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Physics LibreTexts

1.23 Culture of Science

To many people, science seems remote. It's practitioners use technical language and jargon, they are comfortable with mathematics, and they work in special settings like observatories and laboratories. A small fraction of the workforce consists of scientists and engineers. Most people do not know a scientist personally. This kind of separation and disconnect is unhealthy. The modern world is increasingly driven by science and technology. Everything from cell phones and GPS navigation to food additives and medicines are rooted in modern science. The general public shows persistently low levels of science literacy and in a democracy this limits their ability to make informed decisions about important societal issues. Equally, it is worrying when scientists do good research but are deaf to the concerns of the general public.

Scientists have their own culture. It has different flavors for an astronomer or a chemist or a biologist, but there are some common features. These ideals are not always met perfectly, but all professional scientists strive for them. Science is open. Scientists are expected, and are often obligated by their funding agencies, to share data and make it available in professional journals. This is unlike the world of business, where ideas and inventions have commercial value and so are often closely guarded secrets. Data that cannot be replicated will not advance atheory or an idea. Data that are kept private cannot be replicated. The culture of sharing is in tension with the competitiveness of modern science. If you share your data too quickly someone may make a discovery first! With the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers who get timeon the facility have a year to reduce the data and publish it, after which the observations are put into a public archive. This keeps up the pressure on astronomers to publish their data promptly. Science is meritocratic. In science it does not (or should not) matter how rich you are or who your parents were or where you were born. Success is based on the quality of ideas, originality, and hard work. There are flaws in this aspect of science, such as the uneven advancement of women and minorities. So perhaps it's more accurate to say that science is mostly meritocratic.

Science is increasingly international. It emerged from ancient Greece and gained its first institutions in Western Europe, but scientists live and work in every country. Developing countries in particular recongize that science is a path to economic advancement. The language of science is English. This probably makes English-speaking scientists lazy about learning new languages, but it ensures that anyone can participate in the global activity of science if they know the common language. Many large projects involve many different countries. More than a dozen countries are involved in the International Space Station and the particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva. To take the example of astronomy, there about 5000 professional astronomers in the United States, and about 15,000 worldwide.

Even though science has its own culture, it's also part of human culture. Most people have grown up used to a divide between the Arts and the Sciences or between humanistic and technical pursuits. It didn't start with way. The Greek philosophers who invented science were well-read and knew about art and culture. Great thinkers like Leonardo and Galileo were equally comfortable in the worlds of science and art and music. Specialization and the growth of knowledge makes it hard for anyone to keep up with knowledge in science if they don't work in science. Hence the obligation of scientists to communicate what they do to the public.