What do you really think of science?
Barring bathroom calls, what is your first thought in the morning? Whether it is a glass of warm water, a cup of coffee or tea, a plain piece of bread, or with coco jam or cheese, does it cross your mind to thank every single human being who made that kind of morning possible for you?
This crossed AA Jacobs' mind one morning and it led him to a quest to trace and thank about a thousand people who made his cup of coffee possible, starting with Chung, the barista in his local coffee shop, to the coffee cup lid inventor Doug Fleming, to the Guarnizo brothers – owners of a small farm in Colombia where the coffee beans in his cup of coffee came from. It was a journey around the world that he physically travelled and also involved a multitude of emails of thanksgiving with soulful exchanges of gratitude. He shared it in this TED Talk.
AA Jacob's journey of gratitude is what immediately came to mind when I came across a report on how people around the world perceived science. A good part of what we use and/or enjoy in modern living are made possible by scientists, technologists, and engineers who have devoted their days and nights to doing these. We hardly ever think about science when we shoot a thought of gratitude for the stuff that makes our lives easier or possible. Of course they are professionals, which means they are compensated for doing what they do, but does that mean they do not need to be thanked?
3M, the company largely associated with their iconic Post-its and cleaning products, is rooted in science and does far beyond these products. I am also openly disclosing that 3M did not ask me to write about this study nor are they paying me to do this. 3M took it upon itself to survey over 14,000 people around the world, both in developed and emerging countries, about how they see science vis-à-vis their lives. Some of the survey findings did not surprise me, but all the findings made me realize even more how conflicted human beings generally are about science, being the study of how the world works.
The report is called 3M State of Science Index. It included over 14,000 respondents from 14 countries: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, UK, and the US. This is the second year that 3M is doing this.
The report revealed that an overwhelming 86% recognize that the world needs science to solve the world's problems and are optimistic about what it can do in the next 20 years. In fact, 72% are curious about science. And contrast that with the 68% who say that they know only "a little" about science. That means they know a little but they want to know so much more!
I think implicit in this is that they recognize that science is in a unique position, like no other, to do this. However, you would step back as you come across the report's finding that 35% of the people surveyed question science (not to be confused with those who question "the science" which refers to specific methods or evidence). That number increased by 3 percentage points from last year's survey. This seems to show that while people count on science to be a big problem-solver, there is a certain "distrust" or "mistrust" that seems to mark the attitude of a significant amount of people.
From my experience in this field of science engagement with the public, this attitude toward science is greatly influenced by the kind of education that children have growing up. Knowing what achievers in science and tech fields say about the kind of learning they had when they were kids, this includes an education that will never fail the learner to view science as a way of looking at the world. It is the kind that values wonder as part of the journey of learning. It makes it necessary to "play" with laws of nature as testable, to treat evidence as vital to science as self-correcting, and that most of all, science is a human endeavor – plagued with ethical dilemma as other fields are. It is the kind of education that no longer builds a wall between "formal" and "informal" education because the human brain does not have those walls.
As adults, from my experience working with my colleagues around the world and what they have also learned, the skepticism about science may also have a lot to do with the access to its benefits of science and technology. This is where science gets into that often messy interplay with sociopolitics and economics. For applied science, "equitable access" is key to shaping adult perception of science and technology. Applied science is technology, and it is understandable why 3M initiated a study of science perception. The survey found that 71% of the respondents say they value technology, and 31% value science. This is revealing, because technology would not exist without even a basic understanding of how something works, which is what science is.
The perception of science also has a lot to do with how we perceive scientists. In the report, the finding showed that an overwhelming number found scientist's work unrelatable, and the scientists, unapproachable. I think one of the reasons behind this is that the history of science, as highlighted in textbooks, is filled with stories about scientists (mostly men) whose sweeping scientific ideas have eclipsed their own personal histories, which are also supremely interesting. Most of us know about Isaac Newton and his laws, but very few know of his grumpy, almost unkind disposition. Many people frown at the mention of Charles Darwin, but very few know that he is regarded as one of the kindest scientists in history.
Now in the modern age, scientists as professionals still do fascinate and work very hard, but they are also people like you and me, just trying to see even in small pockets, how the world works and how to make our lives better. Some of them you can view here, and see how your everyday life is affected by what these scientists have come upon.
It is easy to dismiss science in a list of things to be grateful for. I think it is because for the most part of history, we have come to view it as just for extraordinarily intelligent but unrelatable people. In other words, nerds and dorks. Now, while we seem to be solidly counting on science to make our everyday lives better, we still need to come much closer to it so that we can embrace it as part of our souls, in our collective quest to understand nature, in order to become better humans.
Science is indeed a "brainy" thing. This means that it requires a lot of resistance to fast and easy conclusions in favor of trial-and-error and careful tracing of connections. But that is why human brains are so different from other animals – we have the capacity to guess, test, understand, and apply what we have learned. To give science a try, regardless of your age, profession, or status, is to affirm that the human mind is such a marvel of nature, because it can figure things out across space and time. To be an advocate for science is to be an advocate for the best of what our species can do in terms of understanding the world, others, and ourselves. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.