Science Is What Makes Us Human

In his inaugural address, President Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place.” Following up on that, the Corporate Masters have launched the Rightful Place Project, asking bloggers, readers, and scientists to define the rightful place of science.

Many of these responses will focus on narrow matters of policy, but as many have said with regard to the economic crisis, this is no time for timid measures. It’s a time for big thoughts and bold action. With that in mind, here’s my take on the question of science’s rightful place, which, in the end, boils down to defining what science is:

Science is the most fundamental human activity there is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that science is what makes us human

Some people will object to this claim, saying that science as we know it is a relatively modern invention, too recent to be a fundamental human activity. To my mind this is like saying that art is not a fundamental human activity, because perspective painting didn’t get nailed down until the Renaissance.

The problem is one of context, and thinking too small. Science as a set of well-defined activities and institutions is, indeed, a modern invention, but that’s not the essential core of science. Science is a process, not a collection of facts or institutions, and the essential elements of science have been with us from the dawn of the species.

The essential beginning of science is simple curiosity. Science doesn’t begin with a hypothesis, it begins with a “Huh.” The first scientist wasn’t Galileo or Newton– the first scientist was the first proto-human to look at the world and say, “I wonder why that happened?”

Science is, at its core, a four-step process: Look, Think, Test, and Tell.

  1. Look at some phenomenon in the world
  2. Think up a possible explanation for it
  3. Test your explanation by further observations or experiments
  4. Tell everyone you know the results.

The whole thing didn’t become institutionalized until surprisingly recently, but in its essential elements, it’s been with us forever.

The first human to figure out how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together was doing science. The first human to figure out how to plant and harvest crops was doing science. The first human to work out that when the sun rises over that rock, it’s time to start planting was doing science.

Science is what sets us apart from animals. It’s what let us become hunters rather than scavengers, despite not having teeth or claws. It’s what let us become farmers rather than hunter-gatherers. It’s what let us build cities rather than huddling in caves and fearing the dark.

Some people (most of them humanities scholars) will claim art as more fundamentally human than science, but that’s wrong. Science pre-dates art– somebody had to figure out how to make the red dye to daub on the walls of those caves. That person was doing science.

So what is the rightful place of science? It’s at the very core of what we do and who we are.

Science should be known and celebrated not as an arcane activity accessible only to freaks and geeks, but as the most fundamental of human activities. You don’t need beakers and tubes to do science, or particle accelerators, or multi-dimensional vector calculus. All you need are eyes and ears and a brain, and a willingness to look at the world and say “I wonder why that happened?” You don’t get more human than that.

How do we restore science to its rightful place? We need to stop teaching our children to accept received wisdom without question, and that it’s frivolous or nerdy to wonder how things work, and why things are. We need to start teaching them to look for causes, to ask questions, and to care about the answers.

To do anything less is to be untrue to our heritage as human beings.