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Thou Shalt Study Science

by Vlatko Vedral

August 12, 2010

How the scientific battle is as much for the hearts of people as it is their minds.

Some 150 years ago, a great British biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, in his essay, "A Liberal Education," compared life to a game of chess. He invites us to imagine that our survival and well-being depended on winning or losing at a game of chess. “Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty,” he asks, “to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces... and [have] a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check?”

Huxley goes on to make a statement that is more accurate now than during the Victorian era in which he wrote: “It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature.”

In other words, thou shalt study science.  

In Huxley’s time, general education did not include science. Being well educated meant being fluent in classics, speaking languages like Greek and Latin, not to mention being familiar with literature, history, and religion. Huxley worked hard to change the curriculum to include science. His arguments were beautifully and forcefully exposed, with a mixture of passion, insight and—let’s face it, this is one of the key movers and shakers in the animal world—fear. Huxley thus concludes his chess and Nature parable: “To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated—without haste, but without remorse.”

The efforts of Huxley and a number of other like-minded Victorian scientists were not in vain. Today science is part of a general curriculum worldwide, much like history and religion. And the general public is certainly aware of the power that science gives us when controlling and exploiting nature. Science instills both admiration and fear. But the battle to accept science more broadly is a battle of both hearts and minds. While most of us now accept the rational need for science in order to tame nature and anticipate disasters, very few people believe that science can also offer a strong spiritual foundation. In this latter sense, the Victorian ideal to teach the spirit of science to everyone sadly still remains just an ideal.

Can this ever be changed? And should science be taught in such a way to provide a basis for a sound way of life and not just a means of conquering an enemy or putting food on the table? I think the answer to both is a definite “yes.” To me, as a practicing scientist, the methods and attitudes I use in my scientific work are inseparable from those I employ in my private life.

I maintain that three messages of science are the key in providing us with a broader framework for living a worthwhile existence. The first is this: if a rigorously scrutinized piece of evidence contradicts some of our cherished beliefs, it is time to change the beliefs (and not fake the evidence). In other words, being flexible and honest is very important. Secondly, accept arguments on the basis of evidence alone (and not on the basis of who presents them). In other words, be critical and have a healthy disrespect for authority. Thirdly, even our deepest held convictions could be proven wrong one day. Therefore be open-minded to different views and tolerant of others. Given that most of the world’s conflicts stem from some form of extreme philosophical or religious view, a broad acquaintance with the three scientific messages just outlined (especially if it comes early in education) would seem highly desirable.

A famous Scottish philosopher, David Hume, once said that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” I very much agree with this. Expressed somewhat differently and more prosaically (but in line with our discussion), the heart dictates what the mind thinks. This is why the scientific battle for the hearts of people is a far more important one than that for their minds. And, most likely, it will be a far tougher one to win. But (and we in education should all be well aware of this) winning the scientific battle for the hearts of people could prove to be crucial—as far as humanity is concerned it could simply be a matter of life and death, not only spiritually but also materially. 

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Vlatko Vedral is professor of quantum information science at the University of Oxford and a professor of physics at the National University of Singapore. Vedral's main contribution to the field is in the understanding of quantum correlations and their use in information processing. He is also the author of "Decoding Reality."

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Thou Shalt Study Science