The Unnatural Nature of Science

Why is science so often misunderstood by the general public? Science is perhaps the defining feature of our age, yet there isstill widespread public scientific illiteracy about ideas as basicas evolution, natural selection, and the revolution of the eartharound the sun. There is increasing mistrust of science, coupledwith the attitude that scientists are somehow responsible for theills of the modern world. The widespread public disillusionmentwith science springs from an inability to appreciate the differencebetween scientific and common-sense thinking about the world and atendency to confuse science with nonscience.

Science, claims Lewis Wolpert, involves a special mode ofthought. The world is not constructed on a common-sense basis, andscientific laws are often counterintuitive. The laws of naturecannot be inferred from daily experience. Science arose uniquelyin ancient Greece in a cultural environment that combined empiricalobservation, theory, and mathematical proof. Good theories shouldbe simple, elegant, and fruitful. They are distinct from myth,magic, or dogma in that they are capable of being verified andfalsified. Science generates ideas, whereas technology producesusable objects. Science aspires to discover the unities of nature,describable as mathematical laws. It is the art of thesolvable.

Science, according to Wolpert, still provides the best way ofunderstanding the world, although as Tolstoy observes, it does nottell us how to live. Scientists have an obligation to examine thesocial implications of their work, but ultimately the applicationof scientific knowledge is the responsibility of an informedgeneral public.