Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Pop Science?

Continuing in the same vein as my earlier post on evangelical humanism, today I want to talk about the importance of pop science. Let's get right to it: why pop science? As before, the short answer is, "Because the world needs it." The long answer is a bit more complex.

First, I want to clarify what I mean by "pop science." I do mean that science should be popular, but I most emphatically do not mean that this popularity should come at the expense of content. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the wildly irresponsible speculations of pseudoscience are no fundamentally different for being based on a tiny bit of actual science rather than pure imagination. I mean that there should be a solid understanding, in the public mind, of the difference between good science, bad science, and non-science. I mean that the principles of the scientific method should be openly discussed in public, discussions which should be accessible to everyone. I mean, in short, that good & proper science should be popular.

This is, admittedly, a lofty and far-off goal. I am hoping for no less than a scientifically-minded society, which probably won't happen any time soon. Hell, it may never happen at all - but that's not for lack of need, and certainly no reason to stop trying. Lots of people are trying, in fact, and their labors have borne fruit already:
  • Richard Dawkins occupies a position created for just such a purpose, the Professor for Public Understanding of Science - he is also a prolific author, having written on all scales, from small essays and articles to the epic tome that is The Ancestor's Tale (a brilliant and very accessible read).
  • Brian Greene, a professor of physics at Columbia and theoretical physicist, has written The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, both good books for popularizing some of the most exciting bits of physics.
  • Stephen Hawking, perhaps the best example of the benefits of science I can think of, has popularized physics with A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell. Both of these books are small in size, but great in stature.
  • Professor PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota, Morris is the author of Pharyngula, an extraordinarily popular blog on the admirable Professor Myers regularly blogs on current scientific research, explaining such things as the mapping of the platypus genome in layman's terms (well, perhaps a bright high school layman, or a layman with some college).
  • Ebonmuse's Evolution Pages present a clear and thorough look at several aspects of the struggle between legitimate science and fashionable idiocy. These short-to-medium-length essays (depending on how long an "essay" is in your mind - for me, it's "more than a newspaper article, less than a novel") are well-organized and written almost entirely in everyday language. The author's main site, Ebon Musings, also links to his writings on atheism and his blog, Daylight Atheism, which often bring scientific principles to bear on the more general conflict between reason and nonsense.
  • Penn & Teller have created a Showtime series, appropriately entitled Bullshit!, in which they popularize science with a technique similar to the via negativa, showcasing popular bullshit and exposing it for what it is.
  • Even House, MD touches on good, solid science - if you know what to look for. The show routinely touches on epistemology, parsimony, and ethics as applied to the medical field. The show is popular, and it's got science, so I call it a win.
  • Other TV shows, for reasons more obvious, also bear mentioning: Mythbusters, Planet Earth, and Blue Planet spring immediately to mind. Also, I may watch a bit too much Discovery Channel. Also also, I may try to argue whether that's possible.
  • Wikipedia also bears mentioning, not only for its status as a repository for knowledge, but also for its source-finding capacity.
So take a stand against the forces of ignorance, pseudoscience, and superstition in the most fundamental way possible: by knowing better. Set aside a few minutes of every day, or at least every week, and put a little science in your life. And your conversations. The world needs science to be more popular, so that "pop science" isn't thought as paradoxical as it now seems.

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