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Why is scientific education for non-scientists important?

March 29, 2007

I assumed the answers to this were commonly held, but maybe it is important to attempt an explanation. The value I see is how science develops two habits: skepticism and skillful handling of evidence. The reason these skills are mandetory is Democracy.

A habit of skepticism teaches us to ask a lot of questions. Practice improves our ability to ask fertile questions. There is a knack to finding questions that lead to interesting answers.

Finding and weighing evidence is a novel, real-time affair. What is evidence? Who is the authority on certain kinds of evidence? How can one test evidence? How can we be sure about cause-and-effect chains holding up over time? 

There are many kinds of evidence:

  • Authority
  • Experience
  • Logic/Reason
  • Modeling
  • Aesthetic
  • Empirical

Science gives as tools for apprehending many types evidence. 

Science teaches us that authorities are a fast and important way to get information (“don’t reinvent the wheel”), but they are not the only way.  Each of us can dream up how we think things are, devise a test of the implications of our assumptions and go out and get our hands dirty with an experiment.

Science shows us how authorities have reasons for asking questions the way they do; the form of these questions shapes the answers. 

Science gives us a body of useful knowledge, technology.

Science teaches us to frame questions at the practical limits of our body of knowledge and our ability to test the evidence.  Scientists don’t spend much professional time on questions where there is not background knowledge to build on (or overthrow) or any tools of empirical study.  “What does God think of me now?” isn’t going to get peer-reviewed grant funding any time soon. 

Science education for non-scientists teaches us to hear what scientists are saying.

And… 

You might argue that even given these benefits, science is still the domain of scientists and others need not be bothered.

“Democracy” renders this argument immature and naïve.  In a society where each of us is responsible for decision making, then each of us is responsible for intelligent decision making.  That requires that we reliably weigh evidence, balance claims of authority, make hypothesies and follow through on the supporting or contrary evidence.

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