Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why you should care about science

If you ask any scientist why they do what it is they do, you might get varying answers. For instance, an undergraduate might tell you something very different from a post doctorate student (who by this time would have asked themselves the same question with increasing frequency over the years).

I could run out of op-ed space explaining to you the many reasons why science is important in our lives but for the purpose of this column, I will only tell you that it is to vanquish ignorance and exercise a healthy dose of skepticism. Too many of us are victims of pseudoscience, myths, misconceptions and incorrect use of science in marketing ploys.

Ignorance in its purity can be very easily overcome. Throw in a dash of ego into the mix and you’ve got yourself a misguided sense of self-preservation when it comes to “touchy” issues such as creationism, vaccination, evolution, alternative medicine and nutritional information.

Thankfully, all these can save one a big headache if you apply the simplest skills of science among which resonates “assume nothing and question everything”. Now, science journalism is there not only as a fact-checking tool but as a standard by which we practice healthy skepticism (not cynicism) to better ourselves intellectually.

It is unfortunate, in my opinion that science stories do not hold a lot of weight in terms of editorial space in many national (and indeed local and community) papers in South Africa. They have to compete with sports and politics, with the latter being in great supply.

As a science advocate, it is my duty to try to convince you why you should like (or at least care about science) but I have found out that it isn’t that simple. A sports journalist doesn’t need to convince sports fans (who cover most of the population) as to why they should like sports.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that writing such stories is easy as being a journalist requires one to have a ridiculously hectic life and the non-existance of a stable social life. Those who are able to achieve the latter are overachievers or frauds or both.

I have to also admit that science on the surface for someone who is not initially interested is intimidating. I’d love to, more than anything, tell you that science is all about the discovery of some wonder material or newly discovered giant killer chicken or the advent of a space rock on a collision course with Richards Bay (I’d really love to) but I have learnt that this is not always the case.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, these stories are amazing and you can see a lot of them on reputable websites with a favorite being I Fucking Love Science and a few others such Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy and the best science journalists in the world at National Geographic's Phenomina (seriously, go check them out on your phone).

I think what we need is some dose of skepticism and do away with our fear of science. Yes, we need to fall in love with the wonder of science but be very careful not to turn into “bumper-sticker” science, as one of South Africa’s foremost science journalists (and author of Searching African Skies) once put it.

Science can be so much more than that, it’s clear that if we really apply ourselves to the scientific process and understand the scientific method, we can greatly improve (or install!) our bullshit-o-meters to protect ourselves from this pre-zombie-apocalypse era we find ourselves in.

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