities, such as intellectual grasp,  persistence and honesty, which might be of great value in a responsible political leader.

Sonic scientists have, indeed, played a major part in political affairs, whether through the machinery of government, as in the cast of Robert Oppenheimer. or simply through the force of their moral example, as in the case of Albert Einstein. But the personal qualities desirable in those who govern the State si one of the great questions of political theory. going back to Plato.

The scientism view ignores other essential qualities for political leadership, such as sociability. persuasiveness in debate. willingness to compromise, appreciation of the needs of ordinary people. or even ruthless ambition, which are not at all characteristic of the ‘scientific attitude’.

It is generally agreed by political theorists that if the technocratic tendency of science were allowed to prevail, it would rapidly degenerate into tyranny.

In other words, the experience and attitudes gained in and through science are an inadequate guide to the way in which society works as a whole.

Public understanding of science

Even amongst well-educated people, the most elementary scientific facts, such as the chemical symbol for sodium, or the physiological function of the liver, are regarded as highly technical and ‘difficult Modem culture depends utterly on science-based technologies; techniques derived from scientific practice and concepts drawn from scientific theory pervade everyday life; yet few people have a general notion of what is now known to science.

This ignorance is deplored by scientists, who press for action to improve public understanding of science. Yet the machinery for this action is fully established. For more than a century, science education has been a major function of the school and university systems of all industrialized countries.

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By the end of their compulsory period of schooling, most young people have had at least a few courses in the basic sciences. Courses at every level, in every scientific discipline, ‘pure’ or ‘applied’, are open to suitably qualified students. There arc plenty of opportunities to learn science, for those who want to.

Science is also widely populanzed, through books. magazines, newspapers, radio and television. Some of this material is sensational or opinionated, but one can easily find in the ‘media’ a solid stratum of scientific information presented skilfully by effective communicators.

Nevertheless. for the great majonty of people, science is a subject that one might have to learn as part of one’s job. but is otherwise regarded as difficult. dull, and best soon forgotten.

All specialist groups deplore the lack of public understanding of their specialty and urge that it should be given greater emphasis in mass education and the mass media.

But the case of science is instructive because it illustrates the difference between the viewpoints of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. The outsider’s view is overwhelmingly instrumental.

The whole purpose of science education is taken to be vocational. Science subjects were introduced into the elementary school curriculum. and technical  were founded in order to train workers, managers and technical experts for industry.

The ‘attentive public’ for popular science is very limited, except where it touches upon material issues of personal health and safety. From the inside, on the other hand, science is seen primarily as a conceptual scheme by which observable facts arc ordered and mapped.

The emphasis is not so much on utility, as on the possibilities of discovery and of validation. In the opinion of most scientists, what [‘topic ought to be nude to understand is the ‘scientific world picture’, in greater or less detail.

They tend therefore to structure the science curriculum around the central cognitive themes, with very little regard for their applications in everyday life.There is thus a %mom mismatch between the interests of those who arc already inside science, and the motives of those whom they would like to draw in.

Most people find great difficulty in getting to understand the conceptual schemes of the sciences. which seem so very unlike the familiar structures of the life-world.

A few young people arc attracted to the idea of discovering new representations of reality, the great majority see this as a relatively fruitless task. irrelevant to their personal lives, and calling for more time and effort than they can spare. whether in formal education or in Informal learning.

Novel educational curricula on the theme of ‘science, technology and society  can encourage students and teachers to bridge this gap. but science remains a distinct sub-culture whose actual contents are practically unknown to all but any fraction of the population.

The value of science

The fact that science cannot be the source for all human values does not mean that it cannot be considered a foundation for some values. or indeed, of value in itself.

Many rationalists having rejected the traditional religions, justify their ethical codes by reference to various fundamental scientific concepts, such as the apparent unity and coherence of the physical universe, or the inevitability of progress through biological evolution.

Others are inspired by the notion of scientific technology as a means by which nature can be controlled and transformed. Others again, revolt against this notion, and regard science as a major source of negative forces and values.

The beliefs, hopes and lean generated by science are not, of course, part of science as such, and are not to be justified or dispelled by scientific analysis alone.

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These are themes that are often explored with imaginative insight through the genre of science fiction, where the social and cultural influence of science is often presented far more vividly and cogently than in the academic meta scientific literature.

In all of this. one must not lose sight of the value attached to the pursuit of scientific knowledge as an end itself. The unravelling of some great scientific mystery — for example, the decoding of the molecular mechanism of genetics — obviously gives enormous satisfaction to very large numbers of people far beyond those who are directly involved.

Quite apart from all utilitarian considerations, science is held in high esteem by the general public. The idea of science as a transcendental enterpnse to explore the Universe, unveil the secrets of nature, and satisfy our boundless human cunosity (etc., etc: the rhetoric is also unbounded) is not a mere invention of the academic ideology.

For reasons that are none the less compelling because their ultimate sources are aesthetic and spiritual, people are willing to support basic science ‘ for its own sake, and take scientific achievements whose significance they cannot properly understand.

It may be our duty, in the field of science studies, to demystify scientific work, unmask the self-serving interests of scientists, devalue the products of social technology, and denounce the pretensions of science as a guide to social action.

Nevertheless, when all the rhetoric has been debunked. there is a residuum of truth in the notion that science is a fascinating endeavor, capable of engaging men and women at their best, and enlarging and enriching the human spirit with its discoveries.

 

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