Monday, January 09, 2012

a symbol for science

There's an interesting article by Paul Root Wolpe in the Opinion section of New Scientist putting forward the idea that science needs a symbol so that people can express support for science, because it is under attack.

Is science really under attack (apart from by a few nutters on the extreme end of religion)? The article even admits that plenty of people of faith do support science. My own research into Pagans and science found a lot of support for science. Dr Wolpe himself is an expert in bioethics, so I guess he comes up against a lot of overlap and potential conflict between religion and science in his work.

American Atheists use the atomic whirl as a symbol, and it is recognised as the symbol for atheism on veterans' gravestones. That symbol might be one possibility. The New Scientist article points out that the DNA double helix won't do, because the symbol must represent physics and chemistry as well as biology. He goes on to say:
And it should be easy to modify, perhaps to identify a subject area - able to accommodate within it a double helix, or an atom, or the word NASA, or any other refinement locating the bearer in the scientific firmament. Perhaps it could even accommodate a cross or star of David or some other symbol to state: "I am a Christian (or Jew or Muslim) and support science as an enterprise."
You could certainly fit a pentagram or a chalice in the middle of an atomic whirl.

As to the points that the symbol would express support for...
  • I'm not sure that I want a rigid demarcation between the areas that religion and science can pronounce upon, as I am not a supporter of the non-overlapping magisteria theory. May the person with the best evidence win the debate.
  • I do want to express support for the scientific method, and empiricism generally.
  • I think that politicians all too often make decisions which fly in the face of scientific evidence.
  • I do want to show that I am full of awe and wonder at the beauty of the universe as revealed by science.
  • However, I do think science could be more open to phenomena that do not appear to have a material basis (they probably do, but no-one has worked out how to measure them yet).
  • I don't believe that scientists are entirely objective; they are too often influenced by politics and ideology.
  • I don't want to express support for Dawkins' dismissal of myth and fairy-tales (I am sure no-one ever took them literally; they express mythopoeic truths)
  • And I do think science should take ethical and environmental concerns into consideration more often.
  • I would like to see more awareness among scientists of Kuhn's theory of paradigm shifts.
  • I would like to see more awareness among scientists of the history and philosophy of science generally, and how many times science and technology has made situations worse instead of making them better.
 So I probably wouldn't wear the symbol even if it existed, because I might not be able to sign up for everything it stands for, even though I think science is a jolly good thing and should form the basis of more decisions than it does.

The symbol could be an atom, except that it is already in use for a particular group. It could be a chemical flask, but that would not encompass astronomy. It's difficult to think of a symbol that would encompass the whole of science. Maybe a pair of compasses to represent the idea of measuring? or a pair of scales to indicate weighing up the evidence?

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