Thursday, June 28, 2012

Science is for People; Not for Itself

I am still puzzling over something someone said recently in a conversation forum I am part of:

"Technology is for People, Science is for Science".

This statement makes no sense on many levels.  According to the American Heritage Dictionary:

"Science: 1a. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena...4. Knowledge, especially that gained through experience"

and from the same source:

"Technology: 1a. The application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives. 1b. The scientific method and material used to achieve a commercial or industrial objective..."

Technology and science have several features in common, and indeed they overlap in significant ways. Not so distinct as some might think.

Another practical objection: why would anyone take part in science if not for some reason that has something to do with themself? I'm not talking only about straightforward material objectives (although those apply) but also about objectives that have to do with creating, preventing, addressing, exploring change. Change in something. Something we care about. With that in mind, can you imagine science existing in a vacuum?

Let's say the writer holds to the related belief that knowledge should be pursued for the sake of gaining knowledge. It is hard for me, endlessly curious me, to argue against learning for the sake of learning. Because you never know when it might come in useful. Oops...useful. Useful, using, used. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge (and nothing else, not ever!) would mean no application of that knowledge, wouldn't it? Nothing Useful.

Or...still on the idea of engaging in knowledge acquisition through science for the sake of science that even possible? If I enjoy undertaking scientific inquiry, then am I not doing so in part for myself? Yes, I am. I wouldn't believe anyone who claimed otherwise. If I hate undertaking scientific inquiry yet take part in it anyway, then there is an even stronger personal motivation (unhealthy as it may be) at work here.

I am no Physicist, but I have read enough about quantum mechanics to understand that if one adheres to a quantum view of the universe, then it is virtually impossible (in fact, provably false) to claim that any scientific endeavor (however you choose to define or restrict the term) could possibly take place without interactions between those conducting the science and the objects of the investigation. Scientific investigation, science, cannot exist in and of itself and for itself.

Finally, let's talk ethics for just a moment. There is something creepy about claiming, in this globally connected (and often violent) 21st Century, that we humans should pretend (yes, I said pretend) that when we take part in scientific investigation or exploration or experimentation, that we can do so without societal repercussions. If we instead embrace the interaction of science with society, and the fact that we do engage in science for very human reasons, we have the opportunity to point that science towards positive goals and outcomes.

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