Why Science Remains Culturally Irrelevant

"Why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?"

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"I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did," lamented original moonwalker Neil Armstrong, who passed away at the age of 82 last week. Implicit to his lament is the rather unsettling question of why -- what is it that has held mankind back?

That's precisely what the great Richard Feynman explored when he took the stage at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964 and delivered a lecture titled "What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society," published in the altogether excellent The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library), titled after the famous film of the same name.

Feynman shares in Armstrong's dirge:

We are all saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared to what we feel are the potentialities of human beings. People in the past, in the nightmare of their times, had dreams for the future. And now that the future has materialized we see that in many ways the dreams have been surpassed, but in still more ways many of our dreams of today are very much the dreams of people of the past.

He attributes much of this disconnect to a profound lack of mainstream understanding of and enthusiasm for science, making a case for the wonder of science:

... people -- I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people -- are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way ... And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that -- why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?

Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, Mr. Bernardini* said we shouldn't teach wonders but knowledge.

It may be a difference in the meaning of the words. I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.

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He goes on to take a jab at just how unscientific pop culture is -- and how culturally condoned certain unscientific beliefs are:

... as I'd like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: 'I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?' Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers?

[...]

I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe. Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein's theory to people who don't understand Newtonian mechanics, but we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing, or on astrology -- on what is the scientific view of astrology today.

The solution he proposes pits good science writing and critical debate as the necessary prick in the filter bubble of public interest:

I think that we must mainly write some articles. Now what would happen? The person who believes in astrology will have to learn some astronomy. The person who believes in faith healing might have to learn some medicine, because of the arguments going back and forth; and some biology. In other words, it will be necessary that science become relevant.

[...]

And then we have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own point of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that we are too polite. There was in the past an era of conversation on these matters. It was felt by the church that Galileo's views attacked the church. It is not felt by the church today that the scientific views attack the church. Nobody is worrying about it. Nobody attacks; I mean, nobody writes trying to explain the inconsistencies between the theological views and the scientific views held by different people today-or even the inconsistencies sometimes held by the same scientist between his religious and scientific beliefs.

(Granted, since 1964, we've seen the rise of "the Four Horsemen of New Atheism" --Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris -- who, along with countless scientists, consistently ensure a constructive lack of "politeness" in the debate.)

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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