Science’s Rightful Place

In his inaugural address, president Obama said,

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield
technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its
cost.

The hive overminds at Seed are
asking the obvious follow-up question,
“What is science’s rightful place?

They’re only soliciting answers from scientists, but I can still give
my reply here.

Science’s rightful place is reconnaisance. It is the best process we
have found so far for looking at our world, of finding out what lies
beyond the next hill, over the metaphorical horizon. It is a way of
answering questions of the form “If we do X, what will happen?”

Just as a general must know the lay of the land and the strength and
position of enemy forces to make an informed decision on how to
prosecute a war, so policymakers must know what kind of world they
live in, and how it works, to make informed decisions implementing
policies that will achieve their desired results.

A good general must not punish his scouts for bringing unpleasant
reports, or else they’re likely to withhold important information in
the future. So too scientists must be free to publish their findings
without coercion from the government, even if these findings are
unpalatable or contrary to government dogma. We have to deal with the
world as we find it; sticking our heads in the sand and pretending
that unpleasant facts aren’t true does no one any favors.

This is not to say that science or scientists should dictate policy. A
scientific study may show, for instance, that a given coal-mining
proposal would lead to the extinction of dozens of native species.
That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t mine coal there. There may be
other considerations that would make it worthwhile. But policymakers
should be aware of the cost of their actions.

Furthermore, any modern industrialized nation owes it to its citizens
to invest in science. It is a tool. A good tool. We should use it. Not
investigating the world scientifically would be like a doctor refusing
to do an X-ray or MRI when trying to diagnose a possible tumor. It’s
one thing to make a bad decision in the absence of good information.
But it’s irresponsible to ignore existing information, or not to use
the available tools for getting that information.

I said above that science allows us to look over the next horizon. One
thing that science is good at is discovering new horizons to look
over. Time and again, by answering one set of questions, scientists
have discovered brand new vistas of inquiry to explore. The discovery
of atoms led to questions about their structure, which in turn led to
modern electronics, and wonders undreamt of in past generations.
Alan Turing’s work on formalizing mathematics led to computers, which
in turn can be used to investigate problems far too complex for
researchers of previous centuries.

Science is a way of looking around us, of seeing the world as it is,
of predicting the consequences of our actions. Its rightful place is
reconnaisance, helping us trace a path to a future world of our
choosing.

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