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!