Science in all its mystery
Here’s evolutionary biologist and psychology professor David P. Barash writing an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times and calling out a subtle but significant and damaging deception perpetrated by scientists en masse when they talk to students and the general public.
Specifically, he decries the way scientists tend to generate, even if implicitly, the idea that “we already know everything,” when in fact most things remain deeply mysterious, and it’s this very mystery that has always driven scientific inquiry.
I have been teaching and doing research at the university level for more than 40 years, which means that for more than four decades, I have been participating in a deception — benevolent and well intentioned, to be sure, but a deception nonetheless. As a scientist, I do science, and as a teacher and writer, I communicate it. That’s where the deception comes in. When scientists speak to the public or to students, we talk about what we know, what science has discovered. Nothing wrong with this. After all, we work hard deciphering nature’s secrets and we’re proud whenever we succeed. But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there’s a whole lot more that we don’t know.
Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts, suggesting that “knowing” science is a matter of memorizing … It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don’t know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics. There’s plenty to communicate because we are surrounded by mysteries, far more than are dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy.
— David P. Barash, “Science, such a sweet mystery,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2012