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Science as a Culture: A Critical Appreciation


The Cultural Values of Science, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2002

Scientists have generally stood for certain principles that have provided traditions which go far beyond geographical boundaries. Scientists of the world do indeed constitute a supranational subculture and have evolved a value system of great relevance to society. Important qualities such as integrity, honesty and search for truth are taken as essential elements in the science sub-culture. Science also allows for aesthetics and has a place for beauty in science itself. What is not often understood, however, is the need for science in society or in one's life, other than for utilitarian purposes. Clearly, science also has a place in society just as poetry and philosophy.

In spite of the great virtues of science and the positive impact on science on human beings at large, it is important that we are conscious of how science is being practiced at the working level and how it may develop undesirable traits over a period of time. Such introspection and alertness are necessary to preserve the culture of science and science itself in the long run. The decreasing enthusiasm for science and the low priority it receives in the value system in many societies and amongst the younger generation makes it imperative to examine certain features that have emerged over the recent past. I shall attempt to examine some of these issues briefly.

The very rigour of science often results in parochialism and narrow loyalties, which can promote undesirable ways of communicating with one another even within the scientific community. It is not only divisions such as physics, chemistry and biology that dominate our functioning, but further subdivisions. For examples, in physics it is particle physics versus condensed matter physics. In chemistry, it is worse. It is just not organic, inorganic, physical etc., but people define themselves even more narrowly (e.g. molecular biophysical chemist). But, science is interdisciplinary, and science is one and universal. Such narrow sub-divisions have seriously affected the teaching of science. This is specially true of chemistry. This has gone to the extent that many well-trained chemists find it difficult to teach a general chemistry course to beginning college students. They would rather teach specialized courses. We practice science in an interdisciplinary fashion. While we may carry out research with an interdisciplinary approach, but we teach science on the basis of disciplines. In many countries, curricula have become so rigid that a physics student has no way of learning biology or vice versa. A medical doctor does not learn basic science after his high school.

“Fundamental” study is the general explanation or excuse given by most of us who carry out basic research. Under the façade of fundamental study, there is a tendency amongst many of us not to constructively scrutinize established styles of research. This may come in the way of creativity and encourage routine research. This may also render science less exciting.

There is a tendency amongst some scientists to claim that science can explain everything, including many of the human feelings and emotions such as love and faith. This has given rise to a new form of arrogance. Such arrogance may not be conducive to a meaningful way of life and to a purposeful practice of science.

Science has given birth to a language which tends to be antiseptic. Scholarly articles are accepted for publication only if a certain type of impersonal language is used. Is this necessary? Or, is this good? Is passive voice best for science? After all, much of the science is an expression of personal ideas, dreams and accomplishments.

While we use passive voice in writing, many of us become much too selfish in the practice of science. Excessive industrial consultancy and commercial interests affect the way science is practiced. Rivalry, monetary benefits and the like have had a dominating influence on many scientists. Recognition and rewards (at all cost) become the priority and the pleasure of discovery is lost in this process. Such things change the value of science.

Highly restrictive practices in the sharing of data and information go against the spirit of science. We have to carefully navigate in the present day scenario to ensure that knowledge is created basically for the benefit of humankind.

While promoting science culture, it is important to give due attention to the existing cultures in the world. These cultures have survived for centuries traditions and have created languages, traditions and a variety of other important treasures of humankind. It is possible that as the science culture spreads, it may favour a common language which may slowly wipe out the importance of many important languages and cultures that exist today. Looking at the performance of human beings in the last century, we see that many important cultures, as exemplified by those of many tribes in Asia and Africa, have been wiped out. Many of the dialects and languages have been disappearing. This may happen over the next one or two centuries to the major languages and cultures of the world which may gradually lose their identity. This would be very unfortunate because the very diversity of this world is what makes it interesting and exciting. We have the responsibility to protect cultural diversity. At this juncture, I must point out that the cross-cultural effects play a role in teaching science in the villages of Asia or Africa. We have to examine the importance of cross-cultural effects in science education and in the spreading of the culture of science.

I cannot help feeling at this stage of my life that there is something called bad science as opposed to good science. A typical scenario that creates bad science is one where a scientist carries out a programme of research knowing fully that the results will be used to harm other human beings. The case of Haber is an example of a scientist who did great science (synthesis of ammonia) which saved humankind from hunger and also bad science (mustard gas) which killed many innocent lives. Cloning humans is, to me, an eminent example of bad science and yet it is being pursued. Bad science destroys the image of science and will contribute to the negative aspects of the science culture. Should we pursue any kind of science and at any cost? Some people may feel that cloning or making a killing chemical may be technology and not science, thus wash off the responsibility of science and scientists. I do not, however, subscribe to such puritanical views. As far as I am concerned, human cloning or synthesis of chemicals for warfare is also pursued by well-trained scientists.

When we think of science of the future, we have to be concerned as to how the culture of science will develop and influence the future of mankind. In order to protect and preserve the good features of the science culture, scientists would have to bear social and moral responsibility for situations arising from scientific pursuit. While scientists undoubtedly will continue to be interested in the discovery of new knowledge, it is important that science involves the minds and hearts of the peoples of the world and includes a component that leads to enlightenment. The culture of science could indeed help to make the practice of science a spiritual experience under favourable circumstances.

I believe that in this century, we should evolve practices that bring about major changes in our science culture which in turn would improve human condition and transform human society for the better. This would require a change in our attitudes to the poor, and those from the third world. The third world is still suffering from the absence of basic needs such as safe drinking water. The third world is yet to benefit from the scientific knowledge that has acrued. We should do everything possible to spread scientific temper and knowledge amongst all the peoples of the world. In order to accomplish this, the main stream of science has to flow everywhere creating new channels and tributaries. Such a river of knowledge can only be created by the involvement of enlightened scientists in science education and human development. This will require humility, generosity and human concern on the part of all concerned scientists.

The Cultural Values of Science, Plenary Session 8-11 November 2002, “Pontificia Academia Scientiarum Scripta Varia”, n. 105 (Vatican City: Pontificia Academia Scientiarum, 2003), pp. 209-212.