The way I see it, current research science is a system of reliable information harnessing, data processing, followed by speculative interpretation based on well-founded principles & intense scrutiny by fellow peers. It is a method of education for an entire community of very eager-to-learn people.
We begin our careers by studying many fields. We do this so that we can all speak a common language. For instance, I didn’t even start any materials subjects at all until I was in my second year of university. We all had to study maths, chemistry, physics and so on.
Scientists research anything and everything imaginable, from the arcane to the utterly esoteric. That’s why most of it remains inaccessible to the general public.
The smaller each individual niche becomes, the more difficult it is to generate new results, new conclusions -new information. You could say that we already know so much, that learning any more at the cutting edge of science requires serious effort. Usually it requires further advancements in the development of scientific instrument technology; enhanced signal to noise ratios or finer spatial resolution, for example.
In today’s age, it takes a big effort to gather even the simplest, entirely new facts about materials. Used in this manner, traditional scientific research will never provide all the answers to the most important questions that we relentlessly seek to ask.
Scientists are a relentless lot, because in each and every ultra-specific field of science there is always some aspect that has not been effectively or sufficiently studied. You’ll never hear any scientist proclaim: “we can stop now, we’ve discovered enough”. There’s always room for further study.
“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” —Edward O. Wilson
But in today’s “information age”, is the current aim of science somewhat misguided? Much of science tries to benefit us in the short term, by improving our standard of living in some way. I think there are many talented young minds that are being wasted today; they dwell on themes which are effectively useless to the ecology of this planet. The long-term future of our environment, and thus our civilisation on which it depends is not looking too bright.
The trouble with most classical scientists is that they would have you believe that everything can be isolated and studied independently. That single assumption is just plain wrong, merely because everything interacts with everything else to a certain degree.
And yet the reality is that things don’t behave in an isolated manner, in fact things often behave synergistically (the sum is more than its parts). So I tend to believe in those wise old American Indians. They say that everything in this universe is connected.
I know that the physical Scientists (Physicists, Chemists and Materials Scientists) will also have you believe that everything happens at the atomic or molecular scale & therefore that’s also where all the answers can be found. I suspect that biologists profess similar principles. Except that real life doesn’t always work that way.
[I like to think of it like this- the microscopic world is influenced from the outside macroscopic world; the resulting perturbations may indeed infiltrate and manipulate the atomic world, but they soon manifest themselves later as corresponding macro-sized problems. Time and time again, scientists have realised that the world is more complicated than they thought. You would have thought they would have learned by their mistakes. Other times, they go off on a wild goose chase looking for micro-scale solutions to macro-scale problems (or vice versa).]
Take this example: did the researchers who invented high-power blue-coloured laser diodes for data density research know that they’d be used in Fish Aggragating Devices?
Did thermodynamicists of the 18th century who originally researched the Carnot cycle realise that it would result in global warming a couple of centuries later down the track?
Somewhere along the way, we have gone from a general, overall view to a very narrow view. We’ll never fully understand the universe if we keep branching into narrower and narrower disciplines as a method of moving forward.
I think what Edward O. Wilson says is very true. What he is essentially saying is that there is too much information and not enough wisdom. In my opinion, we would be better off using and applying what we already know to be true. What’s the point of continuing with research if it takes society decades to change? What’s the point of biologists working so hard trying to unravel nature’s secrets if governments and corporations don’t even heed the most basic warnings about deforestation. Wouldn’t studying the pschology of change be more effective? Wouldn’t guaranteeing our survival be the best thing to focus on right now?
I think it is time for a different era in Science. A direction which which doesn’t try and invent “cures” for the countless problems that industrialisation or technology has already created, but instead, one that sources the reasons behind their after-effects. Yes I’m talking about industries, inventions or incidents which always seem to generate previously “unknown” problems.
If we always claim ignorance after some type of revenge effect occurs, no matter how smart we claim to be, we are not. In all likelihood, it means that there were considerations which could have been followed but were chosen to be ignored. How do we predict them? Perhaps a new type of study could be employed, similar to a feasibility study – lets call it a “consequentiality study”. This would attempt to document the emergence of future possible unintended consequences, especially negative ones. In this manner, the after effects could be anticipated and hence the proposal could be modified.
If a high growth economy is needed to fight the battle against pollution, which itself appears to be the result of high growth, what hope is there of ever breaking out of this extraordinary cycle? – Author of “Small is Beautiful”, E.F. Schumacher.
Instead of relentlessly pursuing the current line of investigation, let’s take a step back and link previously unrelated findings together. Let’s join the dots to create the bigger picture, so to speak, especially concerning the direction we’re all headed. Let’s be smart and study the consequences of our actions for a change, and try to prevent them from ever occurring. Let’s harness the vast expanse of our existing knowledge, and look at ways to develop and encourage a sustainable future. Maybe we should also ask our society what it wants us to pursue?