May 22nd, 2014
(I wrote this in response to a thought-provoking essay pointing out that people nowadays are losing respect for science.)
The author does not delve into the reasons for the divorce between science and culture. It can be partly attributed to the “Two Cultures” concept first raised by C.P. Snow in the late 60s. An earlier and more fundamental cause is the sudden rise in economic and military value of science after World War II. Prior to WWII, science was much the same as the humanities: a sideshow pursued by a small cadre of eggheads for purely intellectual reasons. Science could not help prostituting itself to the military and industry. In the process, it expanded enormously, but lost much of its innocence.
Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The results have made gigantic contributions to human well-being. The downsides have been microscopic in overall impact. The mushrooming of science has been a huge benefit to humanity.
So why does the public fail to appreciate the value of science? I can cite three factors that are likely the most important. The first is the increasing sophistication of science. It has now pulled way beyond what a citizen can comprehend from a high school education, and even a college education is inadequate. Sure, plenty of amateurs know a bunch of factoids, but they cannot assemble those disparate bits and pieces into a coherent whole. A good example of this is the frequently expressed distrust of computer models, which are often dismissed as speculative. Such people fail to appreciate just how fundamental the concept of a model is to science. The idea of using mathematically formulated models goes back at least as far as Oresme and the Oxford Calculators in the 14th century, and had its first triumph with Newton's Principia Mathematica.
Another factor is a revolt against rationalism. Rationalism made our civilization great, and the revolt against rationalism will be the doom of our civilization. The problem is that rationalism, fully developed, leads us to conclusions that conflict with deep-seated feelings. For example, many people find homosexuality repugnant at a deep gut level. Yet rational analysis of our fundamental political philosophy leads us ineluctably to the conclusion that homosexuals should be allowed to marry. Rationalism contradicts some of our most deep-seated instincts. Accordingly, people increasingly reject rationalism. As science and rationalism move forward faster and faster, more and more people are overwhelmed by the “unnatural” conclusions to which they lead us, leading them to reject rationalism. What they fail to realize is that these “unnatural” results are precisely what have led to the progress of civilization. “Natural” human life is a hunter-gather society.
Which leads me to the third factor: the cruel fact that Homo sapiens is intrinsically a Pleistocene hunter-gather species. The rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago revolutionized our world but didn’t change us in any fundamental way. We dress up like civilized people, we comb our hair, we eat our food with forks and knives, but we’re just faking it. Deep down inside, we are still driven by the same forces that drove our ancestors 50,000 years ago. Our powerful mental faculties have enabled us to put up a pretty good act, but even those faculties have their limits — and we are starting to reach those limits now.
Nice try humans, but you’re still children playing with matches. The jig is up; time to go back to your caves.