Science and Social Change

Here is another basic proposition that will inform my writing on this blog: Hard science is a liberating force. While I don’t like the word spirituality at all (if a more poorly defined term exists in the English language, I certainly haven’t heard it), I wouldn’t hesitate to apply the connotations of “spirituality” to science. The worth of my life — the essence of what it is to be human for me — is increased by the Hubble Deep Field. That is the spirituality of hard science.

It is interrelated, but by no means interchangeable, that I approach life as an atheist and that argue atheism is a valid religious view and deserves a seat at the table.

Here are the three reasons why science is liberative.

ONE: Science is anti-authoritarian. Anyone can do it (normal disclosures about kyriarchy apply, but examples like Mary Anning defy the notion that all science has always been solely institutional), anyone has access to the fundamental tools (yes, YOU can use and/or identify variables, controls, and the scientific method), and the final arbiter is evidence, not authority (i.e. the Catholic church eventually had to admit that the planets orbit the sun, ’cause, ya know, they do).

TWO: Science is fundamentally an attempt to better the human condition, and mistakes that have been made in the name of science are not an argument against that goal. The epistemology of science is not malicious. Some scientists have been — and so have members of every other human population. Things get blamed on science that are correctly blamed on racism (Tuskegee), imperialism (the atomic bomb), capitalism (Big Pharma), or sadism (Nazi medical “experiments” — which were not even scientific). I assert that science is fundamentally an attempt to better the human condition because the universe is a complex, dangerous place, and knowledge is power. We should be celebrating that Eve ate the apple; I cheer the fall of ignorance before knowledge.

THREE: Science is not a zero-sum game. I can “win” science without someone else losing. I’ve heard the argument advanced — over and over and over, ad nauseam — that “we shouldn’t send people to Mars when children are starving in Africa,” as if the 0.48% of the federal budget that goes to NASA is genuinely what’s going to make or break world hunger. We know perfectly well that the redistribution of resources from the center-of-empire to the margins-of-empire would have an immediate and lasting effect on the well-being of people in the two-thirds world, whereas a mere tweak of the federal budget makes no guarantee as to the distribution of resources or even regards the amount of knowledge we could potentially lose out on. There never has been, and I doubt there ever will be, a trade-off between spending on sciences and spending on humanities or human welfare.