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Science, Technology, & Public Life

If you peer through a magnifying glass at a bug on a leaf, you may find yourself looking at a different world.  Tiny legs might work their way along the delicate structure, as firm as a human hiker across the solid ground itself.

This world takes on the color of the mind observing it when it becomes a story.  Some may see this new thing and ask questions – how the bug came to like that particular leaf, how it is able to grip it, and so on.  Others may be content reporting the details of the situation, such as the shape of the legs and jaws of the bug.

Anytime new perspectives open up the difference between science and technology is revealed at its basic essence.  Science is a practice of asking questions far more than providing answers.  Technology is about rendering that new information into something practical and useful.  That difference may seem subtle, but it is critical to understanding how new information shapes our personal and public lives in a world bombarded with new ideas and observations.

Science is, at its heart, a process.  The Scientific Method is a way of asking questions in an organized and logical way that produces logical and repeatable results.  The concepts were first laid out by the fathers of logic, Plato and Aristotle, the former arguing that fundamental principles drove understanding of earthly observations and the latter the other way around.  These philosophical underpinnings were turned into a formal process 1500 years later by Alhazen, working in Fatimid Egypt, who developed a system of repeatable experiments to explain and demonstrate the principles he was studying.  It was groundbreaking stuff.

Technology also has its roots in Ancient Greece, but was always seen as something different.  The word itself means “the study of skill”, the emphasis on the craft necessary to take learning and make a new gizmo or gadget.  Where science formalized inquiry, technology formalized the development of innovation.  Technology also went through considerable development since ancient times but has never been formalized to the extent that the scientific method has.  Interest in technology as a force that shapes our world was not heavily studied until the 20th Century, with the most popularly accessible analysis of the processes arguably James Burke’s seminal “Connections” series.

It is popular to believe that science provides us with answers about our world, something as clear as 2+2=4.  This view convolutes the important differences between science and technology, which brings up an analogy by way of a joke.

One of my favorite jokes as a practicing research engineer was that 2+2=5 for large values of 2.  It’s not idle schtick. Suppose you have a molecule that you want to measure the concentration of, and the device you have for doing this shows you two forms that have to be added together – say 2.4 and 2.4.  If the accuracy of the machine that allows you to peer into the world of this molecule is a bit questionable, you may only have one “significant figure” you can say is important.  Most people would write down the two results from the machine as interim results, add them together, and then round off the total as 5.  The “correct” answer”, however, is that you should round each result before you add them, but that doesn’t always happen in an Xcel spreadsheet.

A true scientist, however, is more curious than that.  The most “correct” answer to an inquiring mind is to write down “4” but to keep the possibility of 4.8 in their head.  If time allows, the logical next step is to inquire into that next digit and wonder what it would take to improve the accuracy of the machine to two significant digits.

To a scientist every result is only another question waiting to be answered.  To an engineer or a technologist, the “right” answer is 4 and there’s no point in being silly.

This problem is much deeper than simply applying new knowledge to crafting new gadgets that improve our lives.  Science in public policy has become a political issue in very key areas such as teaching evolution and the potential for global warming.  The latter is an example where very important questions about how much humans can change the world were rendered into clearly observable data and then built into a model that makes further predictions into the future.  This points to a problem that needs to be solved.

It is much more akin to “troubleshooting”, the way of life that is the technological cousin to the insatiably curious mind of a scientist.

In public policy there is no time to run the experiments through and wait for terrible consequences.  The curiosity made into formal inquiry is not useful as the new information gained requires action.  The process of science has to be left behind to a certain extent, becoming something much more like technology.  The “skill” in this example is crafting public policy that heads off disaster.

Politics, however, can use the questioning mind of science to introduce doubt.  That devolves quickly into a different kind of political craft, one of increasing power.

What matters most is the point at which a something allows a new observation about a part of the world to be seen as never before.  A magnifier that reveals the tiny workings of a bug on a delicate leaf is new information not experienced firsthand before.  Whether this leads us naturally to ask questions or state new facts, or some combination of the two, is something that comes out of the human mind at the other end of the glass.  Both are useful in their own ways.  But each has its own formal processes and perspectives that are best understood at their essence if we are going to create a fair representation of what is going on – and not force our own perspective or opinion on the situation.

For its part, the bug was happily crawling along until some big lunkhead disturbed it.  It is always good to remember at least that.

This post summarizes a number of topics that have been dealt with in Barataria before, and links are provided as necessary.  If you have questions please leave a comment!

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11 thoughts on “Science, Technology, & Public Life

  1. You always go into the history. This is a huge and dense topic that probably would be best for another series of blogs. Public policy has to deal in facts, it can’t be about questions. What that means is very deep & we’re not going to have an easy answer to it. You should do this as an ebook or something like that. Great blog!

    • You’re right, this should have been a series. I guess it still could be! The advantage of an eBook is that I might be able to sell it, so perhaps I should go that direction. Excellent suggestion!
      Yes, I always go into the history. In this case it probably should have been left out to make an overly long post shorter. I broke the unity a bit. A series would have fixed that. Noted.

  2. Love the joke because it reminds me of creative accounting! Except in that you are getting the answer you want more than what something is telling you.
    I thought you were a global warming skeptic so I was surprised to see this example. It is a big topic and I would like to hear more. Science in public life is a big political football but people don’t understand what is going on. You also didn’t get into religion which plays a big role in this.

    • I love that joke too, but I never thought of “creative accounting”. 🙂
      I am a bit of a global warming skeptic, but that’s the scientist in me. I’ve run enough samples through Infrared analysis to know that while carbon dioxide absorbs like crazy in that region, water does even more – and there’s a lot more of it in the atmosphere! I do think there is a lot more to the story than what Al Gore will tell us, but it also is true that what we are doing is not a good thing no matter how we look at it. The alternative view – that this just happens, possibly because the sun winks on and off a tiny bit – may well be proven in the next 10 years as a major sunspot maximum since the 1950s has suddenly ended and there is evidence that the planet is already cooling a bit. How much? We’ll see.
      Faith is another area – you’re trying to push all my buttons at once! 🙂 What I will say is that what cannot be proven or disproven by science leaves a LOT of room for faith, and many scientists are indeed deeply spiritual. I honestly do not see a conflict between science and faith and I am always dismayed when debates rev up along those lines.

  3. I agree that science is a practice of asking questions which lead to more questions, but in the process science does provide some answers, which then may be used by “technology” to create useful applications for the knowledge. Science drives technology and in return, technology often finances science. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
    There are a number of individuals, including politicians, who will refuse to listen to scientists even if there is time to “run the experiments through” and see the final data.
    Good scientists and technologists are skeptics by nature, but deniers will always be blind to what is revealed by the evidence.

    • There is a huge difference between the scientific mind’s skepticism and a blatant refusal to accept what is in front of us. That’s why I wanted to start with a magnifying glass, an experiment a kid might do casually. Revelation of a “new world” not seen before causes many reactions in people, and recording what that new world is all about is necessarily colored by the person recording it. Understanding that bias is very important, and a bit of training can fit it into a bigger picture much more easily.
      But there are always those who, in this example, might want to deny that the bug even exists. Those of us who practice the questioning of science or the practical rendering of technology are at our best when we are as clear as possible what we are representing when we are called on to make our point. In public policy that is difficult and hard to render in “sound bites”, but it can be done. Usually, however, it takes a lot of time and care.

  4. Basically science in public policy is applied science like technology. That is simple enough. But what about when the science is not exactly sure? Another example is a chemical causing “cancer”. It seems like everything causes cancer these days. Either we have been poisoning ourselves for a very long time or it’s not true. When you read the papers written on these things they talk about percentages and doses and its never black & white that something is bad or not. But that’s how it comes down and everyone gets all excited and wants to ban something and make work for a lot of people. You never know what to think after a while.

    • Yes on all points! There is always the chance that we have been poisoning ourselves for a long time. Lead compounds were added to wine for over 2000 years to make them sweeter and more complex, for example – a very bad idea. Generally, however, the things that research zeros in on to study are new synthetic chemicals that are new to our environment.
      Does everything cause cancer? Take that a bit further and look at allergies, really food sensitivities – I have a reaction to shellfish. Everyone is different and everyone has a different tolerance for everything. It’s pretty rare that something reaches the level where it’s so obviously toxic that it should be banned, but what is the appropriate threshold for doing that? How can people know what’s in the food they eat or, more interestingly, the air they breathe and the water they drink?
      You raise a very good point, and it’s one that I don’t have an answer to. It is worth re-evaluating our regulatory framework constantly to make sure it makes sense. Certainly, the popular media does a terrible job of reporting most of these kinds of issues – but to be fair it’s a hard thing to do well. It takes a lot of education and background to even get close.
      What I can say is that we’ve gone more and more to disclosure on food labels so that people can make up their own minds, and to me that’s a good thing. I think the really obvious bad actors, like lead, have largely been dealt with and I’ve very glad that was banned from nearly everything (such as gasoline). Where we go from here is a good question!

    • Has the government banned anything recently because it was said to cause cancer? I know some people want to do this but there has not been any big fuss since the apple pesticide or something a long time ago.

  5. deniers are the problem – some people cant understand anything they cant see and get mad about being so stupid

  6. Pingback: Energy: Implementation | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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