Science Should Be For Everyone

I think we need to retire the notion that science is somehow distinguishable from the broader pursuit of truthful knowledge, and that the people who do it are somehow essentially unique. For those of you reading this who are scientists, this might be a puzzling bone to pick but I assure you: the rest of us almost always feel left out of science, and this will continue to be the case unless you work diligently to include us.

The speed with which we move into the future depends on the extension of scientific thinking to the billions of people around the World who have yet to embrace it. This is to say only that I believe we can all work together better on moral and technological projects if we are all operating from the same shared commitment to the truth, the same epistemic premises and processes. Most humans alive today are not. There is an obvious, low-hanging layer of converts to be won: the masses of religious people in the frequently forgotten extremities of modernity. And the good news is that the global economy’s progressive annexing of Africa, Asia, and South America will set the stage for this conversion.

But putting a smartphone in someone’s hands, a smartphone that only works because quantum theory works, does not automatically disabuse its recipient of ancient prejudices around truth. We have already seen in the West that it is entirely possible for the most connected and technologically advanced people in human history to continue believing in angels. And I don’t think it’s unlikely that the rest of humanity will also continue to uncomfortably balance contradictory worldviews as it gentrifies.

There are two recommendations I can offer for practically combatting this. First, scientists should de-jargonize science and do whatever else they can to make it more accessible and understandable. They should not punish other scientists who package themselves and their work for mass consumption. Novelists who write impenetrably do so out of an insecurity about their own intelligence and the power of their insights, and so too do scientists. Being elitist is being an asshole.

After not getting skipped a grade forward in math after 7th grade, I permanently internalized the notion that I was not a “science or math person,” as if such a person exists. Of course there are exceptional minds for math or science, but I believe that I’m not alone in “getting the message” early on that these fields were just not for me. The educational system should do everything it can to make students feel that they are capable of thinking and operating scientifically in life, no matter how easy or difficult stoichiometry is for them. We too often conflate computational talent with scientific aptitude. To think scientifically is not, in truth, about speed or intuition, but these are the functional talents to which we attach all the plaudits. By contrast, we should reward students for developing a commitment to the truth, an integrity of process in their thinking, and a willingness to change one’s mind on the basis of evidence.

Second, scientists must be more modest and realistic when claiming to understand complex systems that science and technology cannot yet capably tackle. Behavioral economics, neuro-everything, and technocratic public policy all foretell a future in which we will be able to apply scientific methods to better manage social, economic, and political life. These are exciting frontiers for science. But the consilience has yet to arrive, and it will only do so slowly and over a longer time scale than many scientists probably expect. For now, and even as science’s powers expand, modesty, integrity, and a commitment to rigor must prevail. Scientists must recognize that we cannot yet predictively model something as simple as what song a given person might like with much accuracy. We will get there, but modeling sprawling, chaotic systems such as the economy and culture is far beyond our current reach. The arts and humanities still have plenty to offer us, and though they will hopefully become more continuous with science, their special gifts to us can never be replaced by empiricism.

Both of these prescriptions come down to humility. Science must be for everyone. Scientists, as the custodians of the tradition, must demote their egos to a love of the truth, which belongs equally to all of those who it governs.