The Role of Science in Society

Introduction

Carl Sagan once stated, “… the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before.” This statement becomes truer every day, as scientific and technological innovations are occurring at an ever-increasing rate. Studies suggest that less than 30% of Americans are “scientifically literate,” meaning that over 70% of Americans would have trouble reading – and understanding – the science section of the New York Times. So, why is this important? After all, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

The problem with this view is that science is a driving force behind our sociocultural evolution. New ideas and new inventions are constantly redefining how we live our lives. As time goes on, science and technology will define most of life as we live it. Already, this is true. 100 years ago, people often lived day by day without electricity. Today, the most frightening thing most people could imagine would be a total loss of electricity. Imagine all of the things that simply wouldn’t work without it: phones, televisions, the Internet, lighting, heat and A/C, automobiles, and many parts of the manufacturing process for everyday items. We have built a society in the United States that is almost entirely dependent upon electricity. Personally, It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without electricity because everything I know is based on upon it. Life has become relentlessly complex and multifaceted. Most people have no idea how the world around them – that is, this semi-artificial world, or anthropogenic matrix – functions.

As time goes on, our day-to-day lives will become less and less “natural” and more and more artificial. This is not inherently bad. However, it does raise the standards for what we must understand about how the world, especially our anthropogenic matrix, works. Failing to keep a basic understanding of science and technology is destined to segregate the population, facilitating the rise of an “elite” few, resembling more of an oligarchy than a representative democracy. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t mean to imply that a “New World Order” is going to secretly control our lives. I do, however, think that if nothing is done about our general ignorance of science, we will slip away from the democracy that we claim to love so dearly. How? How can ignorance of science and technology lead to the failure of democracy? After all, you can vote regardless of your scientific literacy. While it’s true that you can vote while being largely ignorant of how the world works, this is part of the problem. To be clear, I do not think that there should be any kind of scientific literacy test in order to vote. This would only serve as fuel for the ever-broadening gap between those who understand science and those who don’t. In a democracy, everyone should be able to vote. However, given the state of knowledge that we currently have and the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves, uneducated voting has disastrous consequences.

A Little Politics

Politics is, in its most basic form, the practice of influencing a population. This is done by verbally persuading people to get behind an action that will be set in motion order to guide the population down a particular path of life. The United States is a representative democracy, which means officials are elected by the public to govern the public. The United States is not a simple representative democracy; many modifications are set in order to give the minority a voice. However, in light of these modifications, “majority rules” is still the rule of thumb. On its surface, a “majority rules” system seems ideal. Going with what most people want or believe is the best thing to do seems like a solid idea. I agree that this is typically a good philosophy – that is, as long as those voting are educated on the matter at hand.

The Modern Intersection of Science and Government

The base of everything in our lives is built from science; it holds together our infrastructure. When a politician makes a motion to change or regulate something, he or she is making a change that affects our anthropogenic matrix, and, consequently, the natural world in which our matrix operates through such acts as deforestation, ozone depletion, species extinction, etc. If a constituent does not have a basic understanding of how the world works, then how can that individual make a good decision with regards to electing a public official who will pass laws that affect the world? Moreover, ignorance of science and technology (not to mention poor reasoning and logical evaluation skills that tend to accompany science education) leads to a vote based largely on emotion and superficial similarity. If you know very little about a subject, you cannot make an educated decision regarding that subject. If not based on an educated understanding, something else must be the base upon which you make decisions. The next best choice would be decisions based on reason and logic. Unfortunately, a fostering of critical thinking is also aloof in many educational settings. Science acts as a major source of training by which people learn to reason and form logical conclusions. In turn, many – though not all – who base their decisions on logical reasoning are in the same group of people who base their decisions on knowledge of science.

If you don’t use a knowledge of science to aid in political decision-making, it’s likely that you are more swayed by charisma and emotional triggers. Those candidates who are more like you, or at least are ostensibly like you, are more likely to sway your opinion. After all, that’s what politics is all about – persuading people. If most of your constituents are not scientifically literate, then you as a politician will be less likely to use science as a persuasion tactic and more likely to use charisma and emotionally charged wording that resonates with many of your constituents. Though not a valiant method of persuasion, it is a smart one. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the current epidemic of scientific illiteracy.

Why Public Knowledge of Science Matters

One major problem with scientific illiteracy is that politicians can make a poor decision, intentionally or unintentionally, with no one to call them out. Regulations or the lack thereof concerning issues such as climate change, medical research, and irresponsible use of resources must be made based on the science that is used to study and understand these matters. If a politician uses a non-scientific basis for creating laws (a basis fueled by a constituency who is scientifically illiterate and, perhaps, an ulterior motive such as monetary stock in the decision), then consequences are sure to ensue. The effects can be immediate, such as lack of funding for education or medical research, or delayed, as with the consequences surrounding anthropogenic climate change.

Politics aside, understanding science and technology is imperative to functioning in our ever increasingly technological world. 100,000 years ago, one had to be a skillful hunter or gatherer; 10,000 years ago, one needed to be adept in agriculture; today, we must stay informed on, at the very least, the basics of science. Expertise is not required for social and political progress, but awareness is essential.

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2 thoughts on “The Role of Science in Society”

  1. I would go for a science literacy test for everyone running for Congress, the Senate, Pres/Vice Pres, SCOTUS and all appointees to high level posts in agencies – well heck, how about anyone applying for a government job? It would surely encourage science education…

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    1. True. It would be a different scenario in that sense. Bad idea for voting, potentially a good idea for political officials. That, or give one to the scientific advisors and give them a little more sway.

      Like

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