Can Science Save The World? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Over centuries, science has played a particular — and particularly unique — role in addressing our uncertainty and our hope for control. But we must work with it to save ourselves, says Adam Frank.
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Can Science Save The World?

World map, 1587, by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594). DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images hide caption

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DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

World map, 1587, by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594).

DEA Picture Library/De Agostini/Getty Images

Human life is inherently uncertain. We are vulnerable and we know it.

Throughout our long history, we humans have always looked for some means of control to master our uncertainty, especially as the possibilities of storm and darkness descend.

For the last four centuries, science has played a particular — and particularly unique — role in addressing our uncertainty and our hope for control. Most importantly, in science's rise came a new kind of approach to the world that led with questions. Those inquiries were then followed closely by a method that was expected to yield shared answers.

More than anything before it in human history, science was an approach to the world's uncertainty that demanded results. Answers needed to be worked out in public and they needed to be demonstrably true over and over again.

In that new approach came a new kind of success. Ancient horrors like disease and hunger were, for the first time, beaten back. Human lifetimes were extended and then filled with unimaginable miracles like air travel and instantaneous communication. It was no accident that some saw in science the chance to build better versions of society. Science, they hoped, would lead us to a better world. It would save us even from ourselves.

Were they right? Is science that longed-for place where we can put our trust for positive change in the midst of uncertainty? The answer to that question, like science itself, forces us to step up to the plate and ask what, exactly, we're bringing to the table in saving ourselves.

History shows science has played its role in any number of dubious plans. For years, class prejudice and racism were cloaked behind the mantle of empirical science in the form of eugenics. Decades later, in a different domain, it was a misplaced confidence in technological progress that allowed us to miss the environmental impacts of our burgeoning society for so long. Both these examples illustrate an essential point that science, on its own, is not going to save us.

But science is never "on its own." Not a philosophy, not a religion, yet somehow touching the aspirations of both, science is more than just another human practice. It is unique and it is different.

What makes science remarkable is that while we discovered its methods on our own, those methods are fundamentally a collaboration with the world. Science could not lead us to understanding if the world didn't have the possibility of being understood. In other words, there is no separating ourselves from the world because science is always a dialogue with something more than us. In that way, science calls us to see a hope and a power in our own capacities even as it reveals our interdependence with all things.

With this grounding, science reveals critical aspects of our own human being that should not be forgotten, especially as we face into headwinds of uncertainty:

  • We can only do great things when the circle is wide. Building space stations, eliminating disease and creating technological wonders demands the broadest possible effort. We cannot know where the next great idea will come from. No one group or people can corner the market on innovation. If we close down opportunities or the flow of ideas then we cannot but diminish our futures.
  • We can only solve the hard problems by facing the hard truths. From Galileo on down, science has been the story of bravery in its commitment to seeking truth. Science gives us a means to talk to the world and learn how it behaves. Once that knowledge is gained, science presents us a long history of remaining steadfast in its defense.
  • Because science is a dialogue between the world and us, it always begins with recognition of the other. It always starts with a curiosity about something that is more than just our personal stories. In that way, there has always been something essentially compassionate about the aspiration driving science. It's the same aspiration one finds in the best of human endeavors, be they aimed high toward the spirit or level toward the day-to-day.

Openness, bravery, compassion: These are some of the lessons our profound success in science has taught us. As such, we can see how powerful a tool it can be in helping us forge a path toward better lives. But in the end, it's not science that will save the world. We will have to do that for ourselves.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4