Welcome to The Science Bit! ‘Science’ can be a confusing notion that often appears divorced from the normal daily lives of non-scientists. Scientists are frequently stereotyped as being geeky, introverted, and male (as well as privileged, European/American, middle-aged, and White). They are believed to wear white coats, work in laboratories, spend their time conducting experiments, and to be proficient at mathematics. Furthermore, scientists are believed to be the ‘source’ of science — in other words, ‘science’ is considered to be ‘what scientists do’. Science, then, is seen as only affecting society insofar as the general population benefits from its technological contributions, consumes its products, and — occasionally — reads about it.
However, in reality, science is less about white coats, laboratories, and complex statistical analyses, and more about the way we value different types of knowledge relative to one another. Scientific approaches to knowledge try to emphasize such values as skepticism, objectivity, accuracy, measurability, clarity, rationality, and replicability. On the other hand, non-scientific approaches to knowledge can emphasize values like authority (the notion that if an important person says something it must be true), charisma (the notion that an idea is held to be important and convincing if it is exciting or fashionable), or naive optimism (the notion that a claim is worth believing simply on the basis that it offers hope for the future, even if no tangible evidence for it exists).
The most important thing about science as an approach to knowledge is that it is available to everyone in society. While science can form the basis of new academic research and the development of technology, people in general can (and perhaps should) take a scientific approach to everyday tasks, such as playing the lottery, packing a suitcase, navigating through traffic, choosing investments, predicting football scores, and deciding how to vote. In other words, science is for everyone, not just professional scientists.
The idea that science is the preserve of an elite can be very dangerous, because it implies that the average person does not need to take a scientific approach to personal choices or to public controversies. As such, it can make people susceptible to anyone who wishes to exploit our natural tendencies to trust others, especially when they claim to be speaking from positions of authority. This scientific disenfranchisement of the general population serves those who want to peddle misinformation that suits their own vested interests.
For these reasons, this blog attempts to demystify science and scientists, to show how scientific ideas can be used in everyday contexts, to highlight abuses of scientific jargon and attempts to exploit public confusion about science, and to record examples of how people in public life (who should know better) can often struggle with scientific concepts.
Comments are always welcome…
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.