5 Responses to Science: Awareness and Ignorance

  1. Pam Wain says:

    Well done! Enjoy yourself at Hay, and keep up the good work on bridging the gap.

  2. Cormac says:

    Great post, v well expressed. I too have been thinking and writing bout this subject for a while. Haven’t got any solutions yet either – I think we scientists tend to fall into th trap of the ‘deficit model’. What should be a dialogue v quickly becomes a lecture, but I have yet to find a way around this

  3. Melissa Fu says:

    This week I came across the following website with an article from the High Field Magnet Laboratory in the Netherlands about a levitating frog: http://www.ru.nl/hfml/research/levitation/diamagnetic/. Besides making me giggle, it made me think about science communication. If you have a look at the site, you’ll see the authors have included 2 explanations: one for those with a science background (maybe some undergraduate physics) and one for children (the authors’ stated audience for the second explanation). I wonder whether you and readers of this blog think this is an effective approach to science communication? Does it balance accessibility and accuracy?

  4. Although I agree that this is a serious problem, I’m not a believer in tackling difficult problems head on. Also I feel there are too many issues raised above to be able to deal with them seriously without a long term project.

    Recently, under the name Edward Nutmeg (because of log-in technicalities) I tried to respond to the Guardian question: Teachers, what education policy would you introduce or scrap?

    Obviously, the idea of starting with a whole new university (or even an institute) is pure rhetoric, However, I do feel that a group of people from various backgrounds could start an informal project to sketch out some kind of coherent approach towards a unified communication system, if not a more generalized “Theory of Everything” -or, at least, some (semi-)formal mapping of the problem and its various domains.

    In this context, I pick up on the remark above concerning a common language: I’m not sure that a common language is possible: Is there for example a truly coherent “common language” among all scientists -even within a single discipline? One might suspect mathematics, but one might also ask to what extent is this a “common language” -or is it merely a collection of languages that all hide under the same umbrella term? For example, do we all accept the Platonic realism of Penrose -or the intuitive subjectivsms of Brouwer? Certainly there is no common language among artists, let alone between artists and scientists. Indeed, in the academic world there is perhaps even no universal agreement as to whether a specific subject is alpha, beta, hard or soft -science or arts -or maybe humanities.

    What I believe we need is a meta-language and a methodology that allows us to map between languages to improve mutual comprehension while preserving the integrity of each specific language. From whence came this tower of Babel if it has no function? Would it help if we could integrate such key concepts as Relationship, Process, Function, Space, Topology, System and Language? How do rationality and intuition relate to each other? What about aesthetics and dialectical forces? Do we have a monopoly on truth -does anything go -or what might come somewhere in between?

    In “Formalism, Truth and War” I have tried to resolve the schism between objective and subjective through the concept of Topology and perhaps a somewhat artistic. intuitive, approach to the concept of “formality” (the creation of explicit form).

    Finally, I have to admit I do not believe in popularization. Simply because I do not believe that we understand well enough what it is that needs popularizing. If our cultural heritage is the cause of the problem (somehow) then we must surely be very careful in applying that heritage to the generation of a solution. Yet how can we transcend our heritage if we do not understand ourselves? This is not to say we should not be open to others and other new approaches -it is to say that perhaps we need first to look inwards before preaching outwards.

  5. The problems around GM could indeed make an interesting case study:

    For the sake of the discussion, let us assume that biologically they are perfectly OK. However, let us also assume, that there are hidden dangers on the socio-economic front. One such argument might be that GM crops increase human dependence on the global corporate system. This may sound like political nonsense -but our civilization is only just beginning to understand the potential importance of bio-diversity. It has certainly not yet reached a high level of sophistication with regards to linguistic, cultural and economic diversity.

    Where I live, small scale rice farmers have to struggle to make ends meet in an economic system that is certainly not designed to operate to their advantage. By the time their harvest has been sold, new seed and fertilizer purchased and loans paid off -there remains very little over for the family, If land is sold (or mortgaged) to pay for basic expenses -then their ability to exploit their natural or inherited capital is further reduced.

    From a (theoretical) economic point of view, large scale farming by industrialized concerns is probably the most rational answer, However, “The Economy” seems to operate in a world of hypothetical open systems based on a notional currency that has no objective value.

    The practical world of everyday experience appears to operate on different rules, involving complex linkages between more, or less, closed systems: What comes out generally goes back in (perhaps somewhere else) -and what goes in, goes around and often comes out somewhere completely different. In practice, in many places, “economic development” does not benefit the local population -who are usually squeezed out for the benefit of others who are more able to take advantage of the new developments. One major characteristic of such a development is the shift from an agrarian, subsistence, land based lifestyle to an urban, employment based, system dependent on notional currencies and manipulated economies. Money feeds investment but it also feeds taxation and government dependency and interference. Authorities are encouraged to develop the notional economy in order to raise funds which are used for the benefit of the various (expanding) organizations and participating individuals -generally of a certain class and educational background. The system feeds on itself and it undermines all those that do not participate. Subsistence (or non-participation in the “development”) is seen as an evil which needs to be eradicated in the name of progress.

    In the “developed world” the “commons” have long disappeared (and perhaps this disappearance might actually be used as a definition for “developed”. However, in other parts of the world they may still be functioning as an essential part of a subsistence system which might also have many advantages not seen by those who have been conditioned to live in an urban, middle-class, (post-)industrialized society. Indeed, these benefits might not even be visible to local inhabitants who often long to flee to the rich developed nations: While many in the developed areas harbour fantasies of life in a more rural, less commercialized, and more relaxed environment. Unfortunately, those who dream of “civilization” often do not understand the complexities of (post-)modern, (post-)industrialized, society while those who dream of escaping it are generally forced to work harder in its support in order to acquire the means to reach escape velocity. Such a system does not generate happiness -but it does generate the emotional and psychological needs that can be commercially exploited in support of the system that creates those needs.

    Of course, none of this is based on proven facts -it is a hypothetical invention -but we have to start somewhere: So let us suppose that some of this might conceivably be true. The question then becomes: To what extent might these hypothetical situations be valid in real life -and, in cases where they do have a validity, to what extent might they be able to play a role in the social and scientific discussion around the desirability of GM crops?

    In my youth, I was told that people resort to physical violence because they cannot express themselves by other, more civilized means. It is my experience, that those in power often shape the socio-political-economic debate so that potentially critical issues (that might seriously affect the outcome of the debate) are kept out of play as much as possible. Perhaps this explains why so many social responses seem irrational (and perhaps even violent) to those who support the dominant system through word, deed, or social function.

    Should any of this prove true, then surely the onus is on the scientific community to broaden the discussion to include aspects that are currently excluded by the very nature of the discussion itself. It is then, perhaps incumbent upon others to respond as rationally as possible. On the other hand, there are also people who, for various reasons, live outside the boundaries of accepted rationality. Perhaps their right to existence also needs to be taken into account -or perhaps, in a closed and closely interconnected system, their rights are our interests too.

    Academic systems of knowledge and belief are neither fixed or completely reliable: At best they are merely “state of the art” and at worse they can be just as pedantic and restrictive as other forms of ignorance and prejudice. Their tautological nature means they are always right -while their evolutionary nature means they are always wrong. Strangely enough, our binary logic, upon which these systems are often built -tells us that such a contradictory state is impossible: So, should we believe our academics -or should we believe our logic -or none of the above?