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Question: What should everyone know about science?

Adam Bly: I really think that the more important thing right now is not the facts. I think that the proliferation of digital media and simply web tools makes for just knowing facts to be less significant. I’m sort of less concerned about what are the top 10 things that every person needs to know about DNA; or that they should be able to pronounce “deoxyribonucleic acid”; or they should be able to list the planets; or they should be able to tell you what a stem cell is. Although all those things are valuable, and certainly you can go deeper into a conversation if you can skip the step of going onto Wikipedia and checking what it is. But you can go, and you can go to Google and check what it is. And there’s a great plethora of information that will, you know, satisfy that objective. So I’m kind of less concerned about the data points. I don’t know what the data points should be. That to me is a tertiary matter that we’ll work out once we figure out the bigger issues now, which is what should people be thinking about science? And that to me is truly what science is. We need a much better understanding of what science is and why science works the way it works; what pure view is; how science achieves goals. When we read something, you know, page one of our newspapers in any part of the world, and it simple says, “Scientists at a certain university here today announced that . . .” we immediately skip to discovery. We immediately skip to the outcome, the output of science, and we don’t have a sense of the input of science. And I think that’s terribly deleterious to our notions of what science is. Because if all we see is this output – as science kind of churning out results, and data, and things in a kind of mechanical process; a manufacturing sort of resource for society – then we forget that it’s actually people, human beings who may also have liberal arts backgrounds and then decide to study science; and have girlfriends; and go to movies; and go see an art exhibit; and have life issues; and have biases; and read books. And the way that they view these problems, which are becoming increasingly nuanced, they’re the kinds of questions that we’re all very concerned about – how the human genome suggests things about who we are; the power of synthetic biology to completely transform our notions of security, of asymmetric warfare . . . these are things that, you know, the Large Hedron Collider in Geneva that’s trying to understand fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, and who we are and where we come from work in evolutionary biology . . . I mean these are questions that we all work on the mind now to create more complete maps of the human mind. These are things that we all are interested in, and scientists are the ones doing the work. Scientists are the ones that are advancing our collective societal notions of what these things are. And if we don’t have a certain sense that scientists themselves are getting input as human beings from a variety of different sources, (a); (b) the scientific community, in order for them to arrive at a conclusion and publish it in a paper, it has to go through a process of pure review of vetting the rigor of the scientific method that really does make science the best intellectual instrument we have for understanding things about the world. It’s in fact because of what science is . . . It’s because of the institution of science that makes the output from science so valuable to society. And I think that we’ve seen so many different forces acting . . . as I was saying before, so many different forces acting on science that are disrupting it, that we need to come back to redefining what science . . . what we want science to be; what science is; how science works so that we all really genuinely have an understanding. I think the next step, and it could be five years of this, is scientific literacy and what everyone should think about . . . about science is simply what science is more so than any one data point that comes out of science.


Recorded on: 10/17/07





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