OPINION: I spent last week in Gisborne and Tolaga Bay, along with another 300 or so delegates at the Transit of Venus of Forum. We were there to observe that astronomical event and talk about the role science will play in New Zealand's future.
It is actually a little odd that we should need something like the forum to start a discussion about science and our country. If we plan to do more than sell sheep and scenery to the world then obviously we need to create ideas that can create companies.
Likewise, if we want to expand an agricultural sector that is bumping up against its ecological constraints then we need to find ways to make more money from each hectare of farmland.
Science can help us create a more innovative economy but, of course, science is about much more than making a buck.
Scientific issues are so pervasive in modern society that we need a scientifically literate populace in order to have a fully functioning democracy.
In the next few years we are going to have to make decisions about how we provide healthcare for an aging population, what actions we take to prevent climate change, how the risks of living in a geologically active country should be included in the development of our towns and cities and, no doubt, many more challenges that we haven't even considered.
Given the importance of science to our future, it's a shame that we are so bad at talking about it in New Zealand. The public debate that surrounds scientific issues in our country is almost always hijacked by ideological extremes.
Because ideologues can be trusted to use science in the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination, these public debates bear little resemblance to the scientific ones they supposedly relate to and soon dissolve into shouting matches.
If we are serious about having science at the heart of our country's future then we need to foster a society that won't put up with this sort of debate, and who can see through people who use science to dissemble.
To achieve that we will have to change the way society thinks about science. For too many people science is either that subject they were never any good at in school, a monolithic collection of facts, or an authority that you might choose to obey.
In fact, science is something much more important than that. It is the process that we had to invent in order to gather reliable knowledge about the natural world. Only scientific knowledge can tell us if 1080 is good for our forests, if reducing our greenhouse emissions will limit the effects of climate change or if vaccinating children puts them at risk of developing autism.
Science can tell us what the world is like, but not necessarily what we should do about it. We cannot defer to scientists when it comes time to make a decision about our future because the debates that science underpins often have ethical and economic implications.
A society that knows about how science works, and values evidence when it comes time to make a decision, can productively debate the ramifications of scientific findings without being dragged into less profitable debates.
If we use education and scientific outreach to create that kind of society, I have no doubt that the other goals we all have for New Zealand will be much easier to achieve.
David Winter is an Evolutionary Biologist at the University of Otago who blogs about bugs, biology and leading a sceptical life at The Atavism. From time-to-time he'll be analysing some science stories that have been in the news.
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