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Updated 17 Mar 2008

Fundamentally, science is knowledge in a systematic form derived from observation, study, and experiment. Its goal is to understand and formulate the principles of nature. Science can be used either to support or oppose terrorism. And that is the rub; science itself is amoral except for certain instincts animals carry in their nervous-system memories. Science is used for both good and evil. It is ironic that education in science will likely be the basic foundation for peace. The primary purpose of this page is to clarify the mystery of science and its peaceful roles.

Science arises in response to curiosity, intelligence, disciplined thinking, and memory in furthering inquiries into the natures of things. Since antiquity, these human features have driven the scope and depth of science exponentially. Today, no matter where we are, it is hardly possible to escape contact with the technologies that science has spawned, even for a day. Science has led to modernization of all societies and that trend is expected to continue.

Although nature is unbiased, scientists can be biased, not to mention politicians and others not schooled in its disciplines who may want to apply or discredit its discoveries. Alone among all disciplines, science demands and relies upon experimental verification for its power and usefulness--for good, gain, or evil.

Science is useful to humankind because it:

  • replaces guessing, superstition and tradition with facts and logical relationships that are verifiable.
  • has predictive power and provides deeper insights into natural phenomena.
  • provides knowledge that technology and engineering can tap and use.
  • gives humankind the means for staying healthier, being more protected from the elements, and safer among the dangers of nature.
  • enhances the ability of people to do new things.
  • extends life expectancy and the gaining of wisdom.
  • provides means for discovery of new knowledge and testing old knowledge to higher precision.
  • In biology, evolution evolved genes for parenting, herding, compassion, and bonding. These will certainly be useful in countering our genes for aggression and submission which combine to cause so much violence. This most-important field of research needs increased and serious support by all nations.

Cultures that foster innate curiosity and creativity while finding ways to reward and use new discoveries are those that forge ahead in the family of nations. There are exceptions; they are rare indeed.

Science is at its best when measurements of the phenomenon in question are precise. Mathematics is the most precise science of all. One can have any degree of precision desired between zero and infinity, but not at each limit!

In chemistry and physics and their many sub-discliplines, measurements are quite precise enough to be as specific as necessary in ordinary life.

In biology, the same is pretty much true, thanks to the deciphering of the genomes of life and the manipulation of genes. Quite simple apparatus can now accomplish wonders such as gene amplifications to positively identify individuals for example. How biology really works is a far more precise science than evolution would have us believe, with all its "natural trials and errors" while evolving a genome called humanity. And that genome allows for variations among individuals, the very staff of evolution.

One problem with science as a tool for combating terror is the imprecision in measuring the emotional responses. In behavioral science--dealing with terror--accuracy and precision of measurement are rather crude in comparison with physical or chemical laws, for example. Apparatus is advanced and cheap enough that we can now measure the speed of light in our basements to a precision unheard of in social science. The speed of light is now known to a precision (variation between measurements) of better than one part in 300 million. Accuracy (compared with an absolute correct value) is limited by the error arising from our inability to measure the standard meter bar accurately. For this reason science has turned the definition around, by defining the meter as exactly 1/299,792,458 part of the distance light travels in one second.] An equivalent value of precision in measuring a physical performance trait for a given individual is rarely better than a few parts in 100 and may be ten times worse where emotional attitudes are "measured." That does not mean such measures are useless. On the contrary, but the perspective must be that of a family, society or nation, not the individual. See Altemeyer for its power in that perspective.

Things are even worse for intellectual responses that may be biased by any of several hang-ups most of us have. Emotional indicators are notoriously difficult to recognize, much less pin down. The recent wave of bombings in the UK illustrates this. Neighbors and friends reported seeing nothing alarming in the behaviors of the bombers. Yet interviews with self-confessed terrorists reveal that in each case they were radicalized by a feature in their society. Those features have much in common, like humiliation and alienation. The rule is not specific, but the general features of inequality and unfair treatment underlie terrorism recruitment today. It is only possible to put a "psychometric number" on this, not a very precise one. While useful in the large, such numbers at present are not definitive enough to reliably screen for potential terrorists. Too many innocents would be mis-labeled as some actual terrorists would beat the system. Still there is much that can be done beyond mere identification of an individual.

From this brief background we can draw some conclusions as to the effectiveness of hard and soft science. They follow:

  • Techniques such as forensic analyses of bombing events, identification of individuals involved, tracking said individuals retrospectively for associations, and employing DNA testing can be definitive if followed up by prompt and thorough police work.
  • Genetic testing for radicalization propensity may eventually work, but seems far in the future and may be difficult or impossible to implement in any world order like the present.
  • No ethnic profiling could properly identify all terrorists, nor could it avoid numerous false identifications. High profile examples of both errors are well known.
  • Social science, such as the works of Varshney and Altemeyer, hold the most promise. Although their evidence is statistical, it is consistent with much of what is known of human behavior from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. All these are soft sciences compared with mathematics, chemistry, physics and biological testing. But they are the best we have and we simply cannot afford ersatz-science from leadership by special-interest groups, religious radicals or arrogant politicians with little appreciation for the true problem. One cannot know too much science, but one can know too little.

So there are two classes of scientific studies, quantitative, and semi-quantitative. The latter is the so-called soft science. Both can contribute to peace; but only if used properly and well.

If a society truly values peace, why does it not teach and practice peace instead of violence?
Many do, but others obviously do not.
Since societies differ in peacefulness, why do we not study why they differ?

Some science and technology links:

American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science
American Astronomical Society
American Institute of Physics
Anthropology -- Middle East
Evolution Links - Darwin Day
Genetic Science
National Academies of Science
National Research Council
Nobel and Museum
Science in Africa
Science in Australia
Science in Britain
Science in China
Science in Egypt
Science in France
Science in India
Science in Italy
Science in Iran
Science in Japan
Science in Pakistan
Science in Russia
Science in the Middle East
Science in South Africa
Science Museum UK
Science vs Intelligent Design

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