Science, in its role as investigator of Nature, has been
hugely successful. It has gone from strength to strength in
unraveling how the world works. If anything, the rate of progress in
science is increasing. So how could there be any trouble with it?
In a nutshell, the trouble is that science, in large part through
its very success, has become a great deal more than our storehouse
of knowledge about the mechanics of the world. Science has become
our arbiter of truth. It has become a universal role model for how
to acquire knowledge. Science has even become a surrogate religion.
As a consequence, science now occupies an impossibly demanding
cultural role, and it is in the impossible demands of that cultural
role that the troubles reside.
Science is troubled, or in trouble, at many points. Society in
general, and especially governments, seem no longer to appreciate
science, as research funds become continually scarcer and Ph.D.s
cannot find the jobs they trained for. Science itself is blamed for
causing troubleby contributing the means for polluting the
environment, destroying the ozone layer, bringing about global
warmingand it is at the same time blamed for failing to find
cures for AIDS, cancer, pollution, and so forth. At times,
scientists even seem to be regarded as potential criminals, as
Congress and federal agencies inquire into misconduct in science and
write regulations describing how scientists ought to behave. Though
we pride ourselves on living in a scientific age, this is clearly
not a particularly good time to be a scientist.
These troubles have been brewing for quite some time, of course, but
now they have become sharply prominent. Partly it may be an
inevitable reaction against the reverence in which all things
scientific have come to be held. Perhaps science has become so
over-valued and over-sold that inevitably the pendulum would begin
swinging toward the opposite extreme.
Of course, some of sciences troubles may not be sciences
alone. Science may be experiencing stress just because our cultural
arrangements in general are under stress. Government and other
institutions have, like science, become increasingly intrusive into
our lives, in ways that are widely resented on a number of counts.
Authority and elites are increasingly distrusted: for instance, most
of the press used to consider it proper to turn a blind eye to such
establishment peccadilloes as extra-marital affairs by presidents,
but nowadays the game is to bring everyones dirty linen into
So it should come as no surprise that science is no longer seen as
an ivory-tower pursuit but as an immediate servant of society and a
member of societys establishment. The fact that science is an
authoritative and elite meritocracyat least good, successful
science isdoesnt help matters either. It is obvious and
unavoidable that not everyones view in science is as valuable or
as valid as anothers. So it is consonant with the anti-elitist
spirit of these times that moves should be afoot to discredit
Still, some present-day troubles are peculiar to science itself. At
root, those troubles stem from the fact that very few people,
scientists included, have a good understanding of what science
actually is, who is qualified to speak about it, or who is qualified
to speak for it. The various experts who claim to explain itthe
philosophers and the social scientists, the science journalists and
the popular mediaall tend to say rather different things.
We know how to be scientific within science, juxtaposing and
blending evidence and theory until ultimately they jibe with what is
really out there in the actual world. But we have not been very
scientific about science. We may (almost) all agree that scientific
literacy would be a good thing, but there is no agreement over what
it actually is or how it might be attained. We (almost) all agree
that science curricula could and should be improved, but we disagree
over the details, which are actually all that matters. And, perhaps
most telling, we accept that science means using the scientific
method even as the evidence plainly disproves that hypothesis.
Science has explained a great deal about the world. But what
explains sciences success at finding good explanations? A
resolution of this conundrum is far from a purely academic matter.
Without it we cannot resolve a host of concrete issues that call for
concrete answers. How much of societys resources should be
devoted to science? Should the resources be devoted to exploratory
or applied science? And to which fieldsphysics, biology,
chemistry? And how much should be devoted to attempts to find a cure
for cancer, or for AIDS, or for heart disease?
What should every educated citizen know of or about science? What
place should science have in the curricula of elementary schools, of
high schools, of colleges? What should science teachers know of and
about science? What about science writers? Or journalists in
Those questionsand others as wellare of the widest concern;
yet there is no consensus on answers. Over each and every such
issue, politicians, media and public find ample room to disagree.
And so do disparate experts, even as they all claim authority for
their particular viewpoint.
There is a fundamental lack of agreement over how science actually
works, how reliable its knowledge is, how any given bit of science
can best be appraised, and how we can judge when science is able to
supply a specific recipe for something we want done. This lack of
understanding is a critical matter and it is critical for one simple
reasonscience is inescapable in modern life. Whether we are
obsessed by it or whether we try to ignore it, science is pervasive.
It behooves us to make sense of it now.
Copyright © 2000-2002 Henry Bauer