Science shows us the way to refine thinking

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Article Date: 
Dec 02 2012, 2157

The synthesis between scientific spirit and humanism is necessary to refine thinking. Educating the common man about science is one of the ways to enrich the thinking process. For some science humanists, science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
Carl Sagan, the science humanist and the author of The demon-haunted world, believed in maintaining an essential balance between two attitudes: an openness to new ideas, no matter how counter-intuitive, and the most ruthlessly sceptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new.
Some people say that scientists are arrogant, as they impose their theories on the rest of us. They say scientists are as prejudiced as anyone else is. Scientists have also been branded as the “destroyers of the awe and wonder of nature”. Sagan’s counter argument is that “scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate nature and take seriously what they find.” Scientists deal with reality. Some people think scientists are prejudiced and biased. They ignore the fact that reality is random and chaotic and, in its very essence, unknowable. In other words, a scientist does not feel her/his responsibility as a scientist. A scientist can’t distinguish false idols from the real things.
It is this periodic discarding of theories, says Sagan that is the source of the revolutions in science. Facts don’t change. Only the theories that explain them change. Science thrives on errors. It is the job of a scientist to correct or discard the theories. Sagan says that we will always be mired in error. The most each generation can hope for is to reduce the error bar a little and add to the body of data to which error bars apply. The error bar presented along with the data, said Sagan, is a quiet but insistent reminder that no knowledge is complete or perfect.
He reminds us of the fact that science has built-in error correcting machinery. It is used to exercise self-criticism. Whenever we are exercising self-criticism, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition. One of the avoidable causes of human misery is our ignorance about ourselves. It is for us not to hear the siren songs of unreason, howsoever sonorous these may be.
Sagan was an optimist. “If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a universe, does science do us a disservice by deflating our conceits”, he asks. He firmly believed that the “Universe belongs to those who, at least to some degree, have figured it out.” He liked to live in a universe that included much that is unknown and, at the same time much that is knowable. For him, a fully known universe is static, dull and boring. A universe that is unknowable is not a fit place for thinking beings.
The ideal universe for us, he believed, is very much like the one we inhabit. Sagan’s message for us: It is only the candles lit by the scientific method that stand between us and the gathering darkness. And as Albert Einstein said, the whole science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific
Research, Jaipur)