Science’s Rightful Place

D.C. Science / by Edit Staff /

The scientific community responds to Seed's Rightful Place initiative.

George Dyson
Historian of technology

Science’s rightful place is to question all assumptions and to assume nothing to be unquestionable. Granting this rightful place to science, however, does not extinguish mystery, which will always retain its place.

“The main Business of Natural Philosophy is to argue from Phænomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause,” explained Isaac Newton in the final edition of his Opticks, “and tho’ every true Step made in this Philosophy brings us not immediately to the Knowledge of the first Cause, yet it brings us nearer to it.”

Science gives meaning to our lives, yet leaves us to ponder the meaning of life. “Our earthly existence, since it in itself has a very doubtful meaning, can only be a means toward the goal of another existence,” argued Kurt Gödel, the greatest mathematical logician of the 20th century. “The idea that everything in the world has meaning is, after all, precisely analogous to the principle that everything has a cause, on which the whole of science rests.”

Science was perhaps never closer to its rightful place than at the beginnings of the Royal Society, when a small group of radical intellectuals and experimentalists, including a number holding high positions within the church, began meeting over drinks, and gained the ear (and purse) of the King. Science was about to taste power and wealth, and the world would never be the same. But, above all, science was about to become fun.

“Intuition of truth,” wrote Robert Southwell to William Petty, on 28 September 1687, shortly before assuming the presidency of the Royal Society, “may not Relish soe much as Truth that is hunted downe.”

Martha Farah
Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
University of Pennsylvania

Science’s rightful place is of course in energy, health, and environmental policy as well as scientific research and science education — all of which is obvious, even if it was ignored by the last administration. Less obvious is the place of science in a wide array of other human endeavors that are increasingly being illuminated by cognitive science and neuroscience, including education more generally, employment, business, criminology, and the law. The sciences of mind and brain have advanced dramatically over the past decade and can now help explain, predict, and enhance human behavior in many contexts. Let us hope that the new administration will recognize and take advantage of the potential of these new sciences for the public good.

Michael Gazzaniga
Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind
University of California Santa Barbara

The fundamental issue is to keep up front and clear the distinction between “science” and “scientists.” The former is the single most important invention and discipline of the human mind. The latter group has all of the petty problems of every other social group in the history of the world.  Part of science is to keep a cold eye on all possibilities, and keep enquiry open on all questions. The best way to achieve slow but steady progress is to build upon settled science, not current whim and claim. The climate urging practical payoff in all that we do must start to recede and to give way to unabashed curiosity about the unknown. In due course, the practical will emerge.

Originally published January 30, 2009

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