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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran 11 Science and Culture BERNARD MAITTE Lille University of Science and Technology Every day we use tools that have been produced as the result of extensive scientific research. Production methods have changed considerably, thanks to new technologies in chemistry, electronics, computer-aided design, materials, biotechnology, and food science. As science launches into an ever more detailed exploration of the infinitely small, so it continues to investigate the infinitely large, providing us with the means to cure and eradicate disease depleting the planet’s resources and irreversibly damaging the environment. The remarkable advances made in biology have not only resulted in healthier births and babies, but have also been instrumental in fostering experiments on embryos, clones, and genetically modified organisms. SCIENCE, CULTURE, AND THE HONEST MAN OF OUR TIME Scientific applications have led to significant changes in our everyday lives, to national economies, to our social aspirations, and in our personal impressions of the world. They have also given rise to profound ethical questions. In an era when science has such an impact on every aspect of our lives, most people, including a large percentage of those involved in teaching science, find it difficult to
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran keep up. Science remains an external, widely misunderstood field. It is the domain of specialists who live in a world of abstraction and rigor, and only those with highly specialized knowledge have the keys. In addition, it is difficult to understand the real purpose behind the flow of technology or which societal needs drive these innovations. We are currently in a period of rapid transition from a society focused on mankind’s future to a society that values objects and means but has not thought through, expressed opinions about, or made decisions regarding the future of the human condition. The gap appears to be growing between science and culture, regardless of the following definitions we give to this polysemous term. Culture as the intellectual product of an era: scientific activity is highly intellectual, but it is also extremely compartmentalized within narrow disciplines. Researchers must remain current in their areas of expertise, but often are unaware of the historical theories and concepts behind their modern science; they delay exploring underlying meanings to a later date. Yet within its own boundaries, science makes an important, albeit limited, contribution to culture. Culture as the total sum of a society’s technology: there is a daunting barrier—for reasons as much psychological as intellectual—between those who create technology through science and those who consume the technological products of science. The paradox is as follows: even though scientific research leads to the technological products that elevate the standard of living for all members of society, the elements of science—symbolic language and specialization—are too esoteric for the majority of the population to understand. Unfortunately, the education that we provide to our youth is too often unable to (a) awaken a sense of curiosity for scientific and technical questions, (b) keep abreast with developments in science and rapid changes in its applications, (c) understand its implications, or (d) present science as a living thought process that takes the risk of questioning itself. Science
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran does not, in fact, form any part of the culture of the honest man of the end of the twentieth century. I would like to show that this is a recent development, that it has developed in the wake of historical evolutions, and that it is due to the way science is practiced, taught, and disseminated. MODERN SCIENCE ITS FOUNDING FATHERS Ancient and medieval science was indistinguishable from philosophy. It aimed to promote global understanding of the universe regardless of application and practical utility, and it attempted to articulate an intellectual impression of the natural world. Aristotle, who had a determining influence on the development of science, believed that knowledge of the natural world was based on the senses, even though perceptions can be misleading or fallacious; we understand how things happen better than why they happen. Science cannot be constructed on sensory perception alone; it must be built on reason, which requires an “inductive-deductive” method. Our senses allow us to perceive facts that can be integrated into generalizations, even when they appear contradictory. Through the intellectual exercise of induction, we should observe phenomena, infer substance from them, and then deduce that the observed effects indeed arose from the substance inferred, thus providing logical explanation. The scientific world is based on human observation, and intellectual prowess allows the human mind to work out relevant principles. Physics is the science of intrinsic quantities, and mathematics is the science of discrete and continuous qualities; both lead us to metaphysics. This is the science of existence that allows us to deduce principles and explanations without concern for application, and science originating from Islamic countries added a great deal to this concept. Ibn al-Haytham concluded that contradictory explanations may also be tested using Aristotle’s formal rules of logic. Experience became one of the categories of proof, and the
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran hypothetical, deductive experimental method was born and developed. The Latin science of the Middle Ages dropped this crucial innovation, and it lay forgotten until the Renaissance, an urban civilization marked by the development of trade, in which counting, measurement, and application were essential. At the time, Galileo and several of his contemporaries believed that the world is written in mathematical language, and they began to develop theories of modern science that borrowed substantially from Islamic science. In a world too complex to be studied as a whole, Islamic science isolated facts and discarded conditions considered to be superfluous, thereby reducing the properties of reality. It expressed chosen facts mathematically, developed hypotheses, tested them against calculations, and presented new facts for observation. Experience allowed theoretical deductions and predictions to be validated. Science delayed an overall understanding of the universe. Only provisional approaches relevant within the framework of reductionism were possible. It could say yes, but not if or how systems and objects developed. The founding fathers of modern science set out three objectives: to arrive at an understanding of the world that surrounds us; to become like the masters and owners of nature; and to secure progress, push back the boundaries of ignorance, fight against superstition, and contribute to happiness. These three goals were sought simultaneously by seventeenth-century scientists, who believed they had demonstrated that the world was a huge clock and who described the universe in mechanical terms. During the Age of Enlightenment, the same framework was retained and expanded. It proved that mechanics were insufficient to explain life processes. The nineteenth-century intelligentsia looked for ways to unify science through energy and electromagnetism. The beginning of the twentieth century brought fundamental changes in the way we thought about the world. Throughout all this, science remained in perfect harmony with culture. Is it possible to separate the philosopher from the scientist when we think of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Diderot, Kant, or Einstein?
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran The adoption of the scientific method, the professionalization of research, and the growing determination to focus on applied science inevitably led to the separation between disciplines, which became increasingly narrow over time. New characterizations of the world can thus be built on local knowledge developed within a narrow discipline, and an ever greater number of applications can be deduced. It can also be a weakness, since disciplines are often compartmentalized to such an extent that sometimes researchers find themselves poorly informed about issues that lie outside their expertise. The main activity of these researchers, as we said earlier, is to keep current with advances in their specialties. They may postpone the search for underlying factors until later, unaware of all historical developments relating to their own discipline and where their most recent work fits in. Contemporary scientific practice therefore may be forgetful, with the projects developed by the founding fathers of modern science having reached their limits. DEVALUATION OF TECHNICAL RATIONALITY The preceding analysis does not concern technologies, which have been developed since prehistoric times. Early technology was the result of mankind’s determination to create tools to feed and protect himself, to improve trade, to save or increase his strength, and to dominate. In other words, it responded to human aspirations. Modern science and Islamic science drew the tools and processes necessary for experimentation from these technologies, and thereby fundamentally affected the way that science developed. The history of science from the seventeenth through the twentieth century shows that the development of science and technology was based on a constant international exchange of knowledge across disciplines. The steam engine was invented by technicians, while the determination to improve the output of these machines was based on thermodynamics. Anything “heavier than air” was declared unachievable by scientists until a few wizards—
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran sometimes at the cost of their lives—managed to take off for a few meters in their “strange flying machines.” This paved the way for major research into aerodynamics and ultimately led to the development of aviation. Such examples are numerous. Scientific rationality was always fed by technical imperialism that provided the principles of order and economy, with technological rationality arising from observation, trial, error, modification, and dexterity. All the while it remained highly dependent on the tool’s place in society, which developed into ingenious combinations to address the deep-rooted needs in human society. Today these low-tech cultures have been undermined, at least in western countries. The possibilities they offer are considered inferior to advanced scientific developments and, with the restructuring of certain economic activities, they have tended to disappear. Low-tech cultures have been replaced by “new technologies,” a neologism which was mistakenly attributed to the concept of “leading edge, modern, and complex techniques.” This was to emphasize that their relationship with science was different and could be developed directly from the outcome of scientific theories. But isn’t it dangerous to introduce new technologies without taking human experience into account? Shouldn’t we try to make sense of their intrusion before disseminating them widely and attempting to adapt users to them on a wholesale basis? Isn’t it time to stop thinking of them as the sole reference point for human development? Hasn’t their introduction led to cultural changes much faster than the changes in collective memory, resulting in inappropriate and even dangerous behavior at the individual level? Hasn’t our generation alone been through more changes in terms of production methods than the 10 preceding ones? How can we metabolize human experience in such conditions? These questions are not among the issues being debated today. As yet, no country has managed to introduce a real debate with respect to the scientific and technical choices it makes.
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND THE LEVEL OF CULTURAL PROGRAM IN SOCIETIES Many thought that new technologies could be introduced without consideration for the economic, social, ethical, or political conditions necessary to assimilate them and benefit from them. It was thought that society’s cultural progress could be kept separate from its technological advancement. Only now are we beginning to understand our mistake. People in France are often trapped in a contradictory and emotional duality whereby faith in progress is set against the fear of its consequences, the assimilation of industrialization, and the loss of cultural identity. Is it possible to move away from these false debates, to speak out freely, and to extend our options, making a clear distinction between civil and scientific authorities? Isn’t it time to break away from current practices and to value instead “the slow man?” These are the words of people who take the time to think about where they are going, who go against the aims inherent in the introduction of technologies, and who instead adapt them to projects that they themselves fashion for their happiness. Shouldn’t we take the time to transform the technological object into a technical tool, which implies adapting and transferring our human experience? Both Bell and Adler, the two inventors of the telephone, were unaware of each other’s work, with one publishing in the United States and the other in France; and yet each had imagined only one possible application for the invention, which was to listen to concerts at home over the telephone line. It was only with time and practical experience that other uses were developed. Examples of this kind of situation are numerous. According to Condorcet, moral progress and scientific progress go hand in hand. This implies that the more technically developed a society, the more it needs technicians with a high level of cultural awareness. However, Condorcet’s optimistic view hardly appears to be the case at present. The number of specialists has increased, but we no longer take the time to value knowledge
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran other than scientific knowledge, and we are gradually losing individual and collective experience. A less superficial approach to new technologies indicates that they manage to penetrate the social and industrial fabric when they correspond to the needs of companies, people, and their cultures and when they are well-adapted, thanks to the know-how of technicians. Developing a more sophisticated industrial tool from a basis of traditional techniques is in keeping with the experience of societies. The new tool makes sense to the society that created it; and from this, another, more coded and more symbolic man-machine relationship can be developed. These observations indicate that it is vital to safeguard technical cultures, to transfer human experience to new technologies, and to develop them in line with the relevant culture. If technical memory disappears along with those who hold its secret, and if it is not transformed into another form of culture, the thread of its sense will be broken, resulting in impoverishment and the need to begin again from scratch. This poses a number of problems for education. GIVING NEW DEPTH TO SCIENCE TEACHING The difficulties currently faced by scientific practice with respect to the aims assigned to it by its founding fathers have resulted, to some extent, in a certain loss of the rationale for science education. In its current form, science teaching has both unquestionable strengths and manifest weaknesses. Its strengths include training in the use of concrete knowledge, providing specialized knowledge, and grounding in disciplinary expertise. Its weaknesses, on the other hand, are that it is presented too dogmatically, is too compartmentalized within impermeable disciplines, and does not use the qualities of observation, manipulation, and experimentation enough. I have a dream of a teaching approach that is rooted in disciplinary knowledge and at the same time placed in its historical context. I have a dream of a teaching approach that would include
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran debate and controversy. I have a dream of a teaching approach that would be open to cross-discipline ideas. I have a dream of a teaching approach that would be formed via the exercise of scientific thinking, fervent thinking that observes, builds hypotheses, tests hypotheses, gives up, tries again, takes risks, invalidates, confirms its theories, and questions itself. In other words, we need thinking that provides us with access to partial representations of the world, as we can never exhaust reality, and opens up other ways to access nature, other kinds of thinking and action that are nonetheless relevant representations developed between the limits of validity that we are able to define. Learning to think through a method that continually conducts research and challenges the best established certitudes and the results considered as certitudes in order to gain satisfaction of understanding would be truly motivating. This would be a method that refuses all hegemonic learning models. How can we attain this without recourse to a practical approach? Science teaching should aim to develop a new humanism, training the honest man of our time for whom science would no longer be an unknown. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is essential for those who are intent on scientific careers to base their teaching on disciplinary knowledge. All learning is built on concrete as opposed to didactic knowledge. We need to learn how to handle the tools, to understand what they represent, and to appreciate the capacities of each of them. For this, the role of the master is primordial. OTHER WAYS TO PLACE SCIENCE IN A CULTURAL FRAMEWORK Learning is not limited to teaching, however. We all have spontaneous impressions, initial impressions formed by society or scientific information conveyed by the media and its extensions to a nonspecialist public. We need to be aware of these parameters. Newspapers, radio, and television generally present a number of disparate and specific facts to the public that celebrate successes
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran and performance and focus on spectacular results, or on the contrary, expose dangers. They call on experts who readily go beyond their specific fields of competence and voice opinions according to their intellectual and material interests and ideologies. Often they use authoritative language or, instead, sidestep the issues by taking refuge behind the principle of precaution. Once again there is little place for context, issues, debate, or perspective on the choices that people must be made to understand, the same people who, at the end of the day, decide on which applications should be developed and the goals and purposes of those applications. The popularization of science addresses a public that is already motivated. At the same time, it leads to neither the practice of science nor its true understanding. As I said earlier, this requires long training, constant effort and the perseverance of the education system. Popularization utilizes communication techniques that attempt to illustrate and that use analogies, metaphors, and models, producing somewhat distorted visions as a result of the self-representations of the people being addressed. Perhaps paradoxically, this helps to increase the existing gap between science and the public. On the other hand, for a discipline that is essentially critical in its methods, there is little external criticism of science. Admittedly, there are very few who are able to criticize it. But critical feedback should mainly assess the relevance of the applications and launch debates on their implications for society. Perhaps this criticism could actively contribute to putting science into the much-needed cultural framework. Other learning strategies could be introduced. These are partially and hesitantly used by institutions that present science to the general public. Education would benefit from a policy that includes the following four interdependent levels: The development of the motivation for and the pleasure of science discovery by revitalizing the concept of personal experience through observation, touch, testing, failing, criticizing and symbolization,
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Science as a Gateway to Understanding: International Workshop Proceedings Tehran, Iran A holistic approach that addresses all aspects of a topic, including historical, scientific, technical, artistic, and literary data in order to contextualize science and to put it into context with other fields of culture, The discussion of issues and debate about scientific applications which affect society, The development of documentary projects and functional networks that broadcast and share these approaches throughout cultural institutions. By making use of the terms invent, create, form, and activate, we can encourage the public to learn intelligent scientific thinking, ask questions rather than offer answers, and debate science and its applications. However, the effectiveness of contemporary science masks, sidelines, and undermines the work required to develop true understanding. Education based on disciplinary knowledge needs to teach how the results obtained by science can be used and contribute to taking further the question, “What does it mean?” It must place the question of overall sense and meaning squarely back in its central position. Education must once again make mankind and its aspirations the focal point of its concerns. Only then can we discuss the key question, “Must everything that is technically possible be done?” To answer this question, it is important to make scientific thinking a major element in the process, thinking which allows us to develop a rational study of the world and to modify it, but also thinking that is nourished by dreams, imagination and utopia if it is, in its turn, to transform dreams, imagination and utopia. I am talking about thinking which, while not sufficient to guide human affairs, as some mistakenly believed, is essential to understanding them. For this reason, this form of thinking must become part of the culture of our time, in the same way that culture must become part of science.
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