Do you know what research is done at your local university? When was the last time you asked a scholar about his research and its implications? In an age of “Fake News” and “alternative facts” it is even more important, to provide the public with essential knowledge.
Science needs a good PR team
I am reading Philip Kitcher’s “Science in a Democratic Society” and I have to say, the problem of public knowledge and how to provide the public with scientific knowledge, so they can participate in a democratic society is a pressing one. Kitcher analyses the reigning sceptical attitude that the public has in respect to science and scientists. It is not only all the post-modernism, that was popular in the philosophy and literature departments of the past decades. In the wider public many not even noticed the “Science War”.
There are some more factors that are responsible for the skepticism. One is for example scientism itself. Scientists and philosophers proclaiming that they know everything about the world, and everyone else just has to listen closely, is often interpreted as arrogance. On the other hand, science itself made promises but could not keep them. We had the decade of the brain, that promised to help us to understand human behavior in every aspect. We had the promises of genetics to help us to prevent or cure every disease. But these projects were much too ambitious.
One more thing Kitcher mentions, is the idea that science should be a value-free endeavour. But actually, scientists are entangled in value and descriptive judgments everyday. What research is worth to conduct? Which data is important for my hypothesis? Is my research leading to practical consequences? All this are value questions, and science is not even imaginable without them. But if the scientist is entangled in values, like everybody else, how is it possible to provide objective knowledge? Here is the point where science needs a good PR team, and I think philosophers can help to do the job.
We need to talk about the epistemic division of labor
Lets pretend you want to get some solar panels for you house. What you do is to call an expert. Not everybody can learn every skill there is on the world. The same goes for knowledge. The amount of knowledge nowadays is so big that we need experts for different areas. Philip Kitcher calls this the epistemic division of labor. Also, there are some questions everybody should have his own opinion. That are usually important ethical and political questions about how we should organise our society.
But to build yourself your own opinion in these regards you need access to the knowledge you need to know to answer these questions. What will you do? You cannot do the research all by yourself and you cannot read all these research papers by yourself. You need someone who channels the information. That is what public knowledge is good for. It provides you with up-to-date knowledge about the world. Here it is important that you know who to trust. That is another part where philosophers can help. They can try to help teach people how to differentiate between genuine science and pseudo-science, between knowledge and manipulation.
Of course that means scientists and philosophers need to provide resources that can be channeled by the media. We need good popular science writing!