Of Science And Marches

Bomb blast
March 2017

I was rather surprised when I first heard that some folks were organizing a huge national March for Science in Washington DC, with satellite marches everywhere, including little Rolla, Missouri. Science has always “struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth.” I couldn't quite wrap my mind around a March for Science. Science exists — whether we march for it or not, indeed, whether we believe in it or not. So what would a March for Science hope to accomplish?

At the top of the “about us” page on the March for Science website, I read:

“Our Principles and Goals

“Science protects the health of our communities, the safety of our families, the education of our children, the foundation of our economy and jobs, and the future we all want to live in and preserve for coming generations.”

Yeah, sure. Ask a former resident of Fukushima, forced to evacuate in the wake of a triple nuclear meltdown, whether “Science protects the health of our communities.”

Ask a resident of Flint, Michigan whose water is poisoned with lead, whether “Science [protects] the safety of our families.”

Ask a former factory worker who was comfortably middle class until he was replaced by a robot and who now works two minimum-wage jobs without benefits and still can't make ends meet. Ask him whether “Science [is] the foundation of our economy and jobs.”

And all those realistic, ultra-violent, scientifically rendered, computer generated, video games, movies and television shows, created especially for children? I guess that's the way “Science [protects] the education of our children.”

“And the future we all want to live in and preserve for coming generations?” Maybe this refers to a world of perpetual war with horrendous weapons developed through Science; or a world in which nine nuclear powers, some with weapons on hair-triggers and leaders who are certifiably insane, control more than enough Science-based fire-power to destroy the world. Or maybe it refers to a world in which Science continually discovers more efficient ways to tear fossil fuels from the bowels of the Earth and burn them in ever increasing amounts creating a climate less and less hospitable to human life.

Yup, Science sure “serves the interests of all humans.” Nowhere on the website is the destructive power of Science even acknowledged. You have to wonder what world these folks are living in.

If this is more than enough for me, who lived a comfortable life as a scientist, to want to scream, “Arrogant elitists!” imagine how one whose life has been destroyed by Science would feel. This is exactly the arrogance that caused the Democratic Party to self-destruct and hand the presidency to Donald Trump. Those who proclaim, “Science is a process, not a product -- a tool of discovery that allows us to constantly expand and revise our knowledge of the universe.” might, instead, try expanding and revising their knowledge of what Science is and what it is not.

Science can be, and often has been extremely destructive. The short quote in the first paragraph is from Joseph Conrad's classic novella on the European colonization of Africa, “Heart of Darkness.” Here it is again in context:
“The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! Iíve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”
Above all, it was Science that enabled Europeans to rape and colonize Africa and, once again in the words of Joseph Conrad, “to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land ... with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

Conrad had a gift for seeing through the thickest of veils, down to the very core. I've read “Heart of Darkness” several times, and gain new insights with each reading. I think I quote Joseph Conrad more often than anyone else, except, perhaps, Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss also had a special gift. His full-length children's story, “Bartholomew and the Oobleck” is also pertinent to this discussion. The plot:
King Derwin wants something new to fall from His sky. He calls his royal magicians [scientists, as I tell the story] and they make oobleck fall. Oobleck is green, gooey and sticky. There seems to be no way to stop the oobleck until the page boy, Bartholomew, gets the king to cry, “It's all my fault and I'm sorry. I'm awfully, awfully sorry!” Then the oobleck magically stops falling and melts away.
So maybe instead of marching for Science, we scientists ought to be saying, “It's all our fault and we're sorry. We're awfully, awfully sorry!” A little humility goes a long long way.


Perhaps I should stop here. But, I would be remiss if I didn't at least try to give a fair presentation of both sides of the coin.

Like Joseph Conrad's “silent wilderness,” Science is “something great and invincible.” It's neither positive nor negative; it's not even neutral. It's systematic knowledge of the world. Scientists are people who discover such knowledge or apply it in human endeavors. Such applications can be beneficial or destructive — sometimes we don't know which until years in the future.

Perhaps this is an oversimplification; but let's go with it. And let's assume that for the most part the changes which humanity has experienced over the past quarter million years are due to Science. Let's assume that in spite of our scientific knowledge and our modern lifestyle, we are not so very different from our Paleolithic ancestors who inhabited the Earth up to about 12,000 years ago.

To evaluate the effects of Science as a whole, let's look at the world we live in and ask ourselves: Is this really the world we want for our children and grandchildren? Would we prefer to have our grandchildren grow up in the Paleolithic Era when the human population was under 10 million, life expectancy at birth was perhaps 33 and Science provided little more than tools of stone and bone? Or would we have our grandchildren grow up in today's world where 50% of the 7.5 billion people on Earth live on a few dollars a day and millions, perhaps billions, live in fear of extreme violence from other human beings? (Don't assume that our grandchildren will necessarily live the privileged existence that we live.)

Think about it. Tough choice, although beyond our ability to make. You can't go back in time; but you can learn from the past. Maybe, if we can learn to see Science for what it is, maybe if we can start demanding more of ourselves and less of Science — maybe then we can create a world that is somewhat more paleolithic in nature and somewhat less rapacious and unsustainable than today's world.

One final note: As our world becomes more and more unsustainable, it becomes more and more likely that our grandchildren, at least those few that survive, will live in a world somewhat akin to the Paleolithic.