“Why Do People Need to be Interested in Science Anyway?”

This has been said before and better, but here is my reaction blog.

During a lukewarm and one-sided discussion on twitter about Brian Cox and populist science television, I was asked, “but why does it matter if people are interested in science?”

Why does it matter why people are interested in anything? As long as they can eat, sleep and feed themselves, why don’t they just spend the rest of the time pondering the perfect aim of their spit from a tower or staring at flickers while taking none of them in?

There is no economical gain for the world in me attempting to understand the stars. Wider branches of humanity will gain no new insights or intellectual revolutions from my personal attempts to comprehend the behaviour of butterflies or hadron colliders. 

I am passing the time until I have no more time to pass and my son inherits my telescope and a towers of books pencil marked and highlighter stained. 

So why, unless it is our professional pursuit, does it matter if any of us are interested in science? Here are the first five things that appeared in my mind. There are better list, please add what you think, these were the first ideas that sprang. 

  1. I enjoy having moments of understanding why things might be as they are. As I have watched my son over the last five years and seen his changing and sometimes errant ways, taking an interest in why he does what he does, reading through the current thinking of how brains develop and empathy blossoms, has hopefully helped me learn more on how to react and interact. In imagining the shortcomings in his infant brain I have attempted to realise where my ways of treating him may fall short. By trying to understand why children are as they are and we are as we are I think we can aim (we may miss) to be better people and to treat the problems of upbringing with greater grace and care. This extends to understanding why other people behave as they do. For practical purposes, there is an advantage in a society where people start to properly consider why people commit crime, abuse and deride.
  2. The late mid to late 20th century was a very good time to be human, now, with our rapidly increasing population and our lust for energy to power all around us from streetlights to tin openers, it is important to know where this came from. It is important to know that being human has not always been like this, that we are the lucky ones but that this “luck” was built on trial, error, experiment and evidence based thinking. History and science can teach us not to take for granted so much we are nonchalant about. Vaccination and clean water have changed the regularity with which we have to visit the churchyard. 
  3. Looking at how others have investigated nature and the universe helps us learn methods to investigate our day to day world. This may be in choosing medical treatments or cauliflowers, reading about science and rationalism has helped me learn how to question things. It has helped me learn how to mentally arm myself. We should know something of science so we can ask the right questions and understand the answers. So many of the things I use are the products of scientific and technological minds, I do not understand much of many of them, but I am trying to rise beyond my passivity and not take for granted great strides that have been made. (I have banged on about this before https://robinince.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/the-fascism-of-knowing-stuff/”>here.
  4. There is delight. Looking through telescopes, seeing images of nebulae, reading of natural selection and mulling over sponge crabs can give a sense of joy and intrigue. The more you wonder about what is around you and within you, the tiny creatures in your gut and the blue whales in the sea, the more the intrigue grows. Intrigue and questioning existence, wondering about self-consciousness, peering at snail shells and picking up earthworms can help rid you of the ennui of existence that can plague some people.
  5. All human beings should be made to watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, it is good to have a sense of our place in the universe and the fragility of life. 

To sum up, the main reasons I think I am interested in science are to improve my understanding of other people and myself, to enhance my thinking when making decisions and wishing to interrogate others, to give a sense of drama and narrative without resorting to the mystical or more than likely made up, because it is an engrossing way of spending time, because it creates an immense, perhaps infinite, landscape for the imagination and is an impetus to “do things”.   

From a selfish point of view, to hell with it, why know about science? You can eat cheesburgers, drive fast cars, leer, hoot and holler without reading about background microwave radiation, coral reefs and orchids. From a self-interested perspective, there may be more in it than you imagine. Life in the western world may be less precarious than it once was, but everything that can make us brittle and dust again is still harboured in and around us. A world of narcissists and sociopaths does not bode well for human evolution. 

To start the journey of understanding why we are where we are, to attempt to grasp the problems that our descendants may face if we are too casual or heartless with our implements and momentary gains seems to be a worthwhile and rewarding way of spending your free time. This is not just through science, it is through history, literature, philosophy and through a telescope. 

My apologies to the nihilists I have infuriated by writing this. 

Whatever happens, as things stand now, you will die and I will die. We’ll rot and the atoms that were us will be different things, they’ll be in the animate and inanimate, streams, moths and bark. What you may consider to be your atoms (on loan) maybe mixed up with your mortal enemies atoms, and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it, because YOU’ll be no more and neither will he. 

If you really think that because there is no grand purpose and meaning written in the blueprint of the universe then there is no point in doing anything, if you want to be that bleak teen or the human sneering at the back and feeling superior because “you’ve risen above it all”, well pecans to you.

My Importance of Being Interested tour is off to Radlett, Bristol, Shoreham, Isle of Wight soon, plus 40 further dates. All details HERE

Happiness through Science DVD incl Brian Cox commentary available HERE

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19 Responses to “Why Do People Need to be Interested in Science Anyway?”

  1. Gillian Thompson says:

    Thanks Robin, this is a wonderful post.

  2. I will never make any great contribution to science either, there again I will never make any great contribution to football, but I know which one I would rather be spending my with.

    I make a conscious decision to take my scope out for a nights viewing when there is football on the TV (skies permitting). Not only because I hate football but because there are far better things to see by looking up.

  3. celkali says:

    (Sorry my comments are long, I just figure if you take the time to write these posts out, maybe I should take the time to write my response)
    I’m a film major in screenwriting, but I had to take a math class last summer because I didn’t even qualify for high school level math, which was required for the school itself. I’m not good at math, I never was, nor my siblings- In my family, I was the best, and I got in the mid Cs. I like math, though, because the answer is always definite, it’s either correct or not, there is no in-between. I just have trouble getting to the right answer.
    Anywho, most of the students in the class thought I was going into some sort of science major because I just wouldn’t shut up about it. Once, the teacher asked for a big negative number. I gave her Absolute Zero, and then I went on to say why it’s absolute, and what a huge difference the 3 degrees in open space make and how that’s evidence of the Big Bang, and on and on for about five minutes. Someone asked what science major I was doing. I sort of looked down and said I wasn’t doing science, I just like it. They were a little taken aback that another person would read about any form of science for fun. To be fair to this person, I did get the big Wonders of the Universe book for Christmas and had been reading it nonstop since. I don’t really know why I read and watch things about space and science in general I just sort of do.
    Science and its subcategories matter to me as a human who has trouble seeing the world as a ‘normal’ person. It’s taken me to one of the most interesting aspects of mankind, the mind. What causes a mental illness, a disorder, or a simple way of thinking; stuff of that nature. I’ve concluded that the mind is like space, expanding over eternity and therefore will never be fully understood. This stemmed from my Aspergers diagnoses (just gonna go ahead and pull that card out again).
    One of the symptoms of AS is what I call ‘body language dyslexia’, where it’s very difficult to identify emotions. As an example, in the movie La Strada I confused Gelsomina for being bored the whole time when she was actually sad (my teacher had to tell me this in front of the whole class). I’ve taken to studying the interesting and expressive faces of TV and film and watching every little muscle tick to be able to mimic and identify the right signals. To be clear, there is no attraction or anything, I just really like faces and studying them. Which wraps around to the interest in mental illness, and also what causes each one; a physical malfunction of the brain, or something within the psyche?

    TL;DR – science has helped me to at least pretend to be a normal person and it’s really fun to blend it with philosophy. Also, I’m unreasonably self-conscious of my comment length.

  4. martin says:

    To my mind the most important reason is that your ebthusiasm for science will probably rub off on your son. So much of school science teaching is still lacking in passion that no enthusiasm for the subject is generated in the classroom.
    If everyone is interested in science it widens the pool from which the next generation of Einsteins, Newtons and Darwins can come.
    Your love of science is good for everyone.

  5. adsnads1976 says:

    Well said, sir. Science is at the core of understanding life on this daft spinning space rock. To take no interest is to put your fingers in your ears, screw your eyes shut and shout, “I’m not listening!”. Keep it up.

  6. Guy Chapman says:

    The thing about science is that it is genuinely useful in everyday life. If you understand the scientific method, you have a tool for separating truth from falsehood. This will help you avoid scams like free energy, homeopathy and so on, and will also help you contextualise the mass of contradictory information in the press (well, OK, the Daily Mail) – one day red wine makes you live longer and the next it gives you cancer, but if you can understand how science works you can see that both of these have some truth, and that neither is an absolute.

    Along with basic statistics, understanding the language and method of science is the single most important thing we can teach people at school.

  7. sam says:

    If you replace the word science with god, the similarities in this blog to religious teaching are startling, words like “rise above” are a real giveaway. This is not a criticism, I have no problem with you trying to find salvation through science, good luck.

    • Guy Chapman says:

      I sense the word “scientism” behind that comment. It’s fallacious. Religions look to a human interpretation of an empirically unverifiable higher power as the root of authority, science seeks to remove human interpretation from the equation and settle questions according to objectively testable fact.

      You have no idea how irritated scientists are that they don’t know how gravity works.

      • sam says:

        My point is, that wanting answers has a deeply religious origin, any science historian would tell you the deep religious connection, I don’t understand why you seem so threatened about that.

    • Sam, your use of a term like ‘salvation’, and phrases like “wanting answers has a deeply religious origin” annoy (rather than threaten) people like me, because they are not true! Studying science brings me knowledge and understanding, I’m not interested in anything that might be called salvation. I think religion started as a way of providing answers, all be it bad ones, to questions which rational people now seek to answer with scientific enquiry, not the other way round. Phrases like ‘rise above’ do not belong to any religion, they have normal, secular meaning – but then, people interpret what they read through their own experiences and prejudices.

      • sam says:

        Joyce, studying science is probably not as rational as you think, it is does have many echoes of western religion, I’m sorry if this annoys you. It may be irrational to want to go sunbathing in Grimsby in February, but that does not mean you can not use a map rationally to get to Grimsby

    • robinince says:

      religion has a rather arrogant position in declaring that anything that is about finding meaning, satisfaction, joy or wonder is “religious”. Loose and dull use of language, when I wrote this I knew someone would say “a bit like religion”, as if any position except nihilism is “a bit like being an evangelical/nun/mullah” etc etc

    • robinince says:

      as for “replace it with god”, sadly God has shown less mercy than those striving for better vaccinations, clean water etc through evidence based methods. (and then the follow up to this, if you want a nudge can be, “but scientists invented the atom bomb” and so it goes on)

      • sam says:

        Thanks for patronising nudge, but I prefer to reply in my own words, surprised you have a problem with someone noticing the echoes of Christianity in your language. Assuming that the person noticing it is somehow against clean water, or against science, its a bit lazy minded, maybe these things are to messy for some. Seems ridicules to me to think Christianity would not have some effect on language, or the work ethic of science.

      • robinince says:

        again, this was not ALL about you, this was from chats I had with other people and reactions from a variety of places.

  8. Great post! Children are born scientists, great at asking questions about everything. That’s why we are bringing the wonderful world of science to 2-4 year olds. http://Www.miniprofessors.co.uk

  9. tcbmcleish says:

    This is a wonderful post, as are several of the subsequent comments, especially the moving perspective from Celkali. I think there is something lying deeper here around the role that science might play if only we were to free it, and ourselves, from the thought-cage into which we currently confine it.

    If we had treated music in a similar way the concerts would be lab-coated affairs between experts taking place only behind closed doors in conservatoires, apart from maybe the occasional sound bite of a tune, sanitised for public comment.

    Science (or the long human story we now call science) is healing. I dont mean “leads to better medicines” – I mean that this imaginative, romantic, creative, communal project can reconcile us to a natural world that without it can be frightening and harmful (and which we too can harm – irreparably). There is wonder (as Robin has pointed out elsewhere) for everyone here, and an integral thread in all our growing up, both as individuals and communities.

  10. sam says:

    Never said it was all about me! But I do feel some strange pride to be accused of narcissism, by a successful stand up comedian.

  11. Jan says:

    As a physics graduate student I started to study physics being an idealist. I enjoy learning new subjects about physics and math but at the same time society makes it harder and harder to get a job in such areas in academia.
    Im interested in the mathematical foundations of quantum field theory I find math and physics addictive but at the same time I feel that that is a strong disadvantage in order to become a professional and to achieve a good personal future.

    Right now I’m considering to use all the math that I have learned to become a quantitative analyst. That doesn’t has to do with narcissism but only with the fact that I care about my personal wellbeing more than about abstract ideals about human progress and personal curiosity.

    With 7 billion in the planet progress is going to happen anyway. We won’t live forever we won’t upload our consciousness on a cloud and there are many other ideas that are constrained by nature.

    I believe that the free market and economics takes precedence over science mainly because the free market is the one that allows science to progress faster in some areas like biomedical research and are more likely to provide a better standard of living on the long run unlike the 20 billion yearly budget the US government spends on biomedical research.

    The budget to send a Mars mission was discussed to be around 50 billion, that is, there are people like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates right now that could afford the whole Mars mission alone, or a couple of billionaires that could do that. They could advance civilisation and achieve the impossible.
    Bottom line I guess being a CEO or a broker and then investing to do good can be more effective and more beneficial to science in every sense than becoming a scientists.

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