When we first suggested this definition at a science centre conference in Finland it was met with skepticism, a bit of confusion, and resistance. Why would we want to associate a science centre with danger? Surely the emphasis should be on safety, which is drilled into every lab technician and science teacher?
Our raison d’etre is that many people, young and old, are “turned off” by science as it is perceived as being too difficult, too technical, and far too removed from their everyday lives. Furthermore, in many countries, some of the major discoveries of modern science are in conflict with religious views.
Some argue that, as mere mortals, we should not try to ‘play god’ and manipulate the environment. This mentality has traditionally led to discussions on science being avoided in public forums, and science and technology issues rarely being debated in the home, at school, or in public space.
The ‘taboo’ science subjects are many and varied. Some examples include human evolution, the evolutionary relationship of humans to other animals, the fossil record, carbon-14 dating, continental drift, the age of the Earth, climate change, the effectiveness of vaccinations, and the threat of robots and artificial intelligence. Some modern technologies and social media platforms (and their data privacy risks), are also out-of-bounds for public discussion in some countries as they go against an agreed-upon and controlled public narrative. As a result, there are few places where these touchy subjects can be discussed and explored openly without fear of retribution.
Fear of science may seem irrational to those who have been raised in a country with a strong science culture. In other countries, science culture has been determined and influenced by the regimes in which different core values have been developed causing controversial issues to be suppressed and young people to be discouraged from questioning the status quo. There are many reasons why people fear science. In some cases, the sense of wonder engendered by scientific discoveries is shadowed by the anxiety that arises when people fail to understand the complex theories, formulae, equations, and jargon of science. In them, a fear of science is manifested as insecurity associated with a fear of the unknown. Others are put off by the rigor of science and the disciplined way in which it distinguishes between fact and fiction.
Some regard science as cold, hostile, and biased against some sectors of society. In others, a fear of science is driven by denialism and by confirmation bias whereby they cherry-pick those facts that they choose to believe and reject the facts that they don’t. The point is that science is not a belief system or a random set of ideas that may or may not explain how things work.
Rather, science is one of the best methods that humans have developed for discovering things and for making informed, evidence-based decisions. It is therefore essential that all aspects of science should be debated, especially those that are controversial so that there is a universal understanding of the value and role of science. This understanding, in theory, has the ability to generate universal trust in science. Science centres have a crucial role to play in this regard, but they can only be ‘safe places for dangerous ideas’ if they recognize this role and design their displays and programs to address it.
Society needs neutral places where difficult issues can be discussed, debated, and tested using scientific methods and experimentation. Science centres have the potential to be these safe and secure environments but only if they are designed and operated with that goal in mind. In fact, one could argue that this is the most important role of a science centre – as a good understanding of all aspects of science and technology is crucial to our survival today. We cannot afford to have a situation in which sensitive but important science and technology issues cannot be discussed openly.
As this leaves our society vulnerable to staggered advancement, potentially slowing down the pace of our technology, medicine, or understanding and actions required to address environmental and climate issues.
Like the Houses of Wisdom in ancient Baghdad and Cairo and the universities of today, the main goal of science centres should be to reveal the evidence and showcase the important discoveries and innovations made by science and technology, whether or not they are in conflict with political alignments.