Why do science?

This year has been a busy one for the scientific community. It marks 50
years since the death of Albert Einstein and 100 years since the annus
in which he published papers on such fundamental ideas as
quantum energy and the special theory of relativity, at the same time
giving the world the famous equation, E = mc², that even the
scientifically illiterate among us can repeat as a kind of tribute to
the great twentieth century genius.

To mark these anniversaries the International Union of Pure and Applied
Physics declared 2005 the World Year of Physics, to raise public
awareness of physics and physical science generally. One of the goals
is to create enthusiasm for physics among young people and attract the
more talented into scientific study and careers. There is concern not
only among scientists but in industry and among governments that
science education is failing to keep up with the need for research and

Intelligent design debate
But 2005 has also been the year of “intelligent design”, making it an annus horribilis (to quote Queen Elizabeth in another context) in the
eyes of many scientists. The intelligent design movement says the
evidence of design in nature makes it reasonable to teach this as a
scientific theory alongside Darwin’s theory of natural selection. A
school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, that voted last year to
incorporate this approach in its curriculum for the ninth grade, is now
being sued by 11 parents in federal court. The outcome will affect
similar moves in other states.

Basically ID is a new attempt—efforts have never really ceased—to
challenge evolution as the ultimate explanation of the world and to
reopen science to God. In the minds of most Americans, this is not a
problem: a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll this month shows that a mere 12
per cent believe that human beings evolved without God having any part
in the process. Many scientists are believers too, but most,
apparently, without wanting to bring the idea of creation into their
scientific method. Is this a gap that needs to be bridged? And is
intelligent design the way to do it? The Dover court case may settle
the question at one level, but the debate is nowhere near over.

A British experiment
Has this debate any relevance to the question of getting young people
interested in science? At first blush, no. It seems, rather, a
distraction from the real issues of the day. Faced with growing
competition from rising economic powers such as India and China, which
are turning out large numbers of graduates with scientific backgrounds,
the United States, Britain and other developed countries worry about
declining interest in science courses at university level, and the way
science is being taught.(2)

In the United Kingdom, applications for degree courses in chemistry,
physics, mathematics and engineering have fallen by as much as 30 per
cent in recent years, with 10 universities closing chemistry
departments for lack of demand. The chief executive of the Higher
Education Funding Council for England, Sir Howard Newby, said this week
the trend is a “huge worry” and could affect Britain’s economic

According to Sir Howard, there is evidence that “up to the age of
13-15, students are quite switched on by science and technology” but
then something switches them off. Those who remain interested are more
likely to take courses with obvious career prospects. Medicine,
biological sciences, electronic engineering and computer studies are
still in demand. Forensic chemistry is enjoying something of a boom and
Sir Howard jokingly suggests this is thanks to a popular BBC television
drama, Silent Witness. But without sufficient people pursuing science
for its own sake, where will the new Einsteins come from?

Much of the blame for this dilemma naturally falls on the school
system. Experts have told the British government that teaching science
to young people as though they were all going to become scientists only
burdens the majority with irrelevant facts and makes the subject
boring. What science teaching in the twenty-first century should do, in
the words of one report, is give everyone “sufficient knowledge and
understanding to follow science and scientific debates with interest,
and to engage with the issues science and technology poses”. 
Alongside that, schools should teach "science for scientists". (4)

Accordingly, from next year, secondary school pupils working towards
their General Certificate of Secondary Education (taken at year 11)
will no longer have to master “hard” science, such as basic scientific
laws, but they will be required to learn “soft” science, such as the
benefits of genetic engineering and healthy eating. Although this
includes some scientific knowledge, traditional hard science will be an
optional extra.(5)

There has been plenty of criticism of this move, from both scientists
and lay people. An emphasis on social concerns opens science to
“dogmatic and moralistic agendas”, says Spiked writer Sandy Starr.
Airing controversies over childhood vaccinations, GM food scares, and
human genetic research (all mentioned in the curriculum) would give the
“unscientific side” of each controversy “undeserved credibility”.(6)

It could just as easily, however, be an occasion for indoctrination
from the “scientific side” which, when commercial motives are taken
into account (one thinks of embryonic stem cell research), is not free
of its own prejudices. It rather depends on the teacher and the
resources he or she uses.

The fact that the curriculum also calls for “an understanding of the
scientific approach to inquiry” and an appreciation of “the power, and
the limitations, of different kinds of scientific knowledge”, also
worries Starr, who regards the intelligent design debate in the US as
an “ugly” example of what could happen.

Need for philosophy
But this fear of philosophy, including ethics, being applied to science
tends to show exactly why it is necessary, and therefore the relevance
of the ID debate. Such perspectives should indeed be part of everyone’s
education. The only question is whether they belong in a science class
or in a philosophy class, and there does seem to be a case for the

Keeping science classes for “facts” does not mean they have to be dry,
but the most lively school lesson may seem dessicated compared to the
competition academic work faces today. And this is where some answers
to the crisis of science may be found.

If adolescents are switching off subjects involving abstract thought
and the mastery of a body of knowledge, it may have something to do
with their being used to receiving information packaged as
entertainment. When everything worth knowing seems accessible at the
tap of a finger, why subject your mind to the labour of learning the
periodic table or the meaning of E = mc²?

Given that hard science involves hard work, what would motivate a young
person to take it up? There are, after all, easier paths to a lucrative
and prestigious career. Service to humanity has always been the noblest
reason for scientific research—one thinks of Louis Pasteur’s huge
contribution to individual and social well-being through his work on
controlling infections—but the ethic of service is also something
difficult for young people when so much conspires to turn them into
consumers of goods and services.

Again, a solid motive for selfless service is elusive in a world where
religious faith and idealism are suppressed or are experienced largely
as sentiments unrelated to daily life.

But the sidelining of religion also undermines science in another way.
If everything is, in the end, just physics, or the observable world
without ultimate causes, the world is a less interesting place than if
there were something more—metaphysics, or the possibility of
investigating those ultimate causes. Not only is it less interesting,
it also devalues reason, which becomes simply a by-product of
irrational processes. It devalues love, making it neither the beginning
nor the end of all things but, again, only a by-product of material

In other words, the world becomes meaningless and the only rational
response is to consume as much of its material goods as one can.
Societies that want young people to dedicate themselves to science will
have to offer them a better account of the world than this.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

 (1) World year of Physics, www.wyp2005.org
 (2) See, for example, “Panel Sounds Alarm on Science Education,” Washington Post, October 13
 (3) “More warnings over decline in science students,” Guardian Unlimited, October 20
 (4) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, Nuffield Foundation, 1998, p.5
 (5) “Nigella ousts Einstein in school science,” Times Online, September 25
 (6) “Anti-science lessons,” www.spiked-online.com


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