Technology is, to most ordinary consumers, the tangible fruit of progress. In fact, it is so pervasive that the constant improvement of hi-tech gadgets has come to be taken for granted. Much less noticed, less understood, or misunderstood, is the large network of knowledge that makes technological advancements possible: science. Scientific progress is sometimes viewed as synonymous with innovation, and it is closely related to the expansion of applied knowledge – yet, it is a distinct field. The pragmatic and adaptive evolution of technology, which often happens through the recombination of existing technologies, rests on the foundation of hard science, but the two do not coincide.
What really distinguishes science is a specific method, a mindset, an attitude. Somewhat paradoxically, while we associate scientific progress with precision and even certainty, scientists are actually trained to conduct thought experiments or real world experiments on the basis of doubt, i.e. the lack of certainty. It does not take great familiarity with epistemology or the philosophy of science to realize that dissatisfaction with existing knowledge is what drives refinements of established theories or the development of the models to explain the physical world. It is a relentless, and by definition open-ended, search for the best approximation of certainty, through sheer logical reasoning, quantitative analysis (the universal language of mathematics) and the reiterated interaction between theories and experimental feedbacks.
Science epitomizes modernity, and yet the relationship between science and modern society has always been complex and often controversial. Despite the widespread awareness of the huge constructive potential of scientifically based knowledge, there is a lingering suspicion that scientists can have destructive purposes if they serve the wrong masters, or can simply lose control of their discoveries and inventions, thus producing unintended consequences. Such concerns are perfectly legitimate, but there is also a set of misperceptions to hinder or complicate the coexistence between modern society and scientific progress. A better understanding of how science works is essential if we are to deal effectively with its extraordinary power, its limitations, and its dangers.
The areas of social and individual life where scientific knowledge has a direct impact are growing by the day: from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to bioethics, from big data collection to social media, from renewable energy to climate change, from neurobiology to complexity theories, from innovative research networks to education policies.
The renowned – and controversial – evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has recently noted that, “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology”. Hopefully, the human race is not permanently trapped in this dilemma, but it certainly cannot escape it completely. Hence, the need to also develop and use a moral compass to navigate the uncharted waters where we will find ourselves as we explore the frontiers of knowledge.
Responsible leaders have a duty to learn as much as they can about these issues to better make policy choices on objectively complicated matters, but ordinary citizens would also be well advised to become more familiar with scientific dynamics if they are to express informed opinions and evaluate their leaders’ performance.
Aspenia online aims to make a modest contribution to this ongoing conversation, starting with three analyses on GMOs and food security issues. We look forward to a dialogue between open minds.