On Wednesday 6th September, a scientist, a philosopher and a theologian discussed the question, “Does society value science?”. The audience for this panel discussion were staff from Diamond Light Source and Rutherford Appleton Labs at the Harwell Science campus in Oxfordshire, UK. I was privileged to be chairing the discussion.
As I sit down to write this, about half a week after the discussion itself, I have just been listening to news about Hurricane Irma (and, of course, Hurricane Harvey was in the news as the discussion took place), and a news piece on the use of robots in classrooms. Questions over climate change and its impact on weather systems, and the development of AI and robotics are just two reasons why society should value science, or at least take an interest. Science impacts on our lives every day.
The first speaker, Dr Sylvia McLain, made that very point. Society does value science, she noted, whether society realises it or not. The disinterest comes, she said, when people believe that science is too complicated, too hard, to understand. But, if someone explains how and why a particular aspect of science or technology relates to their day to day lives, people become interested. People are also interested in science when it is presented to them in an engaging and easy-to-understand way – hence the success of popular science programmes on television. Dr McLain also made the point that the people can become distanced from science when its proponents present it as a belief system instead of a systematic way to explore the world.
Scientists can, at times, seem aloof, maybe even arrogant. When someone comes to treat science as a belief system rather than a means of exploring the physical world, it’s all too easy to dismiss or treat as inconsequential other belief systems. But science doesn’t have all of the answers. Science has, it’s true, answered many questions, and those answers have benefitted humanity greatly. But many scientists would probably agree that when science does give us answers, those answers tend to spur further questions. There is no ultimate answer from science.
Professor James Ladyman also explored the idea of getting answers from science. He spoke about the ‘impact agenda’, and its effects on scientific research and teaching. The impact agenda is about generating social and economic benefits from publicly funded scientific research. Very few would argue that those are bad things. Professor Ladyman’s point, however, was that the impact agenda as it currently exists is about, “short-term,” “direct,” and “foreseeable” impact. The problem with that, as Professor Ladyman explained, is that, “the most profound impact of science has been unforeseen and unforeseeable, as well as being long-term and indirect.” Because it is restricting, limiting the directions that research can take (because research isn’t possible without funding and much of the funding for research comes from the public purse), the impact agenda has the potential to have negative impacts not only on research, but on science teaching at university level, and on society.
It seems to me that, in addition to the practical problems associated with the impact agenda, is a more insidious problem – lack of trust. The impact agenda, as it currently exists, implies a lack of trust in scientists and in science. It seems to suggest that scientists, left to their own inclinations, can’t be trusted to do research that is in the public interest. That, in turn, might suggest a lack of trust in scientists more generally. If one were to judge by the impact agenda alone, it would seem that society values science only if and when science can give us predetermined, economically useful outcomes. One of the great delights of scientific research, however, is that one doesn’t necessarily where it might lead, or what might result. Let’s not forget, penicillin was the result of an experiment gone wrong.
Not knowing where science might lead, only knowing that there are questions to be asked and things to be discovered, was one of the joys of science as described by Professor Alister McGrath. Professor McGrath spoke of the sense of wonder that he had felt as a child staring at the night sky, and how he experienced that sense of wonder again and again as science opened up new understandings of the material world. Christian theology affirms the value of wonder as a way of approaching God and of delighting in the creation. Christianity, therefore, should encourage society to value science, not only for the practical applications that we can take from it, but for its intrinsically spiritual aspects, as well.
The talks that I’ve summarised above were followed by a lively question and answer session that covered a range of subjects. One of these was the issue of passion. Dr McLain had mentioned in her talk that, despite scientists often being portrayed as ‘passionate’ about their subject or research, she didn’t think that they were necessarily more passionate than people working in other fields. Not all in the audience agreed with her. Some felt that scientists had to be passionate about their work because a career in scientific research lacks the rewards, such as a high salary, that might be found in other professions, and because the challenges and hurdles that have to be overcome to secure a career in research would defeat anyone who lacked passion and drive. While Dr McLain agreed that persistence and commitment were needed, especially early in one’s career, she didn’t think that this was exclusive to science, and she may be right. Teachers aren’t notoriously well paid (just to pick a profession at random), they have to work long hours and anecdotal evidence suggests that many work in very challenging environments. And it is possible that once a scientific researcher has become established in his or her career, when they’ve been at it for years, the passion that they may have felt at the beginning could wane. Even so, even if one shies away from the word ‘passionate’, most scientists are likely to remain interested in their work, and in sharing their research, throughout their careers.
One of the things that was acknowledged might dilute passion for one’s work was the way that society has come to dismiss ‘experts’ and to devalue their knowledge and experience. The climate ‘debate’ was given as an example – the way in which the media might, to provide ‘balance’, interview a highly experienced climate scientist to present the argument that climate change is real and man-made, but on the other side of the debate, the ‘climate-denier’ side, interview a politician with no background in science. Empirical evidence and experiment are ignored in favour of ‘alternative facts’. This was followed by a discussion of how science is used, and sometimes misused, or used in ways that the scientists involved may not have wished, with science used to develop weapons technology given as the prime example. While the panel agreed that science can be and at times has been used in destructive rather than constructive ways, that the reverse was also sometimes true. The so-called ‘green revolution’ – the introduction of artificial fertilizers that led to a great increase in crop production in the 20th century – arose out of research to develop more powerful explosives during the first world war, and the rocket technology used for long-range bombing by Germany in the second world war was later adapted to put a man on the moon.
Questions about the relationship between science and faith also arose. Were Christians clinging to a ‘God of the gaps’, who would eventually disappear as science was able to explain more and more? Or is science something that is complementary to faith, a way of seeking knowledge about the world and engendering wonder for the One who created it? The panel all agreed that science and faith need not be at odds with one another – that it is possible to hold to a faith while using science to learn about the physical properties of the universe.
I came away from this event feeling that it had been a great, as well as lively, discussion, that opened up several avenues for thought and reflection. And i was left in no doubt that society needs science, and should value it – and scientists – perhaps more than we consciously do.