The Misunderstanding About Science

(The examples used in this article are from The Netherlands, but I expect that similar cases can be found all over the world).

The point in this message is that we are being misled in everyday communication: because of the somewhat questionable tenor of the word “technology”, people prefer to use the word “science”, which is simply not correct in most cases!
First of all: I myself am a technician by nature. I look for solutions to problems, try to get things done with everything I assume is fixed knowledge through observations and learning from experiences. I once started a study in the sciences of physics and mathematics, but the practical side of life was more appealing to me. I am saying this now, because further on it may seem as if I find technology, technics and technicians inferior. That is absolutely not the case! Without technology, our world would not be as comfortable and we would not have as many opportunities for self-development as is the case today. Unfortunately, there are also downsides to technology, such as the creation of the waste mountain, climate change, “dehumanization”, retaliatory weapons and so on. Situations such as diesel fraud, genetic engineering and internet abuse give techies a somewhat bad name. But we cannot do without these people. In fact, since the earliest times of mankind, there have been technicians: people who learned in practice from experience, were handy, and made the necessary stuff. Whether that was a sharp-edged object, a stockade against predators, a sturdy house against wind and weather… Even before there were scientists.

2020 is the year that science leaves a noticeable mark on our society due to the corona crisis. If you think a little further, you will of course realize that our entire regular life has been determined by science for a long time, from the daily weather forecast to our consumer behavior, from (internet) media to the entire healthcare system. Usually we reap the positive benefits of what we call “Science” and we don’t think about it that much, but in 2020 we are severely limited by that same science. Our collective belief in science is so great, however, that we only grumble about this restriction of personal freedoms. Science has become the new religion. Scientists are the new prophets. In the Netherlands it is not too bad, but in countries like Germany a title in some kind of science ensures that you apparently can say something meaningful about just anything and everything. Politicians and business people eagerly take advantage of this to influence us for goals that we don’t always see through (which is the primary breeding ground for all kinds of conspiracy theories). And where people are busy and communicate with each other, there is always the danger of misunderstandings and prejudices. All of this put together forms an explosive mixture that we see now, in 2020, come to a boiling point on a global scale with riots, civil disobedience, political hardening, demagogues and dictators and an all-embracing crisis. And the scientific truth? Sometimes it is hard to find!

A sidetrack...

Of course there are many people who try to keep the right balance in these turbulent times. Who do not want to be carried away by emotions and gut feelings. But in massive ignorance and overheated gatherings, their voices are barely heard. Because at the moment no one wants to doubt. Few people want to put energy in understanding and collaborating with dissidents. And everything has become so complex that our simple brain can no longer comprehend it. This is the ideal time when people prefer to listen to their hearts, react intuitively and seek support in groups, shaped around dogmas. All this happens now mainly because we have lost sight of the core of what science actually (not) is. You could say we suffer from the great Misunderstanding About Science.

There is a big difference between science and engineering or technology. Sometimes you also hear the term “Applied Science”, but that is actually the same as engineering / technology. It is not all as black and white as I describe here, and many people move in a large gray area between science and technology where personal accents differ from domain to domain, but for clarity and better understanding a strict separation between the two terms certainly makes sense.

Science started with the question marks of philosophy, in which everything is viewed from a distance with the aim of understanding, coherence recognition and possibly prediction. The early philosopher quickly understood that human thinking and the way it is easily influenced stand in the way of deep insight and impartiality. This is how the art of reasoning (say: composing stories) and logic (used for conclusive evidence) arose. The philosophers of that time often strongly opposed religion, superstition, alchemy and other thought constructions around a certain viewing angle, often riddled with dogmas and pseudo-laws. However, the world around us is so complex that various specializations arose from philosophy. The material world was studied by physics, the human body by the physician, and the astrologer was actually the early astronomer who mapped the movements in the universe. Psychology and sociology later emerged from philosophy. Chemistry and biology arose from physics. Today there are many scientific sub-specializations that dig very deep to gain specialized knowledge about very small segments of our reality.

Of course there was also such a thing as art. There is a creative spark in this, something that cannot be scientifically explained, but which is felt and appreciated by people. I see art as the yin-yang complement of science. Art creates something observable, while science tries to understand and describe it in theories. You must have a talent for both: not everyone is or can become an artist or scientist. We can practice in expertise, the ability to shape. This often requires technology, and however difficult that technology may be, however difficult the technical model may be to grasp, technology in itself is not art or science. There is a big difference between architecture and engineering, and both are far removed from the underlying sciences of mechanics and materials physics. Which does not alter the fact that when those three come together harmoniously, wonders of the world are created.

But what if in the media and during TV speeches the word “science” is NOT used all the time, but the more appropriate word “technology”? How would the people’s reaction be? Take as an example the obligation to wear masks. The RIVM (dutch health institute) is clear about non-certified masks: there is no scientific evidence that this measure helps significantly against the spread of infections. The technicians then say: it always helps something, as an extra means on top of all other measures. Scientists warn against hygiene risks when wearing a mask closed over the nose and mouth for a long time, warn against breath quality and possibly psychological resistance. Techies then come up with a compromise: make the masks more permeable, looser, disposable masks … Because it always helps something. The government cannot cope with the scientific uncertainties and uses technical insights to underpin their policy. Take the vaccine: “science has managed to …” But that’s not right: it’s the technologists who puzzled, tinkered and mixed until something came up that apparently has some effect. If the chance of success in a selected target group is greater than 95%, the technologist says it works; the scientist doubts its effectiveness (and wants to understand why, and also what can happen in the other 5% of cases). But as a government you cannot present such a thing. And so a technical result is presented as an absolute scientific truth. The side effects are hidden away gently. Because people believe in science and trust technology less.

Science and technology: some differences

Point by point I will show a number of differences between the two disciplines, hopefully without value judgment. A (preliminary) judgment is fed by taste and experiences, which are different for everyone.

  • Science wants to explain, builds models and theories to interpret phenomena. If necessary, experiments and simulations are performed to confirm insights. Science is always looking for what it does not know.
    Technology is based on what is known. She uses the insights, models and theories to construct new things or to find solutions for practical issues. What is known is nourished and reinforced by experience, and is considered an established and undoubted fact.
  • The scientist naturally has doubts. He knows that he does not know everything, that all knowledge is valid only under certain preconditions A large part of the scientific efforts are aimed at broadening that framework of preconditions.
    The technician never doubts. There is a solution for everything: it has just not yet been realized. The technician always operates within the aforementioned preconditions, so the (technical) truth is almost absolute.
  • Scientists are individualists. They can be supported by assistants and technicians, but they are lonely at heart. They must be: they investigate their own ignorance, and must be prepared to defend their findings against colleagues with different insights.
    A technician is a team player. You cannot actually achieve anything without working together, because diversity in knowledge, experience and specialization is badly needed for the often complex solutions. This is the main reason that scientists are often known by name, while technicians and technologists disappear into anonymity. They don’t mind, by the way: their pride counts for the result achieved, and personal praise usually feels unjustified towards the team they were part of.
  • A scientist must be able to work independently. Secular or religious rulers, including money lenders, can at most determine the domain in which a scientist works, but should never determine the preconditions or desired outcomes. If, for example, an archaeologist investigates the history of Christianity on behalf of the Catholic Church, and during excavations comes across new evangelical texts, this cannot be denied.
    A technician, on the other hand, is always dependent on his client (often also his paymaster). This often determines the problem to be solved, and also the direction of the result. Usually there are economic reasons for this.
  • Intellectual property often rests with the scientist. These are solid publications, and there is no patent on them: a patent description must be a working example of an application of what has been discovered (ie a technical elaboration). Scientific knowledge is public property.
    At best, technicians have a spiritual attainment: what their brain has invented is part of their non-alienable personal property. Still, the technologist is bound by nondisclosure agreements, non-competition clauses, and patents are owned by the company they work for. At best, the technician’s name is mentioned in the long list of authors or others who contributed to the patent. Aside from basic skills and general knowledge, technical information is usually secret and hidden from the general public.
  • A scientist should be unscrupulous. His independence and critical attitude demand that. If you push the boundaries of what we know, you will come to things that were previously denied or explained in some other way. That’s okay. Scientific findings in themselves do not hurt anyone. At the most, others may feel threatened by the consequences of the discovery, and what possibly can be done with it later. Consider, for example, the moment when the earth moved from “flat” to “round”.
    A technician should really be a conscientious person (and unfortunately I think there are too many technicians who are blinded by teamwork, “technical ingenuity” and fast big money). After all: their solutions affect us directly, are also intended to effect something in our living environment, to achieve a certain effect. Example: the physicists who examined the atom and discovered the forces hidden within it cannot be blamed for the later development (by technicians) of the atomic bomb. There are also good uses of the same discovery (nuclear power plant, medical radiation).
  • Precisely because a scientist investigates what we do not yet know, he must have a holistic view. In principle, a scientist must keep a broad view of everything, even within a specialization, so that no possibility is overlooked. Many scientific developments arise from such an expansion of insights. When Archimedes is in the bath, and yells “Eureka!” it’s not because he deliberately took that bath to discover a new law.
    Due to his solution orientation, the technician actually always suffers from tunnel vision. Also because of the preconditions set by the environment, technical thinking remains framed. Fortunately, the technical domain is so extensive that one can learn from outcomes in other domains. And projects often are inclusive, that is, different specializations are at work exchanging findings. This is a guided form of holism (but still within the space and preferences provided by the umbrella organization).
  • The scientist knows that there is no absolute truth. History has shown time and again that models and theories have to be adapted later following new insights. Although there is a desire to fit old ideas with their boundary conditions into newer models, there is no guarantee that this will always work. New discoveries can be so groundbreaking that old theories only apply in exceptional situations. Take life on Earth for example: only in the last 100 years has it become increasingly clear that on Earth a very specialized set of conditions exists in an extremely fragile balance, through which life as we know it can exist. Previously, earthly life was considered a self-evident constant of nature, and similar forms were sought elsewhere in the universe.
    Where the scientist likes to prove that a model is incorrect in certain circumstances (and thus declares the entire model invalid), a technician will promote his absolute truth within (not always clearly communicated) preconditions. We do not notice this, because over time our modern (urban) life is completely determined by technology, and thus meets a whole set of preconditions. Traffic technology, for example, works well if we obey the rules. If you don’t, chaos will ensue with many victims. A car catalog proudly reports its top speed, and you should look carefully for the fine print where the preconditions are listed. Nobody does, because we normally live in such a situation. But someone who is used to living in the Sahara, and tries to reach the top speed there with the same car, soon discovers the limitations.
    It is this ease with which we step over the preconditions, that requires new medicines to be tested so well. All (scientific) insights that arise from this must be analyzed and serve as a stimulus for improvement.

Technology will not be able to escape its responsibility in the changes of the coming period. The powerful technology firms, such as Big Pharma, construction and energy companies, social media and their high-tech parent companies, will be held accountable to humanity for the influence they exert on society. The technician and the technologist will more often be confronted with questions of conscience about costs, practical use and influence on the planet and the quality of our living environment, and they will have to communicate more consciously, transparently and frankly. And the laymen in government? They will have to learn to do less (sometimes well-intentioned) deception by presenting miraculous technical results as high-quality scientific results. The interests on a global scale are greater than the individual pursuit of power, prestige and wealth.

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