Because of a convergence of 1) Halloween, 2) my dissertation defense, and 3) my students’ exams, my mind of late has been very keyed into exactly how scary science can be for some people, including myself when I was younger. I teach biology for both majors and non-majors, and a consistent theme in my non-majors class especially is a certain fear or trepidation around studying sciences, and it’s something to which I can relate. There was a time when I had that same fear very much on my mind, and at the time, my chosen way to deal with the issue was to study education. Lucky for me, I had an honors biology professor, and later friend, who encouraged me to take the leap and change majors.
I understand the concern around science for many people- it has some big equations, lots of abstract theories, and let’s face it, plenty of cultural baggage. Literature has a great time with science and scientists, from Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and all the “mad-scientists” in between. Like most fears, wariness of science has some grain of truth to it, seen in Dr. Mengela, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Baby Alfred, and more. Snakes and spiders suffer a similar situation, where a few bad actors cast everyone as less than friendly.
More than anything science is a process, a tool for learning more about our world. All tools can be used for either good or bad depending on a number of factors. Processes including the scientific method are interesting; they require infrastructure, they have institutional memory, and they have inertia. Think of playing sports or gardening- you need to have equipment, the necessary skills are passed from one person to another either face to face or through other media, and once you get out for a while it’s hard to get back in. All the same things could be said for scientific research.
When push comes to shove, those processes- science, sports, gardening- add many valuable things to our daily lives. Sports offer entertainment, economic development, and physical fitness; gardening provides beauty and nourishment; science solves problems of disease, engineering, and technology. None of the other processes are feared or cause undue anxiety, so why should science? If you’re reading this, then I’m probably preaching to the choir, but just in case, try to embrace science like a horror flick on Halloween. At least the scientific method might cure cancer someday.
To everyone who’s conquered their fear and discovered the joy of doing science- Happy Halloween and I hope you’re having a fun time of it.