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Yesterday, I was invited to give a talk at a public meeting on the usual themes: climate change, resources, pollution, and the like. This time, a question I received from the audience caused me a small enlightenment that I am describing here as I remember it (h/t Lorenzo Citti for having organized this interesting meeting) 

Thanks for this question – it is a very interesting question: “are we teaching enough science to our children?” And I can tell you that it is much more than an interesting question, it caused some small earthquake in my mind. Truly, I had a flash of understanding that I had never had before and right now I completely changed my view of the world. It happens to me: the world changes so fast and I do my best to follow it.

Your question is so interesting because it has to do with the idea that there are two cultures: a scientific one and a literary one. As a consequence, some of us think that instruction is unbalanced in one or the other direction: maybe we teach too little science to our children, maybe too much. The whole idea goes back to someone named Snow who proposed it in the 1950s. He was not wrong, I think, but there were problems with the idea. The concept of the two cultures can be intended as meaning that we need somehow to bridge the gap that exists in between. Or, and I think that’s what happens most often, it can be interpreted as meaning that one of the two cultures is superior to the other. That can generate a competition between the two and divide people into two different tribes: literates and scientists.  We are very good, as human beings, at dividing ourselves into separate tribes fighting each other. And that’s bad, as you can imagine. Actually, it is a disaster. Snow was a scientist and he decried the scientific ignorance of literates. On this, he was right but in the long run the result was that literates despise scientists as illiterate boors and scientists despise literates as feebleminded ignorants.

Now, I had been thinking about all this and, as I said, today I had this flash that focused my mind on a concept. I think we have to say this clearly: this story of the “two cultures” is an idiocy. It must end. There is only ONE culture, and that’s what we may call “humanism,” if nothing else because we are all humans. That is, unless someone in the audience today is an alien or a droid. In such case, would you please stand up? No……? Apparently, we are all humans in this room and so we call our culture “humanism” (or, sometimes, “arts and humanities”)  How else would you call it?

So, there is really no reason for considering modern science a separate culture rather than part of the human culture that we call humanism. I am saying this as a scientist: science is part of what I would like to call human “sapience”, what the ancient called “sophos“; that we translate as “wisdom” “sapience,” or “knowledge.” The term philosopher just means someone who loves sapience. And that’s what we are; scientists or non-scientists, the very fact that we are here today, engaged in this discussion. means that we love knowledge: we are all philosophers. And that’s a good thing to be; sapience is what makes us human and that’s why we speak of humanism.

So, why do science and scientists sometimes pretend to be a separate branch of knowledge? Well, it has to do with another concept that comes to us from the Greek philosophy. It goes under the name of techné that we may translate as “craftsmanship” and that originates the modern term “technology”. Here lies the problem.

Five minutes ago, someone asked me about hydrogen powered cars. I answered that they have been a complete failure and that was it. But I ask you to go a little more in depth with this question. Why do many of us think these things are important: hydrogen cars, a hydrogen powered economy, and lots of strange things we hear as proposed by scientists and that are said to be able to “solve our problems.” Why is that? There is a reason and it goes back to a period in history when scientists found that they were able to devise some clever gadgets: you remember the “atomic age”, right? It started more or less from there. Then there was the space age, the information age, and so on. There was this great wave of optimism when we really thought that science would bring us a new age of happiness and prosperity – it was the triumph of technology over everything else. The triumph of techné over sophos.

That period of optimism is still with us: anything that you say that disputes the sacred cow of economic growth is answered with “the scientists will think of something.” Climate change? Resource Depletion? Pollution? Not really problems if you have the right gadget to solve them. And this brings, sometimes, the question “do we teach enough science to our children?” It is a result of the opinion that, in order to solve our problems, we need more gadgets and that, in order to have more gadgets, we need more science and that, in order to have more science, we need to teach more of it to our children. I think this is not a good idea. I think we have too many gadgets, not too few. And all these gadgets either don’t work or cause more problems than those they are supposed to solve. Think about that: we wanted flying cars and we got killer drones, we wanted freedom and we got body scanners, we wanted cheap energy and we got Fukushima, we wanted knowledge and we got 140 characters, we wanted a long life and we got Alzheimer. The more gadgets we have, the worse the situation becomes.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that technology is bad in itself. We all live in heated spaces, we use electricity, when we have a headache we take an aspirin, and we use a lot of useful devices in our everyday life. I am not telling you that we should run to the woods and live as our stone-age ancestors – not at all. Being good craftsmen is part of being human. It is just that this fascination with gadgetry is generating multiple disasters, as we have been discussing today: from climate change to all the rest. One of these disasters is the decline of science, with scientists often turned into those raucous boors who feel they have to send out a press release every month or so to describe how their new gadget will save the world.

It can’t work in this way. We need to take control of the technology we use, we need to stop being controlled by it. And I think the first step for retaking control is to bring science back into the fold of humanism. I am saying this as a scientist and as someone who loves science – I have been loving science from when I was a kid. Modern science is a beautiful thing; well worth being loved. It has been telling us so much that’s worth knowing: the history of our planet, the origin and the fate of the universe, the thermodynamic engines that make everything move, and much more. We need to see science as part of the human treasure of knowledge and we need to love knowledge in all its forms. And, as I said at the beginning, someone who loves knowledge is a philosopher and that’s what we can all be and we should be; because it is our call as human beings. If we want to save the world, we don’t need gadgetry, we need to be what we are: human beings.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABUo says:

    Science should be used as an ‘ instrument’ of common good. As long as it is used for benefits, it can be a wonderful appliance. But, if it falls into the hands of people like ‘ Frankenstein’ , it does more arm than good