On Serendip

The following essay was triggered by the 11 November 2003 special issue of Science Times in the New York Times and the lead article "Does Science Matter?". It is presented here as a contribution to thinking about science in society and science in culture

Science Matters ... How?

Paul Grobstein
November, 2003

It is appropriate, desirable, and indeed necessary to periodically examine the role that various institutions play in the broader human cultures of which they are a part ... and science in no exception. From this perspective, Science Times of 11 November 2003, and the lead article "Does Science Matter?" by William J. Broad and James Glanz, is very much to be welcomed.

At the same time, it is important to discriminate betweent those aspects of an institution that make it valuably unique in a culture and those that simply reflect the cultural commonalities that exert similar pressures on all cultural institutions. Science is far from the only institution asked by the culture "to resolve social ills". We ask that similarly of other quite different institutions - medical, political, economic, and religious - and it is not clear to me that the performance of science in this particular regard is dramatically any worse (or better) than any other institution in our culture. In this regard, I worry that Broad and Glanz (and the Science Times issue as a whole) might mislead readers by posing a set of benchmarks that might well be used for evaluating our culture as a whole but are not the appropriate ones for answering the specific question "Does Science Matter"?

The distinctive role that science has played in our culture, and can if it is valued continue to play, is not to resolve social (or individual) ills but rather to be the embodiment of permanent skepticism, of a persistant doubt about the validity of any given set of understandings reached by whatever means (including those of science itself). It is the insistence on doubting existing understandings, not the wish to eliminate humans ills nor to find "answers", that has always animated science and has always been the source of its power and successes.

Is that persistant skepticism, the perpetual unsettling of existing understandings, good for the culture of which science is a part? For humanity? That remains, of course, to be seen. The by-products of science have certainly contributed to alleviating some social ills but have also exacerbated or brought into being others. At the same time, a strong argument can be made that, on balance, human culture (like life itself) depends fundamentally on conceiving solutions to potential challenges before those challenges come into being. Doing so is what science is, distinctively, all about.

From this perspective, the fact that "two-thirds of the population believe that alternatives to Darwin's theory of evolution should be taught in public schools" is not an indication that science doesn't "matter" but rather an indication that it does. On a widespread basis, people are being provided with the products of skepticism, with alternative stories that haven't occured to them before and that are potentially relevant to future challenges. And I would argue that this is today occurring with unusual effectiveness in an array of areas of unprecedented scope, ranging from cosmological issues, to issues of the nature of human life, consciousness, and personal responsbility, to explorations of the place and meaning of humanity in the universe.

The key question, from my perspective, is not "Does Science Matter?" in terms of the standards we apply to all institutions in our culture but rather does science matter in terms of the distinctive role that it has to play in our culture? The answer, it seems to me, is demonstrably yes, and it is becoming even more yes as the decades and centuries go on. The remaining question, one that follows importantly from this, is whether our culture wants science to matter in the distinctive way it can and does. Here, I think, there is some grounds for concern, as evidenced by the recent shift in funding patterns from mostly public to mostly private and commercial support of research. I fear this reflects a misguided view of why science matters, one to which the Science Times issue could, however unintentionally, contribute. I hope not, because I suspect strongly that the future of humanity depends on our enthusiam for supporting the kinds of anticipations of change that will not occur without an institution committed to permanent skepticism.

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