Dean Kamen speaks out on science vs politics

Dean Kamen talks about science vs politicsDesign World spoke with master inventor Dean Kamen (of FIRST and Segway fame) and he’s the star of our “Leadership in Engineering” January cover story. As a preview of that article, here’s an online extra from our conversation with Kamen.

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Kamen, who is a huge proponent of STEM education and a founder of FIRST, sees the politicization of many issues that affect science as a great concern to moving the country forward.

“If we don’t quickly—and I mean really quickly—inject rational thinking into senior levels of government and business so that the kids growing up now do understand the difference between science and nonsense, we’re all in trouble,” Kamen said. “I don’t think science is in conflict with religion any more than I think I could tell you which is more beautiful, or nicer to have, apple pie or a sunset. There’s nothing wrong with people being artists—my father was an artist—or playing a violin. There’s nothing wrong with people liking physics, or solving differential equations.”

Kamen feels that the root of this is that people have become very skeptical of almost every profession.

“I think subconsciously, except for maybe some clever marketing guys, they’ve reverted to using the word science almost as a superlative in any debate they have, by saying, ‘It’s scientifically proven that this or that,’” he said. “Now that we’ve lost faith in so many other things that used to be about faith, we substitute the word science to try to convince people that it’s real, and you can trust it, and it’s important, but they apply those words of science to things that are not tested in experiments with demonstrated, measurable outcomes. Science isn’t about believing F=ma any more than believing that Moses parted the sea. Science is about being able to make a statement that is demonstrably provable. Whereas, a lot of other things we do in this world are expressly dealing with things that we can’t prove.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that there are a lot of people who don’t understand the difference between science and various other statements that people make.

Dean Kamen at DEKA headquarters“If it’s really science, it’s only that you make a specific, measurable statement about something that you can predict, based on a set of rules, laws, and that you test them. By the way, if you ever find something that violates the test, you don’t go into a faith-based explanation. You say, ‘I guess that law was wrong, or at least it wasn’t perfect. It needs to be modified,’ as Newton’s laws needed to be modified,” he said.

“We now live in a world where people will say, ‘We should teach creationism in the schools,’ and my answer is, ‘Fine, teach it if you’d like. You can teach it like any other [thing]. You can teach people religion, we normally do that in a religious school, and that’s fine. You can teach them ethics, you can teach them a lot of things. You can teach them creationism. You can teach them nursery rhymes. But, don’t confuse nursery rhymes or creationism with a very disciplined process that we try to teach people, called science, in which the tools typically are mathematics, and in which we are trying to convey the idea that in this incredibly incomprehensible world that we all live in, the most incomprehensible, amazing thing of all is that some of it’s comprehensible because some great geniuses have found patterns by which they can give us rules that seem to work everywhere.’”

“I have nothing against beautiful art,” Kamen said. “I have nothing against religion and faith-based organizations. I have nothing against teaching people beautiful stories and ethics. But, substituting for what real science is, these vagaries, under this veil of it being science, and therefore making science even less of an available tool to kids, is terrifying.”

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