Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Time’s Forced March

In common with many others, I find it had to get interested in certain scientific controversies, not because I’m not interested in the topic in question but because the outcome that matters is not going to reflect the debating prowess of the contending researchers but the results of a long social and technical process completely out of the control of any individual. “They are going to figure that out eventually,” I think to myself, roll over, and go back to sleep. In some cases—issues related to climate change, for example—even lay people like me have a civic responsibility to make guesses based on the current state of the evidence, but for the most part, the only question is whether or not we’ll live long enough to read the answer in a textbook.

Unfortunately, complacency about the sciences, though based on a plausible induction from a couple of hundred years of historical experience, is problematic in a couple of ways. In particular, it reflects a fundamentally misleading metaphor: human action as simple physical process. Perhaps nothing is less like an advancing glacier or an onrushing swarm of army ants than scientific research, which has to be the very type specimen of free cooperative rational action in the universe. There simply is no old automatic in this particular sport. Nothing occurs without the determined efforts of very intelligent people supported by a bogglingly complicated web of institutions that themselves only persist because of the determined efforts of many other people. If you insist on a metaphor to describe the situation, science is more like a spermatozoon than a freight train. Viscosity, not inertia, rules, Stokes, not Newton. Science only advances so long as it wiggles its tail.

Thinking of scientific progress as an automatic process is not only an error from a theoretical point of view. It also underlies the attitudes of many politicians and culture critics who take the continuing fruitfulness of science for granted while working to undermine the systems that make it possible. They want the benefits of technology, especially the weapons and consumer goods, but they don’t want to pay for the underlying science and they certainly don’t want to endorse the ethical values that go along with science, for the excellent reason that free inquiry really is dangerous to established hierarchies and traditional beliefs. Some of this is undoubtedly just cynicism. Protecting industries that pollute, promoting hysteria about stem cells, engaging in denial about global warming, defunding serious space research in favor of meaningless technological stunts, introducing Creationism and Intelligent Design into pubic education—all these retail irrationalities may turn out to have an insignificant effect in the long run. But there is nothing automatic about scientific progress. If we take the batteries out of the flashlight, it isn’t going to go on shinning out of sheer habit.

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