Science and Society Week 1: Science’s Influence on Society

How has science altered human experience? For this week, the goal is to consider the ways in which human existence and social organization has been changed by science and technology. The place to start is with agriculture and animal husbandry and the adoption of selective breeding practices. These not only altered the population growth of humans, but also established new patterns of division of labor and the necessity of economic systems. In the current context, we will consider the ways in which science and technology alters the “carrying
capacity” of the human population, and what this means going forward. What happens if the current human population is deprived of science and technology? What happens if science and technology does not advance fast enough to meet today’s challenges?

 

What is science?

Philosophers have argued about defining science for centuries. We are not going to resolve that here, but hopefully we can make some useful distinctions.

There are a couple of ways that people often talk about what makes something science. One is distinguishing what topics science can handle. The other is the process that is used to direct inquiry. The second idea can actually mostly determine the content of the first; that is, how we do science will set out what things we can do science on.

While what we now know as science is well-specified, this is a pretty recent phenomenon. We can look back over history and recognize efforts that, while not conforming to modern scientific practice, certainly share many of the elements of science that we see today.

Facts, Laws, and Theories

Here’s something I use to conceptualize the relations between facts, laws, and theories.

The upshot of this is that laws tell us about regularities, and theories explain why those regularities exist.

And that leads to a three-part formula for how science gets done:

  • Characterization
  • Explanation
  • Propagation

 

Scientific Method

Wikipedia article on the Scientific Method

There isn’t one unitary approach to doing science, but the Wikipedia article does condense a pretty standard way to think about how science gets done now.

Having a method helps avoid pitfalls that experience tells us are bad for us.

Where We Have Been

Previous generations of humans haven’t had the modern, codified scientific method to draw upon, but they still figured things out and made sure that the knowledge got passed down.

Agriculture is one of the most significant technological advances made by early humans. Hunter-gatherer society and tool use in support of that lifestyle had to change to accommodate the ability to actually plan and grow plant foodstuffs.

What changes can you think of that would be necessary to go from hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society?

What does agriculture imply for the number of people that can be supported by an area?

Astronomy

Monuments and structures raised by ancient peoples often incorporated features that related to determining celestial events.

Stonehenge, for example.

The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, divers recovered materials from a wreck near Antikythera. Among them was a corroded, encrusted mass of bronze that has since become known as the Antikythera Mechanism.

Video of replication of the Antikythera Mechanism in Lego

X-Tek page on the Antikythera Mechanism

Article on researcher setting the date of the Antikythera Mechanism earlier. Assumption: “start date” relates to earliest predicted solar eclipse.

Population Dynamics

To really get a handle on what the relationship between science and society implies, one needs to understand how populations change over time.

Consider yeast.

Population Dynamics tutorial

What Science Does to Society

Nuclear technology and mishaps

Can Science Fandom Hurt Science?

Scienceyness is bad for science