NUI Galway on RTÉ Brainstorm: Why democracies need science

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jun 27 2019 Posted: 10:03 IST

Author: Rachel Costa

Opinion: understanding the science behind the problems we face will empower us to tackle this century's big questions 

We do not usually realise how much our lives are embedded in science and technology. It might be clear if you think about the gadget you are probably using to read this text, but we rarely remember that this is also the case with thousands of other daily things we use. Like the electricity that keeps the lights on and powers fridges, microwaves, television and electric showers. Or food. Most of the food you eat in your daily life is a product of science including the selection of seeds and machinery-based harvesting techniques.

Science allowed our society to reach a point that was never dreamed of by our ancestors. Famine and plague, which were major concerns until the beginning of the 20th century, do not kill as many lives as they did thanks to technological applications. Science solved a lot of problems our species faced for centuries and will probably give us solutions to the challenges we will have to deal with in the next few decades. The planet's population is likely to reach 10 billion people, for example, and global warming is knocking on our door.

But science cannot answer every question. Our life cannot be governed only by facts as it would then be, in Bertrand Russell's words, "a prison for the human spirit". Science can give us some technical solutions, but deciding to apply them is a question that we must answer collectively.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report by Emma O'Kelly on Science Week 2006

A good example is the use of nuclear power. Science made it possible to split the nucleus of an atom and get energy out of this reaction, but it is up to citizens to choose if we are willing to take the risks associated with its use. Nevertheless, a comprehension of the technology and its fundaments is needed to understand the risks of the use of nuclear energy.

Moreover, most societies in the developed world adopted democracy as political regime, meaning every citizen can exercise the power, particularly by voting. The strategies to overcome problems related to population growth or the increasing of average temperature in the planet are rooted in science, but every citizen exercising their voting right will play a role in the final decisions.

Addressing these issues in a reasonable way depends on as many people as possible understanding the scientific method. Understanding the science will empower us to tackle this century's big questions and help society in the decision process itself. In a democracy, every citizen plays a role in decisions. A proper functioning democracy depends on the voting system working well and freedom of speech is vital for this.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, UCC palaeontologist Dr. Maria McNamara discusses new research on dinosaurs, birds, feathers and flying reptiles

But freedom of speech does not mean that each person is entitled his or her own facts. The scientific method allows us to separate what is a fact – something that was observed through a cautious, verifiable and reproducible method – from what is not a fact. Besides, to adopt some principles of the scientific method when discussing issues that concern the society ensures that the freedom of speech is not distorted.

Criticism and developing a mindset that embraces uncertainty are at the core of the scientific method and should also be central to every process and outcome which might influence society. The scientific mindset requires an ordered approach to test reality, collect and organise facts and think outside the box. This is important not only to answer objective questions, but also subjective ones. It's a way of thinking which usually allows us to accept the premises of whoever thinks different from us, which is central for enhancing the process of debate and decision-making.

Science empowered humankind with a method that is, at once, disciplined and imaginative. The scientific method allowed us to thrive as species, but can do so much more by giving us the tools to overcome real problems and enable us to approach different questions – objective or not - with open minds, hearts and will.

Our society would gain a lot by having more people able to apply a scientific way of thinking to every aspect of life

Conversely, science is considered a dull thing. In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, physicist and science communicator Carl Sagan wrote that we have built a society that deeply depends on science and technology, but yet almost no-one understands science and technology. He went on to state that this mixture of science dependence and science ignorance would bring disastrous consequences on us.

The scientist is not a person who thinks more or in a better way than others. The scientific method is a style of thinking rather than a body of knowledge, and this can be taught. Scientists are only people who got more training to develop this mindset. Our society would gain a lot by having more people able to apply a scientific way of thinking to every aspect of life, including debating ideas in the public sphere. Luckily, the scientific way of thinking will allow us to overcome the challenges we have to face and build a world in which happiness can be reached by every living being.

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