Jan 30, 2009

Science versus Technology

Today I left work early because I felt like I was coming down with a cold and wanted to take a nap and see if I can beat this bug.  On the way home, I caught a little bit of Science Friday on NPR. They were interviewing a scientist from Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center, and he got going on how important science is to us in our modern lives and how much we depend on it everyday.

I have heard very similar arguments from others on NPR, usually making the point that the Bush administration has ignored science, stifled the EPA, denied global warming, etc. etc. (sadly, all true), and then contrasting that with Obama's commitment to give science its rightful place at the table. 

Now I am by no means "anti-science". I have actually had a lot of science, and I use it a lot at work.  In fact, some of my best friends are scientists...

But I think I have to throw a bull shit flag on this kind of talk. I recall back to my days in History of Science courses at UW where they beat into us the difference between science and technology. I think most of what we rely on for our every day lives is technology, not science. And by technology, I don't mean the latest gadget from Best Buy, I mean applying scientific breakthroughs like semiconductors and small hard-drive and using that science to make useful stuff.  

Here is table I copied from the site Diffen which contrasts science and technology.

I don't know how readable this is going to be once it's posted, but if you click on the image, it will take you to the site for improved readability.

For instance, according to Diffen, science does it's develop work by experimentation whereas technology does development by design, invention and production. Science's mission is searching for and theorizing about cause whereas technology is all about searching for and theorizing about new processes.  While you or I may take issue with some of the comparisons in the table, I have to say that hits pretty close to the mark for me.

I ended up not working in science, per se, because I was kind of turned off by the lack of application of the knowledge. I concluded that science produced papers, that other scientists read and then they produced other papers that added to the pile of collective knowledge, and on and on it goes. I was more interested in using knowledge and doing things with it to make the world better, whatever that means, and I ended up in the technology camp.

I admit we need both - you can't have technology without the underlying science to make it possible, but I suggest you be a little suspicious if you hear scientists on NPR claiming to have made everything we know and love possible.

By the way, Diffen is a cool site - it contrasts two different topics and boils it into a table for your convenience. Enjoy that link.

And remember, correlation is not causality!


  1. This is a reason why people were really frustrated when I think it was Palin was mocking fruit fly research. It's nice to work on the applied stuff but impossible to do so if you don't have the underlying mechanisms from basic research.

    It can be hard to explain to someone why you are focusing on a domain in a protein in a fly or worm if there is not an immediate applicable reason. ;)

  2. I agree. And the underlying research is essential if we are going to get anywhere. My point is that science needs recognize design and application as well as the underlying research. It's like chickens and eggs - you can't have one without the other.