5.6 Public understanding and perception of science
Everyday reality presents itself not just through the senses but intersubjectively (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) – that is, we form meanings about the world because we talk to others about what we perceive. Scientific knowledge is also formed intersubjectively through being shared within a community of scientists – a community of practice which stipulates what constitutes legitimate scientific knowledge, and validates the epistemological assumptions made by its own traditions.
Science's success rests on its ability to speak to the public about the real world in terms that do not always readily correspond to commonsense views but which, nevertheless, must be made intelligible. Unfortunately, this can make the language of science inaccessible to many people when, to be well informed on subjects that affect their futures, they need to understand it. Arguments always return to the truth of the claims being made, which are often reduced to absolutes by the popular media. Since science cannot prove anything – it can only falsify – it never claims to be the absolute truth. It can only put forward the explanation which is most likely, given the evidence.
Such relativism may make us uncomfortable: often we allow our perceptions to become judgements, in contradiction to scientific principles. And when our everyday knowledge is confronted by an alternative reality, we are inclined to believe our senses rather than the usually more difficult scientific explanations for the alternative. This is why we may find it so difficult to grasp the idea that space and time are the same.
Activity 20: Sunrise
Will the sun rise tomorrow?
Write a brief account explaining the reasoning behind your response to this question.
The answer has to be yes, it probably will. However, the reasoning is more complex and predicated upon relativism and subjectivity. You may want to reflect on how you might explain your answer to children, since it cannot be said that the sun will rise for everyone everywhere on the planet. And where is the sun on a rainy day?
This kind of dialogue may help young, imaginative and observant minds to engage with the language of science, as well as challenging your own perceptions of life.