First discover it before you say you know it.
Author: Patrick Malone
I recently ran across a website listing “50 Interesting Science Facts.” It starts with the exact speed of light, includes the number of lightning bolts striking the earth each second, and mentions how many minutes in a day a giraffe sleeps. I suppose those facts are interesting in that I wasn’t bored by them, but really, who cares? I read them, thought, “I didn’t know that,” and forget them. Learning these factoids isn’t something around which I center my thought. The list omits entirely the actual process of discovery. The scientific impulse, so I’m told, is to respond with wonder to something new or unexplained. True scientific curiosity isn’t filing a list of trivia in one’s mind. To say that one has an interest in science while only learning factoids by rote is like wanting to get the milk without buying the cow. It’s eminently appropriate to respond with wonder and awe to the pied beauty of the universe. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of loving science. At some point, we ourselves must learn to discover.
Now, my concern is not that people like science for the wrong reasons. It’s more that in the popular imagination, information is somehow more credible when it has the imprimatur of cool and astonishing ‘Science’, which is seen as better than other forms of seeking knowledge because of its alleged careful examination of the world, its skepticism, and its insistence on independently replicated results. You must advertise toothbrushes by promoting the Science that designed them. More seriously, fields of study that don’t actually seek empirical knowledge become suspect because they are not concrete. In the popular sphere, scientists become the high priests to whom we look for our understanding of the world. People just want to know about the results of the latest study as opposed to the process of achieving those results. They want to know what those intelligent and trustworthy scientists have to tell them.
No matter how interesting it is to be told these factoids, they do not provide an ethical framework. In my experience, because of an unfortunate combination of Star Trek and John Lennon, there is a popular expectation that scientific progress inevitably results in ethical progress. As we learn more and can heal more maladies and prevent more disorders, peace and unity will come about as we rise above pettiness and conflict because we together stand in awe of the universe. We will naturally become better persons along with our better knowledge. However, as Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pontiff Emeritus Benedict XVI, says, “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation … then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.” From where does this ethical progress come? I don’t think that most serious scientists would pretend that their field answers that question. Rather, the ethics that have been passed on for millennia still speak to us; they are not necessarily outdated like disproved theories.
Each individual needs to learn to examine his or her own unique unrepeatable life and decide how to apply this wisdom. This is the process of discovery that is most urgent in our lives, and in which we must participate. And when we leave the closed circle of the self to embrace our neighbours, especially with truth, we have progressed.