July 14, 2024

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Why is there a shortcomings in the relationship between science and the non-specialized public?

Why is there a shortcomings in the relationship between science and the non-specialized public?

Topics related to the universe are perhaps some of the most commonly uncovered.

Image: Pixabay

The relationship that society has with science is strange, to say the least; It does not mean that it is ambiguous, distorted, contradictory, or overtly incomprehensible. The average citizen often has a confusing version of science, about what its limits are, how it develops, and what the limits of speculation are. This is paradoxical because much of the spirit of contemporary society is shaped by science and its technological products. (Read Colombia and the dream of having nuclear power, back on the table)

The relationship that society has with science is strange, to say the least; It does not mean that it is ambiguous, distorted, contradictory, or overtly incomprehensible. The average citizen often has a confusing version of science, about what its limits are, how it develops, and what the limits of speculation are. This is paradoxical because much of the spirit of contemporary society is shaped by science and its technological products. (Read Colombia and the dream of having nuclear power, back on the table)

It is true that scientists, in general, enjoy prestige, and scientific topics are attractive on the networks and in the media: science attracts attention; However, there is a short circuit between science and the lay public. We want to talk about these things today.

Let’s start by warning that technology is the result of understanding scientific laws. Yes, it is true that it was not necessary to know that the number π is an irrational number to invent the wheel technology; Nor is there a law of conservation of energy behind the use of the lever. The wheel or lever are very simple techniques. But more advanced technology requires knowledge of scientific laws, and at the same time, technology cooperates by better investigating the physical world to discover new laws.

Clark’s third lawAny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.“It is the exact irony used by the English writer Arthur C. Clarke, yes, the same irony Odyssey 2001, to point out that the long path between the basic laws and the technological device makes the device seem like magic: we touch a screen and the magic is responsible for sending an image, text or video to another continent. (Read what the fish that once existed in the “desert” of La Tatacua reveal)

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No, my friends, there is no magic or stories along the way. There are laws, and a growing understanding of how reality works. If Newton did not hear the radio, it was because humanity in his time did not yet understand electromagnetic phenomena. Formulating concepts and discovering laws takes time and effort. So, every time you undergo a CT scan, send a WhatsApp message or use a GPS, you think you are upholding the laws that humanity has gradually discovered, in its quest to understand the world more and better.

So why is it so difficult to understand the ins and outs of science, or at least get a reasonable view of it, even from a bird’s eye view?

Among the many reasons, one of them is language. Of course, the language of science is a specialized and impervious language, but this is not limited to science. The same applies to the language of economics, cardiology, or literary criticism. Specialized codes are by definition incomprehensible to beginners.

In the case of physics, there is the aggravating factor of mathematics, which is fearsome when it exceeds the rule of three. Ernesto Sabato was a physicist before he devoted himself to literature, and they say a friend asked him to explain relativity. Sabato told him about empty geodesy on a four-dimensional Riemannian manifold, with a local Minkowski spacetime metric. He said: “Hey, stop, stop, I don’t understand anything!”. Sabato lowered the level and talked about trains and clocks and beams of light, until his friend said to him: “Now I understand.” The physicist replied: Yes, now I understand, but what you understand is not relativity.

The anecdote puts a magnifying glass on a crucial point: the laws of physics are often formulated in the arcane language of mathematics that is not in the public domain. Then you have to move from the precise metaphor in mathematics to the vague metaphors in everyday language… but you will miss a large part of what the theory really says. This is why spreading knowledge is a thankless matter, because from the beginning it attempts the impossible. But this obstacle does not prevent one from enjoying the scientific view of reality. You don’t need to decode sheet music to enjoy music; And don’t be a cinematic language theorist to enjoy a good movie.

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Another aspect that creates confusion among ordinary humans is the development of theories, because it leaves a false impression that the previous theory was wrong. Einstein’s general relativity is more accurate than Newton’s theory, which in turn is better than Galileo’s description. Relativity describes phenomena that Newtonian gravity does not, but it does not claim that they are false, but simply sets limits on them. Theories are always an approximation of reality, they are like maps of reality, and the more accurate map does not invalidate the less accurate map.

Science is a process, always with loose ends, it is a draft in constant reworking, without erasing what has already been written. But don’t be confused: knowledge is here to stay, and reformulating it doesn’t destroy it, it refines it. Flat Earthers, tremble! Two centuries BC, Eratosthenes predicted that the Earth was spherical and estimated its circumference. It was a legitimate scientific prediction, with assumptions, observations and mathematical calculations. This is knowledge that will last. Today we know that this is the case, but with more reasons, evidence and precision.

The existence of antimatter, for example, is knowledge that is here to stay. That the speed of light is an insurmountable obstacle is a fact that will persist. The universe is expanding, the entropy of an isolated system does not decrease, matter is composed of elementary particles…none of these statements will change. They can split it.

There is a belief that appears in the recesses of some intellectual circles, perhaps out of a desire for holism, that must be rooted out to gain a better understanding of the scientific enterprise; Scientific discourse is just another myth, with the same status as the creation myth. Myths tell us next to nothing about the society that invented them, and nothing about the universe. The laws that science discovers allow us to know more about the scientific community, but they also allow us to know something true and almost objective about the universe or some part of it. Not everything is perfect, not all narratives are equal, and the myth of a global flood does not have the same hierarchy as the big bang model.

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To further complicate the situation, physics often deals with areas and phenomena that are so far removed from our everyday experiences that we have no intuition about them. Surprisingly, great distances, or very small distances, enormous gravitational fields, enormous temperatures… common sense becomes nothing. Our more or less provincial intellectual categories fail to capture these facts, and they seem incomprehensible to us. We must understand that it is not the job of science to make reality seem self-evident to us, our guide is experiments and laws always under construction.

Science became science, freeing itself from religious-magical origins where alchemy, astrology, and biblical numerology were the background. It is not unreasonable to think that in the age of the Internet there is still a penchant for the occult, a hidden attraction to the unknown, and a rigidity of beliefs that winks at the metaphysician in us and confuses the scientific message.

Never, as now, has science been so widely disseminated; Never have so many pseudoscientific conspiracies emerged as now: anti-vaxxers, flat-Earthers, deniers, reptilians, conspiracy theorists, quantum doctors.lights up And stop counting.

Science is a complex phenomenon, its boundaries are not clear even for scientists, and understanding science by the general public requires a clear message, which is not always the case; Influencers and publishers post ambiguous and sometimes openly false messages on networks. Redoubling efforts to better and better understand science and combat anti-science attitudes remains an unresolved issue for researchers, publishers, and students of science.

* Professor at the Faculty of Physics, Santander Industrial University. Director of Astronomy On Air

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