The Weekly Beaker: Where Science Fails Us
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Updated: Saturday, February 16, 2013 12:02
Rather than detailing a fascinatng new discovery, invention or social phenomenon brought to us by science like I do most weeks, I’m going to take a different approach. Let’s think about where science currently fits into the schema of modern human endeavors and where it actually belongs.
We often proudly point to the benefits science and technology have brought mankind and say, “Look how far we’ve come. Look what we can do.” It’s true, scientific advance has cured disease, sheltered us from the intensity of nature, enabled communication and transportation across the globe, illuminated the structure of atoms and sent men and women to outer space and the depths of the sea. Pretty cool stuff, right?
Science relies on logic and mathematics—the regular patterns that allow us to predict and engineer new phenomena. I think we need science because humans have an insatiable need to understand ourselves, the world and how it all works. Science is a vital tool in advancing that understanding. While rationality can and must guide scientific progress, in other areas of human enterprise it falls severely short. We can discover valid things about our world through other means than the hypothesis-experiment-analysis-conclusion paradigm.
Consider the arts—just as there have always been minds so aptly tuned for investigating rigorously into patterns in nature, there have also been those that delve into creativity, spontaneity, the emotions and passions that fill human experience and ethereal concepts like beauty and love. It’s a duality of the Apollonian and Dionysian personalities. The artful mode of expression is certainly as valuable as the scientific one. Did Newton contribute more to society than Shakespeare? They were both giants and brought human thought to a new level, in very different fields but in equally valuable ways.
Today, the arts get a bad rap. Often when a high school comes under a tight budget, the first programs to lose funding are theater club, jazz band, painting and drawing class and so on. It’s because their products are just so darn intangible. The stress doesn’t ease with time—in the competitive environment college students find ourselves in, we’re pressured to graduate, enter the “real world,” find a job and make a living. The professions that are really snatching up college grads are the technical ones—engineering, scientific research, economics—the ones that require hard skills. Now that graduation is looming in the all-too-near future, my parents often remind me that I’m going to have to find a way to support myself. That thought can seem intimidating, and it causes many of us to choose safe careers so that we can have the security of a stable income.
I digress. What does this all have to do with science? As said above, science is a vital human undertaking and has garnered innumerable benefits for society; yet, let’s be sure that we keep it in its place, checked and balanced by other equally beneficial activities like music, history, anthropology, philosophy, religion and social interactions. Who would want a world filled with just scientists?
It’s so important to keep science in its proper place because the fabric of society is similar to the fabric of a human being. Both are multi-faceted, require communication between constituent parts and have the potential to be glorious or terrible. If a person ignored his passions, emotions and instincts in service of a stoic reliance on logic and rationality—well, that person wouldn’t be very fun. Balance is required for health. Logic can’t drive a person to pursue an impossible dream. It can’t make you fall in love. It can’t write “For Whom the Bell Tolls” or paint “Starry Night.” Likewise, a culture should be sure to train scientists but never at the cost of the study of literature, art and philosophy. American society is in desperate need of some balance—a good place to start would be appreciating the excitement and diversity of the human experience. In economics, the monopoly kills the competition that brings variety and richness to the public. Let’s make sure science doesn’t monopolize the future of American thought.