Science and Society | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Science and Society

Most Canadians are unaware of the profound effect science has on their daily lives.

Most Canadians are unaware of the profound effect SCIENCE has on their daily lives. While politicians, labour leaders and business people take actions which influence our lives, most of these actions pale in significance when compared to the long-term effects of experiments going on in laboratories around the world. Consider the impact of a few of the discoveries that have occurred in a single generation: polio vaccine, kidney and heart transplants, transistors, jet planes, space travel, nuclear weapons, GENETIC ENGINEERING, cloning, antibiotics, tranquillizers, microwave heating, computers, LASERS, PLASTICS, TELEVISION, contraceptives, test-tube babies and the extinction of smallpox.

North American society exhibits a puzzling dichotomy: we have the highest level of LITERACY, the most widely available higher EDUCATION and the broadest exposure to information (via print and electronic media) in history, yet there is a remarkable ignorance of science and TECHNOLOGY. Only a handful of NEWSPAPERS and MAGAZINES employ full-time science or medical reporters, while primetime television is virtually devoid of science. Tabloids that publish sensational stories of monsters, UFO landings and miracle cancer cures are much more widely circulated than science magazines. In fact, Canada lacks a national science magazine of interest to the general reader. Québec is the exception, with the popular Québec Science. This broad ignorance of science and technology is reflected in our elected representatives: over 80% of all members of Parliament come from the law or business - 2 professions whose members are notoriously ignorant of science. Yet these leaders daily make decisions in which a considerable amount of scientific and technical expertise is required. Our society readily accepts the products of scientific innovation but remains virtually ignorant of their source. In order to understand how this situation has arisen, we must look back to our evolutionary roots.

Human Evolution

Our prehistoric, protohuman ancestors were not gifted with the survival attributes of many of their mammalian contemporaries (speed, strength, size, armour, fangs, camouflage or claws). Their genetically dictated survival strategy rested primarily on a complex brain which, with its capacity to remember, imagine and think in abstract terms, freed early humans from the tight constraints of instinct and gave them choice. Nevertheless, there were numerous situations in which the rational, analytical functions of the brain were too slow and the capacity to react instantly, without conscious thought, had an important survival value. The imprint of both evolutionary developments remains with us as we struggle with the duality of human personality: the rational, analytical side that often conflicts with the emotional, nonrational, visceral impulse. The power of the human brain was unprecedented in the history of life on the planet. Homo sapiens evolved language and the ability to transmit knowledge from generation to generation. Not only did this ability compensate for the lack of other physical attributes but it also enabled human beings to develop CULTURE. Cultural evolution was thousands of times more rapid than biological evolution.

In their attempts to impose order on the apparent chaos of events, early humans began with the recognizable regularities in the world: day and night, the seasons, TIDES, plant succession, animal MIGRATION. Their explanations of these regularities and other, more unusual events were embodied in mythologies and usually referred to divine forces as the ultimate cause. World views had to be all-embracing and, therefore, were vulnerable to disruption by events which simply could not be explained.

Our complex brain has been a spectacularly "successful" survival strategy, based on the numbers of our species and the territory we occupy. However, while we as a species have transcended the constraints of day-to-day survival, we nevertheless behave as if that remains our dominant priority. We are still compelled to reproduce, accumulate material goods and fight rivals as if we lived under the same conditions that existed tens of thousands of years back. In the Western world, the ultimate expression of the human brain is its technological inventions, which have become so powerful and fast that they now exceed the brain's ability to control them.

Evolution of Science

In the 17th century, Francis Bacon recognized that "knowledge [scientia ] is power." Through science, Bacon thought, we could come to understand how God works and, armed with these insights, could carry out the biblical injunction to dominate and subdue nature. Bacon saw science in the service of God and foresaw no conflict with the established church. Early scientists perceived that nature reflects an overall design, obeys recognizable principles and laws, and follows a wonderful regularity - all of which pointed to the divine work of God. Thus, understanding nature only increased one's sense of the greatness of God. The scientific method admits to the impossibility of making sense of the entire cosmos with a single, all-inclusive explanation. Instead, science concentrates on a very small part of nature, isolating it as fully as possible from everything else.

The power of this way of knowing soon became apparent as astronomers, such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, began to question cosmic dogma. Their work led to the heliocentric theory of planetary movement, which clashed with the notion of Earth as the centre of the universe. In the 19th century, geologist Charles Lyell countered church estimates of Earth's age by proposing that the planet might be tens of millions, if not billions, of years old. In 19th-century Canada, the descriptive approach of natural history provided an ideal activity for the deeply religious English communities. There was no history of experimental investigation in this young country but there was a strong sense of colonial status. However, North America was a new frontier with untold and untapped "resources." Science was valued insofar as it could aid directly in the exploitation of these resources; eg, by identifying the locations of ore deposits, geological surveys provided valuable information for a mining industry, just as descriptions of plants and animals became an inventory of potentially useful biological organisms. The thrust of Canadian "science" thus was highly descriptive and was based on the conviction that by meticulous cataloguing of God's works, unexpected insights would be obtained.

Charles Darwin then shook the Christian notion of man's special place on Earth with the proposal that, like all other life forms, humans had evolved from ancestral species. In each instance (the heliocentric theory, geological age, evolution, etc) the battle which took place between church dogma and scientific theory ended with the confirmation of the validity of scientific insights, while having a secondary effect of reducing the church's sphere of influence. Science came to be freed not only from the constricting bonds of dogma but also from considerations of morality.

In Canada, one of the leading opponents of Darwin's ideas was Sir J.W. DAWSON, an eminent geologist and principal of McGill University. Dawson vigorously attacked Darwin's key proposal that evolution proceeded by the gradual accumulation of genetic change over long periods of time. Dawson argued that the fossil record did not support this notion - the changes in fossils seemed to occur suddenly. Ironically, Dawson's arguments lost to the forces of Darwinism, yet today his very evidence is accepted and used to support a modern theory that evolution does occur suddenly in major jumps, rather than by slow incremental change.

The scientific method, of necessity, is "reductionist" in that its power comes from focusing on a small part of nature. The success of this approach suggested that the whole could be inferred from the sum of its parts. For example, researchers in PHYSICS were driven by Newton's faith that, as the layers of complexity in nature were stripped away, we would ultimately arrive at the fundamental particle of which all matter is made, and from that elementary entity, the entire cosmos would eventually be comprehensible.

But early in the 20th century, physics underwent a profound philosophical upheaval when Albert Einstein introduced the "Alice-in-Wonderland" concept of relativity, where mass and energy are interchangeable, and a universe in which what we see depends on our point of view. Werner Karl Heisenberg further clouded the Newtonian dream by pointing out that, in studying nature, the investigator intrudes in a way that alters the phenomenon under observation; ie, we alter even subatomic particles in the attempt to measure them.

Niels Bohr's new theory of the atom altered the picture of electrons orbiting nuclei like planets around a sun, to one of clouds of electrons in which the density of the cloud reflected the probability that an electron would be found in that region. Thus, the behaviour of subatomic particles is neither absolute nor fixed. Furthermore, at each increase in complexity of matter, new properties emerge which could not have been predicted from the properties of the constituent parts. Thus, while a great deal is known about the atomic properties of oxygen and hydrogen, very little of that information is useful for predicting what their properties will be when combined in a water molecule.

Clearly, a reductionist approach cannot provide adequate information about the structure or properties of matter; still less does it allow for the control of natural phenomena. Unfortunately, these philosophical insights have not percolated from physics to the other natural sciences. Much of BIOLOGY, both cellular and ecological, is still predicated on the principle of understanding the whole by studying its isolated parts. The limitations of the reductionism of science become apparent when the theory is applied. The untenable notion that we can "manage" SALMON or FORESTS, as if they were cows or tomatoes, is an expression of faith in the reductionism of science, yet the results of our attempts put the lie to that faith.

Modern Science

One of the most important aspects of modern science has been its close association with industrial and military activities; the primary stimuli for its growth and support have been global crises. This pattern is especially true in Canada where, as we have already noted, "science" had been concerned primarily with cataloguing the wondrous storehouse of nature. While most technology was imported, there were exceptions, such as the breeding of Marquis WHEAT at the turn of the century. As Omond SOLANDT has noted, modern Canadian INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH, innovations and development were closely tied to the needs of the Allies in WWII. The growth of HIGH TECHNOLOGY industries in nuclear power, telecommunications, computers and aerospace was possible because of the support of military interests through the Defence Research Board.

From its origins as an indulgence by aristocrats or as the pure curiosity of university scholars, science has become the source of ideas for technology and INDUSTRY, a multibillion-dollar activity spewing forth a cornucopia of weapons and consumer items. The enormous proliferation of the scientific profession in the latter part of this century is illustrated by the fact that "of all scientists who ever lived, 90% are still alive and publishing today." Before this century, the interval between a discovery and its application was usually measured in decades; that interval has now been reduced practically to zero. The rapidity with which innovations such as chemically modified female hormones (eg, ESTROGEN) for oral consumption, lasers and transistors have been adapted for use attests to the speed of application of new ideas. In some cases, systems for using phenomena precede their actual discovery. For example, while BLACK HOLES have been extensively discussed by theoretical physicists and none has yet been proved to exist, already a proposal has been made to harness them to produce energy. Because of the intricate relationship between industry, jobs and the economy, it is often found that upon detection of a potential hazard (such as an environmental carcinogen or occupational risk), the burden of proof rests with the potential victim. Usually this means that there must be a convincing body of proof before corrective action is taken. Canada's difficulty in stimulating action on US-caused ACID RAIN illustrates the problems of taking political action, even when the data are very clear.

In society, the impact of television, birth-control pills or computers ripples far beyond the immediate value of the technology itself. In this century, science and technology are creating problems for which there are no precedents and which are altering our very concepts of society and humanity. For example, in MEDICINE, the major health problems of malnutrition, infection and sepsis have been effectively controlled in N America. Medical research, therefore, is turning to the treatment of non-life-threatening problems (psychiatric disorders, herpes, cosmetic surgery, etc) and the consequences of effective medical treatment (eg, retinal detachment in diabetics, congenital defects, diseases of old age). Hearts were transplanted before there was an accepted definition of DEATH, while sophisticated life-support technologies raise the dilemma of quality of life, medical priorities and euthanasia. The ability to recover human eggs, fertilize them in vitro and implant the embryos into a recipient womb now bypasses all biological constraints to parenthood and introduces hitherto undreamed-of legal and moral questions.

Our ability to escape the pull of Earth's gravity has brought outer space within human reach. To whom does this new frontier belong? Can we claim new bodies, such as asteroids or the MOON, in the same way that explorers claimed new continents, by setting foot or capsule and planting a flag? Is outer space a zone to be fought over and in which any nation can park industrial debris or establish new generations of weapons?

The explorations of astrophysicists, eg, the debate over whether the universe is closed or open, are full of philosophical implications for humanity as well. In a closed universe, there is sufficient mass to bring expansion of the universe to a halt 30 billion years after a big bang and to induce its collapse back in another 30 billion. Thus, our present universe would be only the latest in a series of explosions and contractions extending back forever. In an open universe the big bang could only have occurred once, so the universe will continue to expand forever. Of equal philosophical importance is the search for signals indicating the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, has been prompted by speculations on the statistical probability that, given the number of planets in the universe with conditions comparable to those in the early history of Earth, the evolution of life is highly probable. But demonstration of intelligent life elsewhere will have enormous repercussions for those who accept that human beings were specially created in the image of God or those who hold the notion that we are unique.

Given the limited view provided by scientific insights, we should have learned to be extremely cautious when applying new knowledge to manipulate nature. In this half of the century this caution is becoming especially necessary in the field of GENETICS. We have come to identify DNA as the actual chemical material of heredity, the blueprint that dictates the hereditary properties of all organisms. The structure of DNA has been discovered and the principles whereby it stores and transmits information delineated. Molecular biologists have developed tools to isolate specific sequences of DNA, to read the information contained in them, to synthesize identical replicas and to insert them into virtually any living organism. Genetic engineering, the ability to manipulate the very stuff that determines our special qualities, is now a reality, fraught with potential benefits and hazards.

Perhaps no greater challenge exists than in the creation, by humans, of a technology that could conceivably exceed the intelligence of its creators. Computers with ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) are now accepted by computer scientists as a real possibility. With the arrival of genuine thinking machines, we shall reach a new stage in evolution - from biological to cultural to machine intelligence. For, just as human intellect produced an acceleration in cultural evolution, AI will accelerate information processing because of its enormous storage capacity and speed. Human neurons transmit signals at about 100 m/s; computer commands travel at the speed of light. Human performance is disrupted by fatigue, sleep, illness, memory loss, emotional upset and hunger; computers can perform continuously 24 hours a day. Humans must begin each new generation with a prolonged period of education and training; computers will be able to transfer all of their accumulated knowledge to improved machines at the speed of light. The long-term implications of AI become staggering for it will be a technology that will rapidly evolve and will soon exceed our comprehension.

Nothing illustrates more the terrible dilemma of human inventiveness than nuclear weapons. The release of vast amounts of energy by splitting the atom was an exciting corroboration of the predictions of fundamental physics. The controlled release of energy by atomic fission was a dramatic demonstration of the potential of basic research to contribute to society in a practical way. However, the Allied effort in harnessing the atom was motivated by the fear that German physicists would use it to produce a bomb. Canada played a major role in the development of the first atomic bomb as a full partner with Britain and the US (many British scientists worked with Canadian colleagues at the CHALK RIVER NUCLEAR LABORATORIES, Ont, and after the war became part of the daring venture to develop the CANDU reactor). The successful detonation of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, 16 July 1945, ushered in a new era of destruction that depended on the inventive abilities of scientists and engineers. Today the nuclear arsenal contains weapons that operate on the same principle that allows the sun to burn (NUCLEAR FUSION). Now, the nuclear arsenal contains enough explosive potential to destroy every human being on the planet. The arms race has been "rationalized" by military planners with an appropriate acronym, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction). Yet the reality of nuclear weapons is that if even a small proportion perform as expected and hit their targets, neither side will be able to claim a victory as an electromagnetic surge knocks out most electrical systems to create chaos, while the resulting debris will so blacken the atmosphere that the surface temperature of the planet will plummet (thus creating a so-called "nuclear winter").

What becomes clear is that, while the scientific analytical part of the brain has created terrible weapons, we are impelled to use them by more primitive impulses of self-defence, territoriality and emotion. Each leader of a country, however articulate and reasonable normally, is ultimately a complex individual whose biases, fears and areas of ignorance will affect the way the weapons are used. Modern technology, the crowning achievement of the human brain, has reached a scale of size and speed that is literally out of human control. Thus, nuclear-tipped missiles can now hit targets anywhere on the planet within 10-15 minutes.

Even with a perfect defence system that detects and identifies an enemy missile within seconds of its launch, the problems of human reaction time, complex emotional responses to the event, and the need to assimilate the information and formulate a response at several levels of command preclude a rational, considered decision in the response time allowed by the weapons. Thus, as US President Ronald Reagan admitted in April 1984, weapons such as his proposed "star-wars" machines in outer space act too fast for human control and will have to be trusted to computers. As the technology increases in speed and complexity, not only do we lose control, but the probability of an accidental firing of a weapon through human or machine error increases proportionately. Nuclear weapons graphically illustrate the dilemma of technology - once invented and used, there is no going back; the situation is irreversible. Profound consequences usually become apparent only much later.

Science and Morality

How, then, are we to deal with science and its applications in a way that will maximize the quality of our lives, while minimizing detrimental effects on the environment and other people? Victory on any specific issue, such as acid rain, nuclear weapons or PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), will not have affected the primary factor generating the problem in the first place. There must be a fundamental shift in perspective that will come from a recognition that as long as we see ourselves as separate from nature, superior to all other beings, compelled to use every "resource" and capable of understanding and controlling all of nature through science and technology, we will never escape the cycle of harmful or destructive results. Scientific research provides powerful insights that lead to the capacity to interfere with and control a part of nature. But the necessity of seeing nature in bits and pieces precludes any ability to evaluate the effect of a manipulation on the rest of nature. Science is a way of knowing, but there are many others (music, art, literature, etc). Science is not in the business of finding absolute truth; instead, it is constantly disproving or modifying its current theories. The assumption that human control is not subject to unpredictable or uncontrollable natural forces or human fallibility dooms us.

All technological designs and plans are predicated on the notion that human beings will respond rationally in all predictable situations. Yet anyone who has participated in a debate over ABORTION, nuclear power, political ideology or religion realizes that rationality plays a small role in shaping our actions. Technologies cannot be "foolproof" unless they eliminate the "fool" who, as HAL the computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey realized, is any fallible human being. People get sick, emotionally disturbed, intoxicated, tired; in short, we are distractable and no one can predict the foolish behaviour that may result. Unless technology is designed with that insight, it will remain prone to breakdown. It is not clear how that can be done; however, without a shift in perspective before examination of the challenge, it will not be possible.

The way to change profoundly thinking about science and technology must come from a broad public understanding of the foundations of the scientific enterprise, its basic methodology and its limitations, and of the social context within which it is used. As long as science is effectively removed from the social reality of most people, that change will not take place. As long as society continues to fragment its activities into spheres of expertise distinguished by special knowledge and jargon, we are effectively barred from affecting those activities. Science must not continue to remain in the jurisdiction of experts and people with vested interests, for theirs is a severely restricted perspective. Just as military leaders must, in a democracy, submit to the dictates of the popularly elected government, so those who apply science should come under the control of our political representatives who, in turn, must be capable of understanding the scientific and technical counsel of experts. The process of making science a political priority comes from the bottom up, impressed on candidates for office by an informed and concerned electorate.

Science Education

Canada's educational system pays little attention to the need to educate future lay citizens as well as prospective science students in science and technology. In the first national survey of science education in Canada, the SCIENCE COUNCIL OF CANADA documented serious deficits from elementary to high schools. The study pointed to problems in both teaching personnel and facilities. Across Canada, over half of all early (grades 1-6) schoolteachers have had no university level MATHEMATICS courses, while three-quarters had no science.

In the middle years (grades 7-9), one-third of all teachers have had no math or science since high school. In the senior years, while 95% of teachers have had some university level science, over one-third had taken their last course over a decade ago. In science, experimental observation is a critical part of the activity, yet in elementary schools, fewer than one in 5 teachers even have occasional access to a science room. In consequence, science is taught sporadically, often varying from school to school. These conditions are in striking contrast to the Japanese school system, in which science is a priority subject from primary school on. In Canadian high schools, science courses are designed for the small percentage of graduates who will go on to enrol in science programs in universities and technical schools. There is considerable emphasis on mathematics as a prerequisite for doing science, with the result that students who have difficulty with math often conclude that science is simply beyond their grasp. Eventually, being unable to do math leads to the conclusion that science does not affect one in daily life.

The results of the above deficiencies and others, such as inadequate textbooks, lab equipment, etc, are that science is rarely taught adequately (if at all) in elementary schools across Canada; students who are high achievers and science enthusiasts are not challenged by science courses; very little is taught about the interactions among science, technology and society; Canadian students are taught very little about scientific and technological advances made in this country; from an early age, girls are turned away from science and do not see career opportunities in science and technology. This situation has led the Science Council to endorse a concept of science for all, stated by the US National Science Teachers Association: "Every child shall study science every day of every year."

In order to achieve a scientifically literate society, the Science Council warns of the hazards of the current situation and strongly urges the adoption of 47 recommendations which would radically change the teaching of science without requiring major overhauling of the educational system. The lack of scientific literacy reflects itself in the priorities of upper management in the electronic and print media as well as in politicians. If a society is to consider seriously the place of science and technology, then it must have an aware public. Although all the recommendations have been widely accepted by both federal and provincial governments, only low-cost changes have been implemented.

Science education should not be restricted to knowing the definition of terms, principles and the latest theories. The greatest lesson from science for all aspects of culture is its skepticism, its demand for a rigorous presentation and analysis of data. Canadians today consume information at an astonishing rate. By the criteria of hours of television watched, newspapers, books and magazines purchased and years of schooling, we have access to information to an unprecedented degree, although most of this information will ultimately be judged wrong, trivial or unimportant. Scientific skepticism demands more than repeating an anecdote or referring to something "I saw on TV" or "I read." Science does not accept as truth a statement based simply on a television program or a printed source. The profound thrust of science education must be to inculcate this rigour and skepticism in the INFORMATION AGE.


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Science and Society

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