As long as there are questions, humans will seek answers, as well as better means by which to seek and validate them. Science as a process for knowing will undoubtedly remain a vitally important part of human society, as will the scientists who bring these skills to the workplace.
A Brief History of Science
Throughout history, humans have used many different ways to understand the natural world, ranging from mysticism to magic to gods to intellectual logic and reason. Aristotle believed that observation and systematic study took precedence over mysticism and theoretical musings, an approach that is similar to what we call science today.
By the time of the Enlightenment in Europe in the 1600s, the idea of observation and systematic study began to gain momentum as a means for understanding. People began to see the world as rational, and believed that human intellect could be used to discover general information about the functionality and mechanics of the world. Scientific thinking was formally born.
Prescription for Discovery
Over time, the basic means for performing science was refined and improved until it reached its contemporary form: observe the world, ask a question, propose an answer, test your proposal, and determine whether or not your proposal satisfactorily answers your question. This general procedure may vary slightly and be contingent on the context and circumstances, but generally this prescription for discovery guides most scientific inquiry.
Science cannot prove something to be absolutely true, but it can prove it untrue. As such, science produces workable theories from the most current and available data that provide the best tentative explanation for observed phenomena. Scientific theories are always open for debate; if credible evidence comes to light that contradicts even a very established theory, the theory must be amended in order to accommodate and explain the new evidence.
Despite the impact of science on modern society, and our general proclivity for it, many people still remain distrustful of both science and scientists. This distrust is likely attributable to several causes, three of which are most prevalent:
- Scientific discoveries may contradict someone’s previously held beliefs and it becomes easier for people to question scientists than to question their own personal beliefs.
- New discoveries may alter previous scientific claims, causing people to question the truth and reliability of what they are being told. For example, people may be told that the consumption of a certain vegetable can reduce the risk of certain cancers, only to find this claim to be subverted shortly thereafter via other scientific findings.
- People may view science as a large conglomeration of extremely complex theories, words, and mathematics, and it may be overwhelming for a nonscientist to assimilate these parts. It becomes easier to distrust science than to try to understand it.
As such, society will always have a need for scientists as well as a scientifically literate citizenry. There will always be a demand for people with formal scientific education and training to continue the research and investigations that answer some of our most pressing questions.
We need to ensure that all citizens are prepared to evaluate and understand scientific knowledge. Policy makers should work to promote and foster science education and acceptance, and scientists should work to more clearly communicate findings, as well as their implications, to the general public.
About the Author: Jim Brinson is Assistant Professor in the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math at American Public University System. His academic background is in biological chemistry and science education, and his current research interests include online science education and teaching and learning with remote and virtual laboratory technology.