On Serendip

Written in preparation for the first
Dialogue on The Changing Roles of Mathematics and Science in Society:
"Science, Technology, and Society: Ethical Awareness for Tomorrow's Leaders"

Organized by the Center at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
Adler Planetarium, Chicago, 3 April, 2003

Draft 15 March 2003
Illustrated webnotes available here

A Vision of Science (and Science Education) in the 21st Century:
Everybody "Getting It Less Wrong" Together

Paul Grobstein
Department of Biology
Center for Science in Society
Bryn Mawr College

In the middle of the 20th century, the British scientist/novelist C.P. Snow expressed deep concern about what he saw as a split between "two cultures"

Literary intellectuals at one pole, at the other scientists … Between the two a gulf of incomprehension - sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding ... This polarisation is sheer loss to us all. To us as people, and to our society. It is at the same time practical and intellectual and creative loss.

Some kind of split persists. As the 20th century drew to a close, the American biologist E.O. Wilson wrote about his hope for the future "if the natural sciences can be successfully united with the social sciences and the humanities".

My own experiences as a scientist, science educator, and parent resonate closely with both Snow's concern and Wilson's dream. But I would characterize the split more generally. As we enter the 21st century, a gap and tension costly to both continues to exist between those who are engaged/comfortable with science and those who are not, both inside and outside academia. My feeling is that this split is illustrative of significant ethical and moral ambiguities in "science" as it is generally understood. As scientists we have a compelling responsibility to see these ambiguities clarified, for our own sake as well as the sake of the human culture of which we are a part. If I had to pick one problem as the most important target for science (and science educators) to address in the 21st century, it would be this one: to clarify the best and most fundamental aspects of science so as to make science a comfortable and accepted part of the shared common story of all human beings. To achieve this, we need to find ways to reduce the perception of science (by both those engaged with it and those not) as a specialized and isolated activity of the few, and create the kinds of bridges that will more effectively link science not only to other academic disciplines but to the non-academic world as well.

I believe this can be done, without requiring any compromise in the core values of the scientific enterprise itself. Instead, it requires of scientists and science educators only the kind of self-examination and clarification of those core values that science (like all human activities) needs to engage in periodically for its own health … and the deliberate consideration of scientific and educational objectives and strategies in that light.

Science As Endless, Self-Correcting Story-Telling

A comparison of two ways of describing the "scientific method" can help to illustrate the kind of clarification of the core values of science that I believe is important to building more effective bridges between those currently comfortably engaged with science and those who are not:

To the left is a common description of the "scientific method". The words used (particularly "hypothesis" and "experiment") convey the impression that science is a specialized activity carried out only under special circumstances by specially trained individuals. The diagram also implies that science is exclusively a rational/analytic process that runs unerringly in one direction and yields "Truth" as its outcome.

To the right is an alternate characterization of "scientific method", one I use in my own teaching and believe not only makes science more accessible and engaging to all humans but also reflects more clearly and openly how science actually proceeds. The alternate characterization equates "hypothesis" with "summary of observations", an activity that is done by all humans all the time, beginning from birth, and which always includes intuitive and imaginative ingredients. "Experiment" is equated with "new observation", again a common activity of all humans, and one which is frequently enjoyable (as in playing). Most importantly, the alternate characterization makes it apparent that the process is not linear and does not yield "Truth". Instead, it involves a perpetual loop, a continual and unending process of making observations, summarizing them, and revising the summaries based on new observations … of telling and retelling stories to get them not "right" but "less wrong". It is actually this last characteristic, a stubborn insistence on endlessly treating stories skeptically, rather than any specialized knowledge or training or truth claim, that gives science most of its progressive direction and power.

Science As Collective Story-Telling

Endless self-correcting story telling is, I assert, one component of the essential core of science as it is actually done. The other, I suggest, is the communal nature of the process:

We are all of us (both those currently engaged with science and those not) constantly engaged in a process of self-correcting story-telling in which our intuitions interact with our observations of the external world, of other people, and of ourselves. My guess is that our ancestors have been so engaged through many millennia. What we have relatively recently learned to do is to amplify and accelerate that process by actively sharing it with other individuals. This too is by no means unique to scientists; it is what we mean by culture. Nonetheless, it is worth making explicit that this common process is a second essential component of science and its power. As scientists, we benefit enormously from not having to do all the observing and story-creating as individuals; instead we share both observations and stories with each other, and from that sharing emerge more rapidly common stories "less wrong" than any of us could create alone.

Identifying the Central Needs for Change

At its core, science is not only a human activity but a human activity which could come to be seen as the common property of all human beings: the ongoing writing and rewriting of a common story to which the observations and stories of all individuals make valued contributions. Beyond making clearer the actual nature of science, this description helps highlight two additional challenges to completing the task of bridging the "two cultures" gap.

One of these challenges is a matter that depends largely on changes within the existing "scientific community". Indeed, it requires a willingness to change the very definition of "scientific community". Scientists, like all human beings, have a tendency to "tribalism" - an inclination to share observations and stories only with people who are in some sense "like themselves". The main problem with tribalism isn't so much whether members of a tribe are willing to make their observations and stories available to people outside the tribe (which they frequently are) but whether they are also willing to listen to the observations and stories of others, with the potential that those change their own in turn. The scientific community does not have a distinguished record of this latter kind of engagement, and hence it tends by its own tribalism to encourage tribalism in others. If science is actually to become the common property of humanity, scientists themselves are going to need to learn to transcend their own tribal inclinations, to not only entertain the possibility that the observations and stories of people currently outside the community are relevant, but to begin actively valuing them, to genuinely open the "scientific community" to all comers. This will not be easy, but it is in fact very much in line with the core values of science. There is nothing (except perhaps a spurious "efficiency") to be gained for science by denying the potential relevance of observations/stories whatever their origins. And there is a lot to be lost, both in the potential improvement of stories and in the desirable reduction of tensions and mistrust.

The other challenge to successfully bridging the two cultures by sharing the ongoing writing and rewriting of a common human story is a reluctance to give up the idea of "Truth" and accept in its stead a commitment to an ongoing process of "getting it less wrong". Knowing "Truth" - or at least believing one is on the "right" path to finding it - is a source of comfort and security to many of us, both within and outside the current scientific community. But, differences in conceptions of "Truth", or of whether and how it is to be found, are at the root of the existing "two cultures" gap, as well as of much of human conflict, mistrust, and tension generally. Moreover, science as the collective and ongoing writing and rewriting of stories does not actually need the concept of "Truth", only that of continually modifying old stories in light of new observations. It will not be easy to persuade people to give up "Truth" as a guide and aspiration, and replace it with an appreciation, perhaps even enjoyment, of continuous progressive change. But that is at the core of what science is all about. Helping others come to understand that it is, as best one can tell, what life is all about as well may be the single greatest contribution science can make to the future of humanity.

Making the Abstract Concrete:
Science in Education in the 21st Century

    1. Make greater use of past and ongoing explorations of the nature of understanding itself (including cognition, learning, and the brain). These should both underpin pedagogical practice and become a central focus of curricula.
    2. Continue to help shape and to learn to make effective use of the world wide web as the closest approximation yet to an optimal educational environment: rich enough to be responsive to individual needs, able to support interactive learning, supportive of student as creator/participant, and representative of a broad-based human community.
    3. Redesign curricula to present "science" not as an isolated an distinct sphere of activity but rather as an integral part of educational experiences, one that bears on broad questions of concern to all and that is in turn influenced by other approaches to such questions. Rather than designing curricula primarily to attract and train "scientists", we should design them primarily to engage all students with science, and develop supplementary, specialized curricula for those aspiring to professional careers in science.

"Getting It Less Wrong" as a Guide to Professional Ethics and Morality

In the preceding, I've focused largely on educational issues because I believe that education is the most reliable route to genuine and meaningful systemic change. It is worth though calling attention at least briefly to the implications for existing scientific practice of thinking seriously about science as endless, self-correcting, collective story-telling.

I trust it goes without saying that fraud and misrepresentation of scientific findings would be regarded as being as disruptive of the process conceived in terms of "getting it less wrong" as they would of it conceived in almost any other way. One also normally stresses in considerations of the ethics of science free and open exchange of information and the collective"getting it less wrong" perspective would, if anything, make this an even stronger mandate.

Where things get interesting and significant, in my hand, is in connection with issues where most current conceptions of scientific ethics provide less certain guidelines to behavior. The "getting it less wrong" perspective, for example, might deny the use of the term "science" (and the associated implied endorsement of the scientific community) to research that is carried out primarily to prove that something is so, and/or to further commercial objectives. To put it differently, the perspective would encourage thinking about distinguishing between "research" (which may be done for a variety of reasons, some legitimate and some perhaps less so) and "science", and endorse/defend only the latter. A failure to make this distinction has repeatedly put science in an ethically awkward position in recent years, particularly in connection with biomedical research.

The "getting it less wrong" perspective might also preclude the problematic tendency of contemporary science to lay claim to social resources on the grounds that it will, in the near term, alleviate human suffering or provide solutions to other human problems. Such claims provoke increasing (and appropriate) skepticism in the political and social arena as it becomes clearer and clearer that scientific progress bears no simple relation to human well-being. And this is inevitable. It is not the business of science to affirm or comfort or "fix". The latter may occur as a by-product of science (and frequently has), and the first two may perhaps as well, but the primary business of science is to question and challenge. It is dishonest, and will ultimately be counter-productive, to try and "sell" science any other way.

Perhaps the oldest and most persistently problematic ethical ambiguity in contemporary views of science relates to the question of the degree of responsibility that scientists have for the social consequences of their activities. Conceiving of science as the pursuit of "Truth", or of short-term human well-being, permits scientists a posture either of moral and ethical "neutrality" or of assumed virtue neither carefully thought through nor genuinely earned. Recognizing science as a process of the continual collective rewriting of stories requires instead, as I think appropriate, that the "players" be continually wrestling with the justifications (or lack thereof) both for the institution of playing and for the consequences of their own doing so.

Collective "getting it less wrong" re-embeds science in the human community, from which it derives and from which it has, of course, never actually been separate. It also potentially gives science a clear set of ethical mandates (or reveals a usually hidden and often ignored set), which includes those mentioned together with a deep respect for the importance of diversity. Science as collectively "getting it less wrong" thus raises the intriguing possibility of thinking of science itself as a moral system, one which has, by virtue not only of its products but also of its own character, a substantive role to play in the ongoing evolution of the human story of meaning and purpose. [an error occurred while processing this directive]