I’m not a scientist and I don’t play one on TV. Nonetheless, I think science is undervalued in America. I believe the typical American takes science for granted, thinks science owes them something and figures they’ll never understand what scientists are saying.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
For starters, science isn’t just about trying to create the best iPhone, the highest quality and thinnest televisions, or medicines that act like magic bullets, destroying evil in our cells or our DNA without damaging the healthy ones.
Science often starts with a question. Why or how does something work? And, perhaps, if we change something about the way it works, does it get better or worse? The conclusions scientists draw when they solve one puzzle leads to the next set of questions.
It’s as if a child asks his parent if he can go west and the parent says, “No, don’t go west, but here are the keys to the car.”
The answer may seem like a non sequitur, but it’s also a way to navigate somewhere new, even if, for whatever reason, the car isn’t supposed to go west. Maybe, by learning more about the car and where it can go, the child also learns what’s so forbidding about going west, too.
We want science to succeed and we’re annoyed when science doesn’t solve our problems. We can’t get something to work or we can’t get ourselves to work and we blame scientists. After all, if we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we conquer the morning rush hour or the common cold?
Then again, how does the study of dark matter — neutrinos or sphingolipids — affect our morning commute? We may not understand these areas, but that doesn’t mean basic knowledge can’t or won’t lead to advances we can’t anticipate.
Knowledge, as we know, is power. If we know, for example, that an enemy is planning an attack and we know where and how that attack will occur, we can defend ourselves, even if that enemy exists at a subcellular level.
Learning the playbook of the enemy takes time, which technological innovation, dedicated researchers and people battling against a disease often don’t have.
Worst of all, though, science is somehow too hard to understand. That is a defeatist conclusion. Yes, scientists use technical terms as shorthand and, yes, they may not be selling ideas or themselves in the kind of carefully crafted tones often reserved for CEOs or politicians.
That, however, doesn’t mean they are planting a keep-out sign in front of them or their ideas. While scientists reduce a question to an attainable goal, they also often keep a larger goal in mind.
A few years ago, my daughter had to draw a picture of what she thought a scientist looked like. Rather than imagine a person in a white lab coat with one pocket full of pens and the other holding a radiation badge, she drew a baby.
Science may be frustrating because scientists often come across as uncertain. For example, they might say, “We believe that the shadow in our telescope may be caused by an exoplanet orbiting a star that’s outside the solar system, and which is the same distance from its nearest star as Earth is from the sun.”
Scientists can be wrong, just as anyone can be wrong in their job, in their opinions or in their conclusions. That, however, doesn’t make science wrong. Scientists are often most excited when a discovery they make defies their expectations or bucks conventional wisdom.
Just because conventional scientific wisdom changes doesn’t mean every part of it is wrong.
Science doesn’t have all the answers and it never will. The most likely person to tell you that, though, should be a scientist, not a journalist.