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Nov. 18, 2011

Is Science an Institution?

by Carl Flatow

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I struggled, for a while, trying to respond to comments from a previous blog post about the essential question, Is science an institution? Then I got smart. I asked a scientist. Here’s what Lawrence Kraus, PhD., and chairman of the board of the Science Friday Initiative (not his day job) says:

Science is a ‘process’ for exploring the world. It allows us to distinguish nonsense from sense, with the former being ideas and proposals that make predictions that do not agree with experiment and observation. It allows us to determine what we know and don’t know, and what we may never know about how nature works. It is not an institution, nor is it a club. Science is done by each one of us, every day, as we attempt to navigate and survive in the world.

Thanks Lawrence….

The answer to the question is essential since it defines the domain of science. If science is a process for exploring the world then adopting policies that use scientific findings are political acts (we’re not in science, anymore, Toto) and claiming that science supports your product is marketing. Science can’t support your product if it’s only a process.

The commercial that I love to hate comes from a chemical company which begins it lovely TV ad with joyful music and the premise, “If love is a chemical reaction….”

Logic dictates that we start with a sound premise. Watching that commercial, we are swept into the wonderful world of chemistry, and our hero, this company which claims to be, at the end, “THE chemical company!”, goes on to tell us how they are making our world a better place. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not.

Unfortunately for me, I can never get past their faulty premise. I don’t believe that “Love is a chemical reaction!” (does anybody?) By starting with that claim, thereby cloaking themselves in “Science,” the only conclusion that they get me to reach is that they’re trying to trick me by starting with a faulty premise. They have crossed the line between science and marketing, where the most important rule to remember is a rule of the marketplace, not the laboratory, Caveat Emptor — let the buyer beware!

…and therefore, even though I feel misled, I have not been misled by scientists.

About Carl Flatow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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