Monday, November 22, 2010

The fear, Fear, and FEAR of Science

(Inspired by my own thoughts and prompted by a post at Culturing Science which has many overlapping themes, I think)

"Science Scares Me"

It's always a surprise when I hear that.

Science can be weird, sometimes, yeah.

But to actually express fear?

Fear of what?

The next time I hear "I'm afraid of science" from a friend, I need to poke them more to clarify.
However, there are a few possibilities, I can guess at right off the bat:

1) Science scares them the way math, history, grammar, or classical literature might scare them: it was a topic that was a problem for them in school and they'd rather not be reminded of it.

2) Science scares them in an almost philosophical way: scientific explanations take everything that they experience in their lives and, because it attempts to explain it all in minute, purely mechanical detail, takes all the humanity - all the mystery - out of life.

3) Science scares them as a source of doom.   As Ben Stein stunningly says, "science leads you to killing people". 

You know I wonder if it's like this...

Fear of Science as a really hard class

I can totally get when people say they never did well in Science class at school. Everyone - every person - has that problem with one subject or another.

Many people have suffered a bad, crappily-taught class - or even a string of them - in American History, Mathematics, Physics, or whatever, which were either just badly organized or involved lectures so utterly, unbearably indecipherable as to actually invoke physical pain.

And the result of shite teaching is that folks regard their particular bogeyman topics as anxiety-producing mish-mashes of information that (a) are unknowable, (b) cause mental anguish when mentioned and (c) don't matter anyway since they're getting along in life just fine without the knowledge of such things.

Heck, you know the subject I (personally) think most people actively feared in school? Gym class.


It's often taught crudely so that only a precious few, already gifted with some prior knowledge and (more importantly) ability, are able to excel. The rest just feel like big losers. I, as an overweight kid, still remember filling like a big, fat, loser.

I think I got a bit lucky, because at least some of my gym classes - in later years of school - were taught by people who actually *wanted* us to improve. And because they worked with us with that kind of respect, I learned that, while I was probably mediocre at best, I could  feel a tiny bit competent and did not loath gym.

Well, the same holds true (in my opinion) for teaching of the sciences. When it's taught well, it can be a revelation to many, many people. Taught badly, and only the few that really want to understand it will get anywhere at all (usually by just ignoring the teacher and buying a textbook - or these days, watching good lectures on the Web).

And when it comes to "science," meaning the general approach to discovering the workings of the world and the universe, this is particularly sad.  Because, at a basic level, every one on Earth is capable of understanding the scientific approach - or, more simply put, capable of using critical thinking*.   The disciplines of science, and the discoveries they have achieved, can be complex and, if badly taught, incomprehensible.  But the basic premises of science need not be so.

But instead of a world full of people examining, exploring, and discovering, we have mainly a population deeply scarred by feelings of inadequacy or stupidity (which are most likely totally mistaken) when something even vaguely science-y comes along.

Fear of Science as a killer of the mysteries of life

All science, at is heart, is a quest to discover "What Is...?".

The only special thing about scientific method is that it it goes beyond the simple poking around for answers in a way best described by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who's about as approachable and clear as a scientist gets):
"Do whatever it takes to not fool yourself into thinking one thing over another in deducing the nature of the world around you.

That is what science is.

It's not more complicated than that. It's not.

The source of inspiration can come from anywhere. It doesn't matter.  As long as you put in the checks and balances to resist duping yourself into thinking something is true which isn't.  That's all it is.  That's all we do."
- Neil deGrasse Tyson, Science and Society Panel, Origins Symposium

Even with this basic description, however, I think the already existing general angst about science often  morphs to the next level of fear:

Science reduces everything to numbers.  This is the equivalent of telling Newton, after his discovery of how light bends to make its varied colors, "you have unweaved the rainbow".

The meaning of this could be paraphrased as follows: 
"So, I used to look at rainbows and thought they were pretty.  I didn't know why they were so, but they were and that's why I enjoy them.
But now you tell me 'here is how it actually works, with math and logic and experiments! It is no longer a mystery.  It now all makes simple sense!' 
And now, what am I to do?  Must I look at a rainbow but be no longer allowed to see something pretty?  Must I now only think in terms of optics, electromagnetic waves, refraction, and the like? 
If so, I think that sucks - because I like rainbows just as they are."

I understand that worry.

Except: my simple response is - this worrying is all completely unnecessary.

I mean, there are many responses to this concern, some of which try to say that the understanding of how things work is a wonder in and of itself - more amazing and exciting than the simple vision of a beautiful thing.

And that's true for me as well.

But it doesn't really address the concern that many people feel: that scientific knowledge implies the rejection of even the enjoyment of the whole of life - that everything just boils down to numbers and formulas and atoms - and everything else is meaningless.   It's not that this statement is true, it's that many people believe it to be true.

My reply to all this, in the story of the rainbow, is:
"just because you know how a rainbow is made - or you just know that someone knows - does that make the rainbow no longer beautiful?  My answer is: No."

And - I should be clear, here - I mean that it is perfectly human to both know the complexities of an object and still enjoy it's simple beauty - with or without thinking about formulas. I think scientists are completely capable of enjoying the simple human pleasures of the senses without analyzing them at every single moment.   And so can everyone else.

Knowledge of a thing does not condemn you to no longer see, smell, hear, feel, or taste that thing.
Or to think of it poetically.
Or to sing about it in a song.

We are humans.
We evolved as creatures as enchanted by the senses as any other animal in the world.
We also evolved as creatures uniquely able to question what it is our senses show us.

We can do both.

Just because we may - one day - know the entirety of the inner workings of the brain, the ultimate source of human uniqueness, will our basic humanness vanish? 

I don't think so, no.
We will just know how our brain works.
"Just," I said?  Hardly - it will be an enormous achievement!

But the fear that we might be obliged to only view ourselves as biological machines - all the way from the working of our bodies to the nebulous veils of the mind - instead of the quirky beings we have become so used to seeing in the mirror, is, I believe, unfounded.

We may well be no more "mysterious" than organic robots, to put it crudely.   It's quite possible we will come to that firm conclusion one day soon. 

But at the same time, what we will have found is not that we are something very alien from who we thought we were.

We will have found out what it is that makes us human.

And after that: we will still be human - human, with the knowledge of why.

Fear of Science as a source of destruction

However, even as we continue to find out more and more of the inner workings of humans, the oceans and earth, the stars and the light, we also come to the source of the third, and most visceral, fear.

Why do some - or many? - people think, as the previously mentioned Mr. Stein, that "science leads you to killing people"?

Perhaps it's this obvious:

Knowing how things works gives us the ability, if we so choose, to fix or change them, if we so choose.   
What it is that we change is the difference between making things better or worse.

Knowledge of the human body can, and has, given humans the ability to ease cure ailments, repair damage, ease pain, and even tackle some of the eccentricities of the mind.  Or if a person so chooses, the same knowledge can be, and has been, be used to  induce illness, deliver massive systemic damage, inflict torture, and drive people into psychotic states.

Knowledge of the world of the "germs" - parasites, fungi, bacteria, and viruses - can, and has, given humans the ability to halt legions of the most viscous takers of life that have stalked humanity for it's entire history.  Or, if people so choose, the knowledge can be, and has been, used to harness these killers as weapons of human-on-human murder.

Knowledge of chemistry and physics can, and has, created the materials and technology for the highest quality of living our species has ever known.  Or, if we so choose, this knowledge can, and has been used to create the weaponry of mass destruction that, while often seen as a "protector", is also self-evidently a potential doom-bringer the scale of which not one of us ever wants to see.

We are human.
We have evolved to be able to quest for understanding.
That understanding, when exploited, can be used for great good or great evil.
But, it is not the comprehension of things that poses danger of evil ends.
It is our choices, in using what we have learned, that matter to this end.

That understanding is power.
And as an old-hand superhero was once told, "with great power comes great responsibility".

So, then, the fear of science as a harbinger of horrors is really a wariness of those who may exploit the discoveries of the universe purely to serve the base human emotions of, to name a few: greed, lust, wrath, and vengeance.

These are extremely fair concerns.

But - at their heart - they are not a complaint against discovery itself.  Their are a fear of its abuse.

Ethics, oversight, regulation of new or potentially dangerous technologies: all these assist us in doing our best to keep the use of discoveries from becoming destructive.  

Even so, we may never be free of that concern.
Knowledge has always been that way: dangerous in the wrong hands.
Knowledge has also always been this way: a blessing in the right hands.

Remember this: the benefits of discovery have made it so that every one of us knows someone else who should have died, but didn't.

That, combined with careful and intelligent choices, are reasons to view the accumulation of scientific knowledge as an overall positive boon to humanity.


Well!  That's it.

I feel better, don't you??

Anyway, I've explained it all.

There's nothing more to fear, except for fear itself... and zombies, evidently.  

* Supposedly Einstein said as much, but I can not find a quote link for the life of me.  I do know that Chef Gusteau said "Anyone can cook," would that be sufficient as an analogy?

1 comment:

  1. Great read. I'm a huge Neil deGrasse Tyson fan so I stumbled onto your site while looking for more Tyson goodies. Thanks for blogging!