In recent years, educators and scientists have become increasingly aware of the fact that science remains intimidating or inaccessible to the general population. When Pamela Hines, senior editor of Science, visited Dartmouth in spring 2008, she encouraged guests at the Karen E. Wetterhahn science symposium to consider improving science education. In his article “Put a Little Science in Your Life,” Brian Greene argues that it is an unfortunate fact that so many people do not comprehend science. He writes, “It’s one thing to marvel at a sky full of stars. It’s another to marvel not only at the spectacle but to recognize that those stars are the result of exceedingly ordered conditions 13.7 billion years ago at the moment of the Big Bang. It is another still to understand how those stars act as nuclear furnaces that supply the universe with carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen, the raw material of life as we know it” (1). While Greene’s article portrays science as an “adventure stor[y]” that should be communicated in an appealing manner, it fails to take into account the fact that science may be viewed as a culture with its own vocabulary and codes of behavior. In presenting the cultural side of science, I hope to shed light on the fact that science requires that one become accustomed to its modes of behavior and language, as with any foreign culture. If science is viewed in this light, it is possible that much of the aura of intimidation will lessen. If this cultural aspect of science is taught to the general population, such knowledge will enable people to view science in an unintimidating light.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. William Wunderle has determined the definitions of culture and cultural awareness that I will use in this paper. He argues that in the past, educators have merely taught those in the military the “do’s and don’ts without providing cultural context” (2). He argues that it is vital to understand the culture of the occupied country because, culture, in his view, can be defined as “simply another element of terrain, parallel to geographic terrain. Just as a hill or saddle affect a soldier’s ability to maneuver, so can religion, perceptions, and language help military planners find centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities, and assist in campaign planning and the proper allocation of resources” (3). Furthermore, he views cultural awareness as understanding a particular culture to the extent that “military operations” are performed effectively and efficiently within the cultural context (4). To Wunderle, cultural awareness is not simply idealistic rhetoric, but an application. We can apply Wunderle’s definition of culture and cultural awareness to science education. Just as Wunderle views culture as a “terrain” that must be understood so that military forces can best conduct their daily operations, so too can we view scientific culture as the “terrain” that must be understood so that students and the general population alike can have a more grounded knowledge of science. Embedding the facts of science in a cultural context will make it easier to understand why particular things are done.
A good way to see how science is cultural is to observe the debate between realists and relativists concerning the validity of scientific claims. Scientists often defend their conclusions in accordance with one of two paradigms. They may view their argument as truth, since it was determined using sound scientific practices. Or they may view their conclusion as a great way to explain a particular phenomenon under a scientific interpretation of the world. The difference between the two groups is the fact that the latter acknowledges how there can be different ways to explain a particular phenomenon in the universe using different criteria. According to the philosopher James Cushing, the former group of scientists, scientific realists, affirms that scientific development through time provides a more accurate account of the natural order of the laws that describe how nature operates. He argues that the latter group, scientific relativists, affirms that science does not necessarily provide the best way to explain the world. In some circumstances, other non-science-based cultures can explain the world just as well, if not better than science, using a rationale shaped by local, social forces (5).
This logic can be seen in the debate concerning biomedicine’s effectiveness in treating patients from traditional (or alternative) backgrounds where science may clash with their cultural beliefs. When studying such cultures, researchers find that alternative medicine speaks more to the patients’ overall ideas of healing than biomedicine. Such patients often appreciate traditional medicine more for its emphasis on spiritual, social, or natural therapies, than biomedicine, which often focuses solely on destroying the pathogen through chemical means. The fact that these patients often become highly dissatisfied with biomedical therapies calls into question whether biomedicine remains the best treatment in all cultural situations. If a patient is emotionally disturbed both during and after biomedical treatment, it is difficult to say that the overall treatment was effective (6). Those of us from biomedical-based cultures may conclude that the treatment was effective simply because the disease was removed, but this only shows that we are privileging the methods that we believe in. Meanwhile, the patient suffers a certain discomfort that may have been alleviated had traditional medicine been considered in tandem with or, in some cases, in the place of biomedicine.
The debate between these two groups has revealed that scientists most likely privilege the assumption that there is a natural order to the way things work in the world. Under this idea of a natural order, supernatural forces are rarely considered.
Natural order may therefore be viewed as a facet of scientific culture. Without the assumption of its existence, the scientific method would not be praised to the extent that it has in the scientific community. The scientific method is the fundamental application of science. Using this method, a scientist observes natural phenomenon, creates a hypothesis, conducts an experiment to invalidate the hypothesis, and then draws conclusions based on the results of the experiment that may invalidate the hypothesis. Key to the scientific method is the question. For instance, how does this object go from point A to point B? Or what is responsible for this effect? The experiment that scientists use to explore their question often informs the conclusion that is reached. Therefore, how the conclusion is reached becomes just as important as the conclusion itself, and scientists will place great emphasis on documenting their experiments for others to reproduce (7). If one were to use an entirely different method to answer the same question, it is possible that another conclusion may be reached. Depending on your values, you may find the conclusion of a different methodology to be ill-informed or highly plausible.
What this analysis reveals is that the general population must take the initiative and learn about science and its culture. Just as any other culture, science has a particular vocabulary and language. In order to understand the language of the culture, one must comprehend particular words, depending on how much knowledge the reader wishes to know. But rather than run away from science, understanding the basic premises of science and its primary application, the scientific method, will equip anyone to explore science further.
1. B. Greene, “Put a little science in your life,” The International Herald Tribune, 1 June 2008.
2. W. D. Wunderle, Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness (Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2006), p. 1.
3. W. D. Wunderle, Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness (Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2006), p. 9.
4. W. D. Wunderle, Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness (Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2006), p. 87.
5. J. Cushing, C. Delaney, G. Gutting (eds.), Science and Reality: Recent Work in the Philosophy of Science University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 1984) p. 85.
6. J. B. Waldram, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 14, 603-625 (2000).
T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1962) p. 23.