Saturday, April 22, 2017

What has science ever done for us?

The fantastically fucked up GOP, and its standard-bearer and the 63 million who voted for that idiot, are collectively so anti-science that I imagine that they sit around and ask themselves, a la this Monty Python skit, "what has science ever done for us?"

The rest of us, and the rest of the world, have to--unfortunately--live with their fucked up thinking!

But, we cannot escape the reality that science is political.
Statements about “the common good” or “the national interest” are inherently political. They should guide politicians in formulating public policy, and their interpretation should be clearly enunciated as the basis of the electoral process. But are they appropriate for governing scientific research? If history is any guide—from the Soviet misdirection of research in genetics, to Nazi claims about “Jewish science,” to the more recent effort to restrict research on climate change—claims about “the national interest” often hinder science in its pursuit of its most important goal: the unfettered and open questioning of even our most fundamental assumptions about reality.
After a great deal of thinking about the March for Science, I backed out of it.  Because, science itself has become politicized.  In my ideal world, science is all about investigating and finding things out.  We ask questions, and then systematically go about in our attempts to answer those questions.  We do not have any prior agenda in this.  The proverbial chips will fall wherever they will and not into specific slots that we create for them.
Science is a process for deriving facts about nature. It’s a process for enhancing our understanding of the world around us, and for separating nonsense from sense via empirical investigation, logical reasoning, and constant testing. Trying to define science as an activity that upholds “the common good” or is “in the national interest” distorts the fact that science is nothing more or less than a remarkably successful empirical process for uncovering the way the world works. At its best, this process is open-ended and curiosity-driven.
But, that curiosity-driven and open-ended approach is the ideal.  In the real world, people take sides on scientific issues, leave alone the technology that is derived from the science.

In particular, I like this point:
Science provides us with a new perspective on our place in the cosmos and a better understanding of ourselves as human beings. It helps us overcome our otherwise myopic preconceptions about how the world works. At a deep level, it allows us to see through some of our illusions about reality, which result from the peculiarities of space and time within which we happen to exist, and to perceive, instead, the detailed, fundamental workings of nature.
In these aspects, science resembles those other human activities, like art, music, and literature, that distinguish humanity as a species. We don’t—or shouldn’t—ask what the utility of a play by Shakespeare is, or how a Mozart concerto or a Rolling Stones song upholds “the common good,” or how a Picasso painting or a movie like “Citizen Kane” might be in “the national interest.” (Perhaps it’s because we insist on thinking in such terms that support for art, music, and literature is also under attack in Congress.) The free inquiry and creative activity we find in science and art reflect the best about what it means to be human.
Of course, authoritarians like to restrict those other human activities too.  The banned books. The banned music. Censored movies.  It is only a matter of time before the fucked up GOP and its evangelical base move to rein in the arts and literature too.

So, what should an apolitical March for Science do?
The March for Science must be clear-eyed in its defense of the scientific process as an independently valuable human activity. It should defend the core value of the scientific process: discovering more about the universe, and ourselves.
Yes, about ourselves.  


Ramesh said...


What has science got to do with national interest. Science does not recognise geography. Its simply the truth. So irrespective of national issues, science must simply pursue knowledge and understanding, as you put it.

More complex is common good. Is it OK for science to pursue , for example, how to kill people more efficiently ? I would have some trouble with that. As with all freedoms, there has to be some limits. But I would support a very wide latitude. An unintended harmful consequence of a pursuit is OK. I would draw the line at a deliberately destructive objective.

Sriram Khé said...

In a high school essay that we read (I am not sure if your class had it too) Isaac Asimov argued that there is no way but forward when it comes to science. Yes, the understanding of neutrons, protons, and neutrinos, led to the nuclear bomb. But, it is not as if most of us would rather go back to the 19th century.
The pursuit of truth has practically been obliterated by this president who has simply bullshitted his way to the White House. I worry that the larger damage to science as a pursuit of truth might not easily recover from the damage that he and his adopted party have inflicted on science.

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