Sunday, June 28, 2009

Science Friction

Scientific study is the best way human beings have found so far to try to grapple with how the world and the universe actually works. Whatever branch of scientific endeavor we look at it is the collective social attempt to understand facts in a systematic and provable fashion.

We've tried other methods before like holy texts, drug induced visions, folk lore or simple reiterations of current common sense understanding but none of them slapped men on the Moon, built the Empire State building or gave us the iPod. Science has concretely proven its ability to deliver the goods, literally, in a way that spells or what our forebears handed down could not.

What science isn't, of course, is the unmediated truth just our attempt to get at the truth. Science is not finished, nor is it ever likely to be, and some accepted ideas today will have to be discarded tomorrow. That's part of how scientific advances are made, by building on and critiquing what has gone before.

Likewise science tells us how we can do things but it is not necessarily a useful guide as to whether we should. The same technological advance that allowed humans to make the first stone tools did not determine whether we would produce flints to make fire, or blades to kill one another. These were social decisions (or anti-social ones).

Much of the world was rightly in awe when human beings first reached space (although dogs did get there before us, RIP Laika) but Gilbert Scott Heron's Whitey on the Moon shows with sledge hammer clarity that scientific advances reflect the priorities of the society that gave them birth.

Great leaps forward for some can actually signal just how ignored and far behind are the others. As Einstein once said "A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem."

Of course scientists can and do help guide whether certain courses of action are dangerous, counter productive or risk unintended consequences. The obvious example of this is climate change. The body of evidence is now overwhelming that man made climate change is having a profound impact upon the Earth's ecological systems which will inevitably lead to a dramatic shift in the way human beings will be living a hundred years from now. They even guide us on what we need to do to prevent such a catastrophe.

Sadly what they can't tell us is how we re-gear society. Individual scientists will disagree. Some will say we all need to go vegan, others that we need to reduce the population levels, others that we can create technological fixes that allow us to live the same kind of lives as we do today. These are social and political problems, the body of scientific work can influence our responses but it certainly cannot determine them.

If you believe that masturbation is forbidden by God there isn't much that Heinz Wolff (right) can do to put you off the idea, if anything his image might only entrench your determined anti-Onanism. To my mind a society run by scientists would be just as much a dystopia as one without science.

You certainly don't have to be a primivitist to reject the way scientific advances are sometimes put to use. Whether it's the social bullshit of gene theory or GM crops it would be quite wrong to confuse opposition to particular uses of science with an opposition to science itself.

Because the world is complex, changing and interconnected the implications of any technology are not simple and certainly not just a matter of being pro- or anti- the scientific understanding that brought that technology within reach. As Richard Feynman is meant to have said "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy."

Yet it doesn't stop some claiming that a religious devotion to "science" in the abstract is possible, admirable and gives them automatic insight into every social question imaginable. At the heart of the scientific method is doubt, not certainty.

Robert Oppenheimer drew our attention to this disjunction between the project of scientific advance and the uses to which these are put when he said that "When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb. "

Economic, social and moral questions are not resolved so simply when, in a capitalist society, production and even ideas are owned. The social forces that determined who had the A-bomb were never neutral bearers of an inevitable linear advance of civilisation. In fact they heralded the possibility of social collapse. Chillingly Einstein told us that "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

I guess all I'm trying to say is that science is part of society. It's our way of looking for truths, not the truths themselves. The 'white heat of technology' isn't an unalloyed, uncomplicated advance. Whilst rejecting science is utterly backwards, to uncritically worship it is itself a rejection of the scientific method. We should always ask what science, in whose hands and to what end.

To be continued...


QVnAtOr said...

Great !
Not a dx more not a dx less in terms of spirit and meaning, but light years ahead in terms of presentation.
Sir, that is precisely what I think and have tried blogging on similar lines. But couldn't have been as clear.
Maybe you could find some spare time to share your views more interactively with me. Iwould be greatly indebted to you for that.
Sir, please visit my blog : and decide upon the merit of my thoughts.
I'm indeed a nascent follower of the same path in which you have travelled years by now.

Green Gordon said...

Er... interesting comment above...

Have you read Laika, by the way, Jim? It's an excellent graphic novel.