Is it OK for non-scientists to reject the claims of science?This is the question from my tutor... We all watch television, but how many of us could design a television? We all use mobile phones,...

Is it OK for non-scientists to reject the claims of science?

This is the question from my tutor...

  1. We all watch television, but how many of us could design a television?
  2. We all use mobile phones, but how many of us could design a mobile phone network?
  3. We all take medicine, but how many of us could design a medicine? Is the non-scientific person's view relevant to scientific claims?

If a non-scientific person objects to a scientific discovery, is that objection relevant? Should society encourage non-scientific challenges to scientific theories? Should society support science?

Where does democracy meet meritocracy?

Asked on by stegny

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mwmovr40's profile pic

mwmovr40 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

Is it OK for non-scientists to reject the claims of science?

This is the question from my tutor...

  1. We all watch television, but how many of us could design a television?
  2. We all use mobile phones, but how many of us could design a mobile phone network?
  3. We all take medicine, but how many of us could design a medicine? Is the non-scientific person's view relevant to scientific claims?

If a non-scientific person objects to a scientific discovery, is that objection relevant? Should society encourage non-scientific challenges to scientific theories? Should society support science?

Where does democracy meet meritocracy?

This is one of those topics that it seems "depends" on the situation.

Although we would like to believe that science exists in an "ivory tower" isolated from society and culture, it isn't.  What scientists study and why they study it is driven not just by personal curiosity but by the interests and demands of their culture.  The culture is rich in many ways of understanding nature and its relationship to humanity.  So, when we say someone objects or challenges a scientific explanation then we need to ask why is there an objection.  Is it an objection to the scientific method used or is it an objection to an ability to rationally incorporate the information into culture?

Of these two, the objection to assimilating new scientific ideas into culture is the one the scientist should be most indifferent to.  To quote my old philosophy of science professor: "It is what it is."  On the other hand, any thinking person has the right to question the methodology used and to demand clear and understandable explanations.  If they are not forthcoming, then they have every right to reject the concept.

I understand that some concepts require a great deal of understanding in background information before it can be clearly uderstood. Consequently it might be extremely difficult to bring an explanation to a level that someone who is not an expert can understand.  But lets face it: science has many more examples of failure than success.  We herald the successes and conveniently forget the blunders.  If we can't explain it we shouldn't expect to be believed AND if we can't explain it we should consider its validity ourselves without having a non-science person pointing out to us that it is problematic.

Does that mean we should accept a person's flat- Earth position, or geocentric belief, or a dismissal of evolution etc...?  That "depends".  No one can defend against obstinate ignorance, but if we can't profide reasonable and logical defenses against reasonable questions, then we have failed.

As one final point, let me point out that science is not the only valid way of describing and understanding nature.  If the goal is to manipulate nature and develop technology, which it is in Western cultures, then science is king.  But to dismiss every other way of explanation simply because it isn't science is both aragant, and wrong.  We can respect the alternate approaches to understanding without demanding silence or ridiculing those people involved.

wannam's profile pic

wannam | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted on

While science might not recognize a non-scientific rejection of particular theories, I do think these types of opposition are important to science. A rejection of a particular theory by the general public tends to lead to more studies and education. I cannot believe that this is a bad thing. For example, when cell phones first appeared, many people rejected the use of them claiming that they must cause cancer. Now, we have many different studies showing that this is not really the case. (Of course, there are also studies which claim that cell phones do cause damage, but the proof is still yet to be definitive). I think that opposition from the general public can lead to education of said general public and scientific progress. There has to be a balance between the scientific and non-scientific ideas.
vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

People would be foolish to reject scientific facts; I can see no benefit, personally or culturally, in doing so.  People can be justified in being skeptical about claims by scientists that are subject to dispute and debate. Scientists have a special obligation to make it clear when issues are not fully settled, since members of the public depend upon the veracity of scientists. Scientists also have a special obligation to allow and even promote debate within their own disciplines.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

It is not right for non-scientists to dispute scientific claims of fact.  The idea that we laypeople could know more than experts about a topic like global warming is absolutely ludicrous.  However, it is right for people to question or to demand input on what to do about scientific facts.  It is within the rights of the people in a democracy to say that they do not want to incur costs in order to fight global warming.

Scientific fact is best left to experts, but the policy and social implications of those facts are fair game for all.

herappleness's profile pic

M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

This is just my opinion but I would not want to start an argument that I cannot substantiate with enough background information. I am not one of those that argues points of view for the sake of argument, but in order to try and make a difference for the better. This being said, I cannot even imagine how embarrassing it would be to someone who has worked hard and researched hard something to be put on the pillory just because a bunch of people do not agree with it.

I put forward as an example stem-cell research. I am all for it, even though my political party may not be. However, none of the people in my political party who consistently attack stem-cell research/application has a clue of what a stem cell is. That would be ludicrous to do, and yet, they do it.

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

It is true that most peoole benefit from science without realizing it. When people reject arguments out of ignorance, I imagine that frustrates scientists. However, most people don't understand. I suppose you have to be philosophical and patient as a scientist. Try to explain, but if people don't get it, that doesn't really matter.
lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Non-scientific objections are completely irrelevant to science from a scientific perspective.  Science is a matter of evidence, not of opinion, while non-scientific objections are based on nothing but opinion or belief.  Either a scientific objection to evidence or an objection based upon new evidence should always be welcome, though.  New hypotheses and new inquiries are what help make science a viable and useful discipline.

A democracy should support science, always.  Civilization can improve this way, making a better world for all.  However, a democracy also needs to support free speech.  In the United States today, these two important values are in conflict for political and theological reasons.  There are those whose religious beliefs lead them to deny firmly established scientific theories and principles.  And politicians, although it is often difficult to determine what they truly think or believe, pander to this ignorance, willfully disregarding yet another principle, that of separation between church and state.

These tensions cannot be resolved.  We cannot sacrifice free speech to science, nor sacrifice science to free speech.  We cannot will people out of their ignorance, nor stop politicians from responding with what such people want to hear.

I would like to think that education is the answer to the problem, but sadly, it is not.  When school districts permit religious beliefs to creep into the curriculum, we only create another generation of ignorance.

In a democracy, the only way we have of handling the situation is the ballot box.  If the educated, intelligent, and enlightened are voted into power, we have a window of opportunity for science to hold sway. If not, we don't.  What people who seek to impose religious beliefs upon science do not realize is that they are depriving themselves as well.

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