Science agendas in transition
Posted by robertpriddy on April 15, 2015
There has been a promising change in the public face of science which has occurred in many media since the 1970s and 80s. I trace in outline some recent trends in perceptions of science by the public, the media and by scientists themselves. Of course, science is in exponential growth and a very considerable outreach and development has taken place in many of the sciences in the past few decades, especially due to the ubiquity of virtually unlimited computing power and its related technologies.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the prevailing attitude of many intellectuals in the official media often showed an almost unquestioning belief in the efficacy of science with very little critical reflection about major underlying issues. The sciences and those referred to collectively as ‘scientists’ were often regarded too simply as the final court of appeal on virtually all the most important questions facing humanity. The near-deification of the sciences, at least in Europe and the US during the second half of the 20th century, made it the chief measure of human progress in many of the world’s most influential minds. This attitude was encouraged by the nature of claims made by some very prominent figures, especially in the physical sciences, claims which developments have sometimes confounded, sometimes made redundant. Together with powerful commercial interests and governments in highly industrialised states, a rather dangerously overstated view of the capabilities of the sciences to solve most vital human problems was promoted. The need to reexamine the limitations of science in the understanding of ourselves and the cosmos seemed long overdue.
Certain great challenges to the scientific community have shown up the relative uncertainty of scientific applications in dealing with major issues. One such was the debate over the safety of nuclear power, in which a hard-core of scientists gave excessive assurances, only to be confronted by the disasters of Three Mile Island and, above all, Chernobyl. A second challenge was to the scientific community’s unfortunate judgements and misrepresentation of such an embracing and admittedly complex issue as the decisive causes of global warming. The original huge consensus among scientists that the over-production of carbon-dioxide and other industrial waste gases were the determining cause of an oncoming global warming catastrophe became highly controversial when by the discovery of major inaccuracies in their important data (such as the rate of decline of Himalayan glaciers). This made the general public aware of the difficulties of scientific prediction on global and other matters which cannot be studied under laboratory conditions. Though opponents of the hypothesis of global warming caused by human activity were often outright anti-scientific or in blatant denial – not least religiously inspired – the intricacies of this major issue and the struggle of scientists to handle it became widely debated. This appears to have stimulated a considerably greater public awareness of – and healthy moderate skepticism about – the practical limits and theoretical uncertainties of much scientific research. Also, and somewhat paradoxically, the global warming controversy helped to publicize the ever-increasing expansion of research efforts – and the consequent increasing successes – of many scientific endeavours. The attack mounted on scientific theory of evolution in the form of religious creationism also came to the fore in a well-known U.S. court case in the USA against teaching ‘creationism’ in schools, with the result that the attack was defeated both scientifically and legally in a most decisive manner.
The overall achievements of science are immense, both from the viewpoint of the vastly increased knowledge bringing answers to questions that have always mystified humankind and from the unlimited practical improvements to human life. Yet this should not occlude pointing out and investigating remaining weaknesses – the often unproclaimed ‘gaps’ in its data and understanding of where the limitations to its explanation lie. Further, the theoretical avenues it explores, the practical and directions it takes at the expense of other potential aims are a matter for increased scrutiny, even though this is often strongly influenced by political forces. In the later 20th century its power, virtual certainties and superiority over other kinds of understanding were often made without requisite reservation of judgement, especially through the popular media, though this tendency has since fortunately been on the decline. Many shortsighted and truncated dogmas were long upheld by the inertia of ‘average’ scientific opinion, as the history of scientific breakthroughs and wider ‘revolutions’ richly illustrates. Some such linger on. The social inertia of out-dated or truncated theory of science and attitudes are doubtless operative to some extent in all countries, especially those with backward and traditional educational systems or unreformed academic universities.
Some of the signal changes in recent science include the shift away from a narrower kind of physicalism and quantitative methods in the biological and human sciences, which will shortly be discussed under the title ‘Science and materialism’.
Further, the overriding role of major interests from governments and military-industrial complexes in the direction of sciences has changed as post Cold War public concern and pressures to deal with a wide range of relatively neglected issues took effect. These include a wide range of environmental issues, from pollution, destruction of habitats and eco-systems, to depletion of various vital earth resources and climate change. This will be discussed under the title ‘The changing role of sciences’ effects on human society’