Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thriving Science

When out driving long enough distances, I've been listening to Malcolm Eckel's lectures on Buddhism that he recorded with The Learning Company. In his talk on The Sangha, he brought up the great monastic institutions of India, whose destruction effectively brought an end to Buddhism in India. Eckel compared those institutions to our modern universities.

This comparison got me thinking. To a large extent the practice of science is highly concentrated in elite institutions: our great research universities, along with a few government and industrial research labs. Perhaps it is also the election cycle that is coming to a close over the next few hours that has also reminded me, for example with the reports of bizarre beliefs about the human reproductive system, that the scientific outlook is not so very widespread.

On the one hand the challenge is real enough of how to steer science toward the actualization of its greatest potential for benefiting humanity and the planetary biosphere. This challenge takes for granted the continuing vitality of our scientific institutions. But a very real challenge to that vitality may well be sitting on the other hand.

I've been reading Linda Lear's biography of Beatrix Potter. Potter was evidently a fine amateur naturalist. Her illustrations for her children's books grew out of her botanical drawings, from which also grew her interest in the biology, in particular of mushrooms and lichen. She was a real pioneer of lichen biology, perceiving their symbiotic nature far ahead of almost anyone else. Lear tells us that it was just around the time of Potter's insights on lichen, around 1900, that botany was becoming professionalized, so that the insights of an amateur were discounted. Of course the fact that Potter was a woman didn't help matters either.

If science is to survive then it seems that somehow it must become more localized and to recover the appreciation it once held for the amateur. This is quite distinct from any sort of indulging of incompetence. To some extent the current professionalized approach to science can actually provide more support for incompetence, since the competition for professional status and position can overshadow the quest for truth. The competence we need to cultivate has to do with willingness to break through confused thinking despite the cost, rather than the exploitation of confusion for profit.

The increasing financial, political, and natural stresses on our scientific institutions, from fiscal cliffs to surging seas, will shake them profoundly. This shaking can provide an opportunity for a new more vital vision, for a science that inspires and thrives as a pervasive element of society.