The Rightful Place of Science

The rightful place of science is moving, never staying in one place, ever dancing and watching, on the always shifting sociopolitical landscape.


A team of white coated eggheads can solve any problem with enough science. We need to get rid of the Jews, and we don't have enough bullets, so let's get the eggheads to figure out a way to do that. We need to take the Americans out of the Pacific, but we have insufficient resources but a lot of pilots. Let's get the engineers to come up with a one-way airplane. We need to get rid of the Nazis and Imperialist Japanese, and we hear the Eggheads have a bomb that will do just that. So let's set them up in a project called Manhattan, which will be so amazing at solving this one problem that forever forward we will refer to similar projects as "Manhattan Projects."

Later, we get better toasters, improved power stations, and automatic waffle irons, as a side effect of the science and engineering. When the war is over. But we look back and see that the scientists turned out to be a bit of a problem. The Industrial Revolution and its concomitant realizations of how the Universe Works have resulted in the H-bomb. Ooops.

Now the sky has turned black from the billowing smokestacks of Gary and other rusty industrial places. Lake Superior has turned red, and the Hudson River is on fire. Science is now environmentalism and regulation. And it works but it hurts, and the Right Wing begins a battle, to become a war, against the Men in the White Coats. Who are now starting, ever so slowly, to be joined by an increasing number of Women in White Coats.

So now science is political, a tool, too dangerous a thing to let the scientists just do whatever they want. The Left Wing sees science as dangerous because the physicists can destroy the world and the medicos have invaded, and now control, the temple of the body, and so on and so forth, and the Right Wing sees science as annoying and counter productive because rational thought is just not the same thing as, and often stands in the way of, Free Market Forces.

But this also means that we can't just say "Oh, Egghead guys, what are the problems you see and how do we solve them?" So when climate change comes along it takes more than twenty years ... an entire generation ... to go from science understanding the basic problem, and the basic solution and no one listens, to a time when finally, science understands the basic problem and the basic solution and people listen. And this twenty years of Dark capped by the High Dark Ages of the last eight make people wake up and realize that the rightful place of science is at the table with a strong and respected voice. No one knows how long that will last.

The rightful place of science is at the bottom of your spine, as the start of that tingling sensation when you realize some "holy crap" fact of nature or for the first time understand some basic process. Everybody is walking around with strange folk concepts of how life works, and every now and then they are grabbed by a scientific theory and shaken by a scientific fact and realize that cold is not a thing or they first hear about endosymbiosis or they suddenly get what a "Black Box" is. The rightful place of science is in the middle of an emotional mental explosion of the "holy shit" moment.

But not everyone can experience these pleasures because many are made to feel guilty with such thoughts. Science is sacrilegious, anti religious, areligious. So what? People can adjust; people can hold more than one viewpoint in their tiny little brains. But the politics of religion are strong and hateful, so the rightful place of science is as a bulwark, a rampart, a big Monty Python style sledge hammer that whacks the Bishop who comes to tell us to pray instead of learn on the head so he becomes a cartoon accordion Bishop and springs away. Boing boing boing.

The rightful place of science is to sit nearby, always ready always being used, on the mahogany library table on the side of the room in every single academic discipline. Being reason.

The rightful place of science is to keep its little clay feet from being stuck in the mud or burned on the fire as it dances back and forth on the ever shifting sociopolitical landscape asking questions like "Is this my rightful place? ... How about this place? ... Oh, what about this place over here?" keeping the philosophers busy while waiting for the next opportunity to pull someone's proverbial chestnuts out of the fire. Science knows it can never die, but it knows it can never be universally loved, yet it knows it can never be done without. So it spends a lot of time dancing and watching for burning chestnuts.

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I agree with Ian, Great post!
I worry that people will not understand why Lake Superior has turned more red than before we screwed up a watershed. Please pardon my adding to your post.
For such a huge lake, Superior has a small watershed which does not have intensive agricultural development, and for the most part is mostly forested. Erosian is not much of an issue, and lakewide sediment deposition used to be below a mm per century.
Timber harvest in the Nemadji river watershed has caused a very rapid erosian of the Wrenshall formation red clay, laid down over several hundred years in the bed of Glacial Lake Duluth. The periglacial lake had a depth at maximum estimated to be over 700 feet above the present level of L. Superior.
The eroded clay makes the Nemadji river run red. When it dumps into Superior a strong chemocline keeps the red water from mixing quickly with Superior's cold blue water. It floats on top for up to 30 miles from Nemadji's mouth.
Sedimentation rates have increased to over 2 mm per century now, and Nemadji is the source of over 40% of it. Some would say "So what? That is hardly anything!"
I would say "Bullshit! It indicates bad unsustainable land management." The buffer zone where forest harvest is not allowed needs to be much larger on this river.

By Cal Harth (not verified) on 28 Jan 2009 #permalink

Fantastic post Greg. Yours is the best response I've read to this question so far. Great job :)

I agree--great post. I'd also say that science and religion are not opposites or mutually exclusive except for a few religions & the fundamentalist branch of those. It just so happens that your country has a rather loud bunch (of which your last Pres was one). I don't see any conflict whatsoever between Hinduism or Buddhism and science. Nor between the liberal branches of Judaism or Christianity and science. And Islam at one time was a haven for science when Europe was in the dark ages. I think science and love have a lot in common: they are both the antithesis of fear and ignorance. The use of science depends on the user just like the use of religion. You can get someone like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for whom religion was a spur to civil rights and to approaching the world with a sense of wonder and amazement, just like science. Or you can get the Manhattan Project or the big pharmaceuticals who use science for politics or profit. But that isn't science itself. It's technology. It's marketing.

I almost want to cry. Do I want my child to follow his dream of feeding the world or not.

Thanks a lot.:-( It used to be an easy answer.

Oh - Great post!

I will never hear that old Christmas carol the same way again ...

Waxing poetic about science's place in society and pulling it off! Great post! Now put it to even better use by figuring out how to 'splain to the true believers why science rocks and religion sucks. You can do this! And you will never do anything more beneficial for humanity (or science).

"I don't see any conflict whatsoever between Hinduism or Buddhism and science. Nor between the liberal branches of Judaism or Christianity and science. And Islam at one time was a haven for science when Europe was in the dark ages."

Here's the thing, Lilian. Europe was in the Dark Ages largely, if not exclusively because of Christianity running the show and banning any pursuit of knowledge that even MIGHT run contrary to the Bible and whatever orthodoxy they were peddling. Islam WAS a friend to science in the latter part of the first millenium, but that was, as the Indians used to say, at least on TV, "many moons ago." Lately, "not so much."
What you describe as "liberal" branches of Judaism and Christianity appear to me to be more properly described as "nominal" Christians and Jews whose "religion" has lost any vestiges of the god-myth and the supernatural. They keep the name but have thrown out virtually all the dogma to their mortal credit. I have very limited interaction with Muslims, but based on what I think I know about them, I have tremendous difficullty associating them with the word "liberal" or "buddies of science," except for purposes of becoming nuclear powers. Doesn't the word "Muslim" mean or derive from the word meaning to "submit"? Not "submit to science" as I understand the Quran. Religion and science are antithetical to one another. Unfettered science will continue to eat away at every core religious belief until their are none left. Unfettered religion will bring back burning scientists, and any other perceived "heretics" at the stake, unless they can think of an even more painful and cruel way to "purify" them. Why should anyone expect science to fare better with any given religion than another religion? I can't recall any religion getting along that well with other religions EXCEPT when "politics makes strange bedfellows," e.g. Christians all pretending to make nice with each other to tear down separation of Church and State and to promote creationism/ID.

"Or you can get the Manhattan Project or the big pharmaceuticals who use science for politics or profit."

Wasn't there, like, a BIG war going on at the time of the Manhattan Project and tens of thousands (millions?) of innocent people being killed because of Nazi and Japanese agression? Weren't the Germans ALSO trying to develop an atomic weapon? Is your argument that we should have hoped NOBODY would develop an atomic bomb because all the good scientists worldwide would refuse to do so on humanist grounds? Or are you saying we should have allowed the Germans or Soviets to develop it first? Neither argument sounds prudent to me.
Despite my discomfort defending BIG PHARMA, how will new drugs be developed for use "by good science" without a profit incentive? Do scientists really love us that much?

By Jack Kolinski (not verified) on 28 Jan 2009 #permalink

"the rightful place of science is at the bottom of your spine, as the start of that tingling sensation when you realize some "holy crap" fact of nature.."
That's what that was this morning at around 8 a.m.? I could have sworn it was actually more anti-science in the form of ozone depleting, non mind...

By the,… (not verified) on 28 Jan 2009 #permalink

I don't know a great deal about Buddhism, but I would say that there's definitely a massive conflict between science and Hinduism and hundreds of people die because they choose religion instead of science in response to medical problems. It's a serious problem in places like India.

The main reason we don't see much conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism is because most of the practitioners of those religions live in very poor countries with little science anyway. Both religions teach things that are conflicted by science and that lead to policies that are detrimental to people's health and happiness and contradicted by science, but there is nobody standing up for science and telling them to do things differently (Or not enough people at least).

Nice. I cried. I laughed.

Great post. I'll add to the "ah-ha!" moments: a vacuum is not a force, there is no "up or down" in space, a battery is not a box of electrons, ... I love teaching science.
I guess most people don't understand enough about the world to get that the wonder of science can replace religion in providing meaning in life. Telling them they are stupid isn't going to help. I think what Lilian means is that someone can cling to the part of religion they feel they need, while still being for science. Science will win over the truly sincere thinker, but that won't be everyone. And politics will always be involved in its application.

By uncle noel (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink

"The rightful place of science is at the bottom of your spine..."

Thank you for summing up exactly why I want to go into science when I'm finally in college and afterward!