Sunday 30th October, 2011
9:05am to 9:40am
Prior to the age of Galileo everyday living depended on common sense experience. To survive it was really not necessary to know that it was because the Earth was a sphere turning on its axis that the Sun appeared to circle the Earth. However since then doubt-based philosophy has flowered and intelligent people have recognized that evidence is absolutely necessary for the determination of what can be considered true with any degree of reliability.
By and large most when they think about such contributions of Science from penicillin to electricity would say that the beneficial applications have greatly outweighed the detrimental ones. Whether this will hold true in the future remains to be seen. As the 21st Century opens up a major exciting new perspective has developed called Nanoscience which is uncovering exciting new phenomena which promise paradigm shifting applications – Nanotechnology. These advances are really not new as the living process has already, aeons ago, developed minute nanoscale devices in fact molecular machines such as tiny electric motors which are vital to the ways our bodies function. We already know from recent chemical discoveries such as the fullerenes and nanotubes that it should be possible to create materials with phenomenal tensile strength and electrical behavior as well as devices the size of a wrist watch that have supercomputer capability. However major technological hurdles need to be overcome before these exciting applications are likely to be realized.
As we start to make these advances a curious phenomenon has started to appear and it is an antiscientific movement operating on many fronts. The evidence-based philosophy which has been so incredibly successful in revolutionising all aspects of our world is also uncovering some alarming problems ranging from serious worries about the impact of humans on the environment and the sustainability of the human race as well as conflicts with the powerful sociopolitical dogmas that have controlled society heretofore. Scientific prediction is based on careful analysis of evidence and involves projections to assess what might happen in the future. Such predictions are subject to intrinsic degrees of uncertainty, the more complicated the problem and the longer term the projection, the less certain we can be. There is a general unwillingness to accept that there may be problems ahead for the very survival of the human race and furthermore some of our traditionally held views may not stand up to the rigorous analysis that Natural Philosophy demands.
There is no historical evidence that the human race has ever worried effectively about our long term future or indeed that we can rely on politicians or society in general to address seriously the sustainability issues we may be facing. Part of the problem lies in the intrinsic aspect of science that in complex situations one cannot be absolutely sure until the real “situation” is upon us. In the light of this there is only one hope – that is to better educate the next generation to ensure they have better understanding of what we know, and how we come to know. It is for this reason that I have spent recent years exploring how the Internet might best be used to improve education – in particular Science, Engineering and Technology SET education. I started off by creating the Vega Science Trust which is streaming science programmes at www.vega.org.uk. I have more recently set up Global Educational Outreach for SET (GEOSET) which is streaming from the gateway site at www.geoset.info as well as feeder nodes such as www.geoset.fsu.edu and www.geokri.org. With GEOSET we are enabling educators wherever they are to contribute to a free globally accessible cache of teaching material. After all “Although knowledge cannot guarantee good decisions, common sense suggests that wisdom is an unlikely consequence of ignorance”.
(Part of the plenary session An All-Star Conversation About Skepticism)
Francis Eppes professor of Chemistry at Florida State University and Nobel Laureate
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