What is Science, and what’s in it for me?

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917)

The Thinker (Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917)

To be a Dean of Science means different things, in a shallow sense, at different institutions.  At the same time it means the same thing, in a deep way, at any institution.  Some Universities have Computer Science in their business schools, some have Biology and Chemistry in their medical schools, some have Mathematics, Psychology, and Geography in their arts faculties, some have Physics, Geology, and Meteorology in their engineering faculties, and some would have a Natural Museum in their office of public affairs.  All of these are in Science at McGill, and make up the Science Faculty.  At another university, another, almost random mix of departments might make up a science faculty.  But, whatever the mix of Departments and Schools which make up a Faculty of Science at any institution, there is only one point of view on what science is, and what it means to all universities.

I was thinking about this when I was called upon to give a short talk recognizing Kurt Gottfried of Cornell.  Professor Gottfried has studied the subatomic structure of matter, and the foundations of quantum mechanics.  He has been elected a Fellow of the American Physics Society, and other distinguished organizations.  In addition, Professor Gottfried co-founded the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based non-profit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world.  Indeed, Professor Gottfried continues to promote sound scientific ethics, and to actively fight the distortion of scientific knowledge for political purposes.

I was asked to speak because Professor Gottfried was to receive an honourary doctorate at McGill.  The conferral and acceptance of an honourary doctorate is a reflection of shared values of the deepest nature.  Science informs those values in a fundamental way.  Professor Gottfried has had a distinguished scientific career, but this was not the only value we shared.  Professor Gottfried remains committed to a safer world, but again this was not the only value we shared.  I would even say there was and is a radical value McGill and Professor Gottfried shared.  It is “… to actively fight the distortion of scientific knowledge.”

These are truly fighting words for all academics and for all universities.  Our measure of the correctness of an idea is not the volume with which someone yells “4 legs good, 2 legs bad”.  We have a measure: the scientific method.  Our common value is the legitimacy that measure provides.  We test ideas, opinions, gossip – all hypotheses – against that great leveler, experiment.  We do this for a simple purpose, to convince others.  That convincing is the shared radical idea: the implicit respect for people that anyone can be convinced by clear evidence; and the implicit respect that anyone can create new knowledge this way, following this measure, regardless of shoe size, hair color, or what have you.

Universities are the engines of innovation, creating, validating, and disseminating knowledge of the real world.  This spirit of open inquiry, of universal knowledge, of universal access, of universal empowerment, this spirit of fact-based reality is an old one.  But it is as relevant and radical in the 21st century as it was during the enlightenment “… to actively fight the distortion of scientific knowledge for political purposes.”  It is this radical value, this non-negotiable point of view, which all scientists at all universities share.

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