Today scientific knowledge is more popular among the public than ever. It is only underscored with the success of the vast number of magazines popularizing science and the growing numbers of public science fairs popping up everywhere (e g here in Göteborg the science fair Vetenskapsfestivalen occured last week). The increased educational levels, indisputable leaps in many scientific areas but also the increasing complexity, new challenges to humanity and the growing feeling of uncertainty and need for truths is really working in favor of a public interest in scientific knowledge. So far that's fine.
As many other development in recent times, this development is due to the driving force of technology a self reinforcing force causing it to grow exponentially in all directions. But technology doesn't just propel scientific development alone. It is also a major driving force behind the development and spread of all other kinds of knowledge. One effect is that technology together with increased wealth and educational levels have rendered science just one knowledge producing niche among many others. Sometimes we talk about our times as the age of the amateurs since most the resources and know-how formerly existing within the walls of certain institutions, now are flowing freely around the globe.
Another effect of technology is also the rise of the media society which have had a huge impact on our values and our view of ourselves and others. In a society where the majority of the population have a global world view, university degrees and knowledge worker positions people need to develop a strategy to cope with the flood of unrelated and usually inconsistent information.
The academic utopian idea about coping with this have to do with thorough analysis of the different sources of information followed by an evaluation of the underlying agenda of the sources in question. This is of course ridiculous in an everyday situation and what it all falls down to then is our basic demand for consistency.
But consistency on which level? Again our belief of individuals as rational agents make us think that it is consistency on the individual level. What I have observed is that in general this also is wrong. It rather seems to happens on the level that is more important to us in our daily life and probably in our long term survival as well: the group level. What this means is that whenever somebody tells us something, or we read something in an article, most of us feel an urge to test it with the group. The way we do this is usually mentioning it at the dinner table or drop it as a conversation piece during coffee break at work or around a cafÃ© table.
What we do when we at an early stage in evaluation a certain piece of knowledge test it with the group is probably
- to test if we are in sync with the group and possibly adjust or assess our position in the social hierarchical ladder
- to test if somebody else have additional knowledge that could be helpful in the evaluation
Since we are social animals knowledge is sometimes considered important for group survival, but always raw material for group forming. What is really important in group forming what constitutes the group and what we say and how we express ourselves is extremely important markers in this continuously ongoing process.
The result is that today we have very different dinner conversations than our parents or grandparents had. In essence we talk about everything from the effects of a certain pharmaceutical drug, a new neurophysiological discovery to the diplomatic relations with China. Even if you don't have any knowledge of the subject we feel compelled to at least relate to it, and to take help of the community and form some kind of opinion about it, because otherwise we would risk losing our position in the social structure of the group.
What has really changed the last decades in the western world is that scientific and other advanced form of knowledge have seriously entered into our social structures and have become a raw material in the process of socializing and personal development.
We already know that scientific and other knowledge since decades have been tools in political processes. This shift in knowledge use happened as soon as new knowledge had national and military implication.
What we haven't realized yet is that exactly that transition have quite recently been happening on an individual level as well. So if the concept of truth have had it's challenges on political level the last centuries, it is probably just a breeze compared to what is currently happening. Today we live in a time when new communication technology is boosting increased knowledge and self actualization need of modern man; a time of a continuous redefinition of social patterns and creation/recombination of knowledge. Knowledge and have really become the raw material of our time and which in turn means that the concept of truth becomes being more and more obfuscated under layers of different agendas of social activity.
So just because scientific processes continue to produce knowledge and insights for the common good (or for commercial interest), it isn't necessary so that the status of science will remain. Rather the opposite. It is important to note that this is not because the scientists are doing things wrong, but because societies have succeeded in spreading knowledge and wealth and made us rise in the levels of Maslow pyramid of needs. On that level it is all about social hierarchies and inner feelings of the individual.
One of the important prodromes of this is the emergence of "science porn" which I think is an appropriate name for what is happening in many science fairs and popular science magazines. Not because it is bad, but because we consume it in unrelated fragments, it has mainly an individual or social function and it is a media substitute for the real thing which makes us feel as we are very knowledgeable and insightful ourselves.
What will happen in the future? I think it is quite clear that the serious knowledge processes like science is losing out unless they can provide real practical value. Companies who can argue that investment in research is part of their value creating process will of course thrive. The problem is the public funding of science. It is quite clear that when the scientific process loses it's public status as a method for producing interesting and relevant knowledge (not true!!) it will be losing out in favor of an emerging group of thinkers, amateur scientists and maybe even former professional scientist who find ways to fund their research through publishing books and articles that people in general want to read. And how much can a government spend on research when the common value of truths and knowledge in itself is declining?
The amateurization of knowledge production is spreading quickly and right now I can't see how science can survive in it's current form in the longer run. Bad organizations and structural inertia from which the universities in the western world is suffering from today is definitely not helping, but rather disguising the real reasons for the decline of science which is really coming from outside of science.