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Science as Culture

Lawrence Krauss, one of the best popularizers of science since Carl Sagan, has another article in last week’s Science: Celebrating Science as Culture. In it, he reviews the World Science Festival that took place in New York City from May 28 to June 1, 2008.

In the article itself, Krauss provides the big picture:

Even as many of us bemoan the sorry state of scientific literacy among the general population, the public nevertheless remains fascinated by science. The proof of this is the remarkable success of a relatively new phenomenon cropping up in cities around the world: science festivals. From Genoa to Edinburgh, from Ireland to the United States, such gatherings of scientists and the public are drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors, who are treated to everything from popular lectures to science-related operas. For periods ranging from a weekend to a full week, cities are transformed into places where science briefly attains what should be its natural place in popular culture.

The culture of science has been aptly juxtaposed to that of the humanities since the 1959 lecture by C.P. Snow on The Two Cultures. And with today’s culture wars between the religion and secularism, the developing culture of science is contrasted even more starkly.

Science as CultureIn contrast to the evidence-based approach to the world provided by science, where building knowledge and recognizing uncertainty are central, and where humanity is not divided by boundaries, the alternative foundations for culture fall flat on their faces.

But it’s strange to think of science as a culture, especially for the scientists that are its lifeblood. We could care less about the cultural ramifications of our work; our attention is usually devoted to the work itself.

Not that it is unimportant however. The sciences and the pragmatic realities that they study are universal, traditional religions and cultures are instead parochial, establishing the intrinsic tendency of ethnocentrism and intolerance that we blithely attribute to “Human nature.” But I digress.

Science has become a culture, in fact. The Oxford Dictionary describes “Culture” as “Learned behavior which is socially transmitted, such as customs, belief, morals, technology, and art; everything in society which is socially, rather than biologically transmitted.” Science, from graduate school onward, definitely fits into that description. From your thesis to the daily lab-work routine to the sacredness of lab notebooks to taboos against fabricating data, science is culture. We often are as passionately engaged in our work as anyone else. It even feels cool to be a geek, when one finds him or herself in “geek culture.”

Image credit: Phillip Torrone

1 Comment

  1. Rob on August 6, 2008 at 12:50 am

    “the public nevertheless remains fascinated by science”. Fascinated – what a great word. I think this sums up why we’re all interested in science, whether we’re the local baker or its our career. We’ve all got the intuitive need to understand why.

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