Sunday, January 8, 2012

Science and Commons

In the book "Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America" (which I reviewed on, Sean Lawrence Otto describes how the U.S. is facing a major crisis brought on by its growing unwillingness to embrace the freedom of inquiry into objective reality, a basic prerequisite for science and democracy, and the use of its results to inform and ground discussions of public policy. With politicians and citizens alike increasingly unable to discern opinion from fact on a range of issues (not the least of which being greenhouse gas-induced climate change), our access to vast technological and economic power coupled with near-ideological pursuit of the tragedy of the commons on a global scale has made the U.S. a (if not the) key player in an unfolding disaster that may doom most of life on Earth.

Otto argues that the best way to deal with this is for scientists to actively promote awareness of the process of science, which would add credibility to the knowledge it produces and make it more meaningful and useful to the majority of citizens. I have no doubt that this is true: it was the basis of much of my work with my father on attempting to transform math and science education in the 1980s. If you can enable people to observe and respect objective reality, understand how it works, and appreciate the value of testing their most basic assumptions, then you are empowering them to achieve their maximum happiness without compromising the ability of others to do the same.

The role of government as protector of the commons is explored in the book, as a means to prevent the tyranny of the few, with the power to consume more, over the many who either cannot consume as much (or choose not to out of respect for others). I look at it as the equivalent of preserving enough resources for everyone to meet their basic needs, and enabling them to do so, with the remainder as open to basic market competition subject to personal ability and effort. Critical to this is the universal availability of knowledge about what people's needs are, what it takes to meet them, and what variables in nature and human behavior may change these; science is a valuable tool for providing this, and therefore should be nurtured.

In my own work, I've tried to be careful about identifying what is conjecture and what is fact. However, much of what I write, this entry included, is a mixture of both which I don't pretend is strict science, but rather a collection of ideas that can be used to spur further investigation into the areas I've explored. The freedom to hypothesize, to play with ideas, is as important as the freedom to test one's beliefs and identify how the Universe really works, but we must exercise both in order to create something truly worthwhile. If you're familiar with complex mathematics, I see it as the equivalent of operating on imaginary space to derive an object or relationship in real space that can actually be observed. Just as entertainment provides pretend experiences that can inform how we live our lives, we still have to live our lives and be able to understand the difference. This is a facility we appear to be in the process of losing, a process which must be reversed if we, and those who depend on us, are to survive and thrive.

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