Science, scientists and others
I’ve been spending a lot of time on the March for Science web pages following the discussions, and sometimes chiming in. One of the questions that comes up periodically is for people to ask: “Is this march only for scientists, or can others come too”? Well, of course, many point out that nobody has ownership over science, and anyone who is curious, a science nerd, or who simply supports science is welcome. As we know, science depends on community and openness rather than exclusion, and many of us are motivated by wonder. Thus, it’s not surprising (although it is comforting) that we try to draw a large and inclusive circle.
Yet, having thought about this a little more, I’ve come to the conclusion that this approach is fundamentally the wrong way to answer the question: “Who should come”? Perhaps this seems odd, so let me explain what I mean here.
What is science?
Science is not simply what scientists do in a fancy lab with humming machines. Perhaps we’ve been fooled by the ubiquitous popular images around us, where we see scientists with arcane devices that bleep and flash. But, that’s ultimately trivial, even though it may be cool. (okay- it is totally cool. I always want a lab like that!). I mean, technology has gotten so good that it is possible for a high school student to edit and amplify genes using PCR. But, is dispensing a solution and pushing a button science? I’d imagine most of us would think not. What then, is science?
So now, let’s suppose this student is cooking an egg. She puts the egg in the pot first, because she knows that if she drops the egg in the boiling water it may crack, or it may splash her with boiling water. Not good! Then, she cooks the egg for a brief period of time and then plunges it in cold water quickly, because she knows (as did my grandmother who taught me to cook), that this prevents the outside of the yolk from turning green. So-she’s using her knowledge and experience to predict what would happen and she acts accordingly to achieve her desired end. Violá, science!
Us and them
What I am trying to say is this: science is way of knowing and of understanding the world. Of predicting what will happen when we do such and such a thing. In the most fundamental way possible, we do science every time we cook food, or decide what route would be the quickest or most efficient way home. When we play in the sand and realize that this much water gets it to stick together (no more, no less), we are scientists. Observation, causality, prediction, confirmation, revision. This, my friends, is science and all the rest is window dressing. We all do it. Every. Single. Day.
So now, when someone asks whether they should come to the march even if they are not a scientist, I think I should say: “We’re all scientists. Come. There is no us and them-there is only us”.